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Yom Kippur FAQ

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1. What does Yom Kippur mean?

Yom Kippur literally means "Day of Atonement." It functions as the day in which the nation of Israel corporately asks for forgiveness.

2. Where does Yom Kippur appear in the Bible?

Yom Kippur appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible. It is first mentioned in reference to the initial instructions to the priests about making atonement once a year upon the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 30:10). Leviticus 16 provides a detailed description of the High Priest's role in offering sacrifices during Yom Kippur. According to this passage, Yom Kippur takes place on the tenth day of the seventh month. Although Tishri is the first month in the modern Jewish calendar, it corresponds to the seventh month in the biblical calendar. God tells the nation it is a day of affliction and self-denial (Lev. 16:29,31; 23:27,29,32). Later in Leviticus and Numbers, within the list of the national holidays, God provides a summary of instructions for Israel concerning observance of Yom Kippur (Lev. 23:26-32; Num. 29:7-11).

3. When does Yom Kippur occur?

Yom Kippur begins at sundown on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishri. The Jewish day begins at sundown and continues until sundown of the next day. This tradition developed out of the creation account in the Torah, where it says, "the evening and the morning were the first day" (Gen. 1:5). Although the Jewish and Gregorian calendars differ, the Jewish month of Tishri always begins in either September or October, depending upon the year.

In 2012, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on the evening of Tuesday, September 25th.

4. How did ancient Israel observe Yom Kippur?

In ancient Israel, observance of Yom Kippur centered upon the temple. The High Priest woke up early for ritual purification. He then put on special priestly garments, representing the sacredness of the holiday (Lev. 16:2-4). After the initial preparation for the holiday, the priest offered a bull as a sacrifice for both himself and his family (Lev. 16:6). He then selected and consecrated two separate male goats, one as a sacrifice for God and the other which the community would later lead into the desert (Lev. 16:7-10).

The priest took the blood from the bull, which he had sacrificed as sin offering for himself and his family, and placed it upon the coals of the altar before entering into the inner room of the temple to sprinkle the blood upon the Ark of the Covenant (16:11-14). Then he sacrificed the Lord's goat on behalf of the nation before entering into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the goat's blood upon the Ark (16:15). Finally, the priest placed some of the blood from the Lord's goat onto the second goat. The High Priest confessed the sins of the nation over the second goat and the nation led the goat out into the wilderness (16:21-22). According to tradition, the people led the goat to a high precipice in the wilderness and pushed it over the side to ensure the goat would never return to the camp. The removal of the goat from the camp symbolized the removal of the nation's sins from Israel.

There are many nuances of the ancient observation of Yom Kippur, but the essential lesson from the temple sacrifices for this Holy Day is regarding the means of atonement: God's only method of atoning for sins is through the offering of a living sacrifice.

5. How does the modern Jewish community observe Yom Kippur?

In modern Judaism, Yom Kippur represents the end of the Days of Awe, ten days of repentance and reflection starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. This period of repentance culminates in Yom Kippur, when it is said that God makes His final judgment on the fate of each person for the coming year.

As a day of repentance and the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, most observant Jewish people spend Yom Kippur at the synagogue. The Bible describes it as a day for the affliction of the soul (Lev. 23:27). Modern Judaism implements this affliction through certain forms of self-denial, such as fasting, as many Jewish people abstain from both eating and drinking for an entire twenty-five hours, beginning before sundown until after nightfall on the following day. The entire community has a special meal after sundown at the conclusion of Yom Kippur to break the fast.

In addition, Jewish law also prohibits washing and bathing, marital relations, and use of any type of lotions or perfume during Yom Kippur. As with most Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is a day of rest, which means the Jewish community must also abstain from any type of creative work. The main theme of Yom Kippur is repentance. Jewish people express their repentance through prayer, confession and giving tzedakah (charity).

Yom Kippur has five separate synagogue services. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur utilize a special prayer book, called the Machzor, which simply means "cycle." The Yom Kippur services add special prayers focusing on confession and repentance. Some Jewish men wear special white robes, called kittel, symbolizing both purity and mortality. It is also customary to wear a tallit, prayer shawl, during all prayer services. Yom Kippur is the only time in which Jewish men wear the tallit in the evening. The final synagogue service concludes with the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn).

6. Why do we still celebrate Old Testament Holy Days like Yom Kippur?

Each of the appointed festivals in Leviticus 23 points to Jesus, and they look forward to His first and second comings. Believers in Messiah Jesus have a freedom either not to observe these Holy Days, or to celebrate them in a way that draws attention to Messiah.

Followers of Jesus recognize that atonement is available to God's people only through the death and resurrection of our Messiah. God has already accomplished the complete work of atonement through Jesus' sacrifice. Thus, for believers, Yom Kippur does not represent a time of apprehension and fear, worrying about one's position with God.

Rather, observance of Yom Kippur can be a poignant spiritual experience for both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. First, Yom Kippur reminds us of the penalty of our sin and reinforces the importance of holiness in our spiritual lives. Since Yom Kippur is a somber day, focused upon repentance, it calls believers to remember God's holiness. Our sin has terrible consequences and is severely offensive to our holy God. Despite our deep sorrow over our sin, we can have assurance and confidently approach God's presence, as Jesus' sacrifice gives God's people an eternal redemption (Heb 4:14-16; 9:11-14).

Second, since Yom Kippur is the national "Day of Atonement" for Israel, believers can dedicate prayers on Yom Kippur to praying for the redemption of the Jewish people, as the Bible promises a day when the nation of Israel will recognize their Redeemer and Messiah (Zech 12:10).

7. Does Yom Kippur have any prophetic significance?

Yom Kippur as the Day of Atonement has significant prophetic significance. When Jesus died, the veil standing in front of the Holy of Holies ripped in two, thus symbolizing free access to God's presence. Previously, only the High Priest had access to this room and only once a year on Yom Kippur (Matt. 27:51). Jesus' death provides access to God because He entered into the Heavenly Holy of Holies to offer His blood for our redemption (Heb 9:11-12). Unlike the repeated annual sacrifices on Yom Kippur, Jesus' one sacrifice continues to provide atonement. Yom Kippur reminds us of the certainty of our redemption through the blood of our Messiah and High Priest, Jesus.

Atonement through the Messiah is different than it was in ancient Israel. Instead of offering animals, Jesus offered Himself as our atonement (Heb. 9:12). As our High Priest, He did not first need to offer a sacrifice on His behalf, because He is sinless. His atonement is perfect and permanent; His sacrifice does not need to be repeated every year.

Yom Kippur, the national Day of Atonement for Israel, also reminds us of the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people. The prophet Zechariah speaks of a day when the nation of Israel will recognize her Messiah and "they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only son" (Zech. 12:10). When the nation recognizes her Messiah, Paul states, "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26). As Yom Kippur reminds us of our own salvation, it also gives us anticipation to look forward to the salvation of God's chosen people.