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Parasha Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement): The Fast He Has Set Before Us

Parasha Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
Leviticus 16:134; 18:130; Numbers 29:7–11; Isaiah 57:1458:14; Book of Jonah; Micah 7:1820

“It shall be a statute to you forever: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and shall do no kind of work, the native-born, or the stranger who lives as a foreigner among you.”  (Leviticus 16:29)

Tanakh, tallit, and shofar

The shofar (ram’s horn), which is the object resting on a tallit (prayer shawl), is blown on Rosh HaShanah (New Year), also called Yom Teruah (The Day of Blowing the Shofar), and throughout the 10 Days of Repentance.  On Yom Kippur the final service closes with a long shofar blast, followed by the prayer: “Next year may we be in Jerusalem.”

Ten days ago, we celebrated the festival of Rosh Hashanah (New Year), which is also called Yom Teruah (Feast of Trumpets).  This began the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), a 10-day period of repentance and seeking forgiveness.

It is traditionally believed that God’s judgment is pronounced yearly on Rosh Hashanah, and that this judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur יוֹם כִּפּוּר (or Yom HaKippurim)—The Day of Atonement.

During this period, we can influence that judgment through sincere repentance.

Yom Kippur, the climax of these Ten Days of Repentance, is so important that it is traditionally considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Why is this day so holy?  Because only on this one day in the entire year the Jewish High Priest (the Kohen HaGadol) was allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies (Kadosh HaKadoshim) to make atonement for the sins of the nation of Israel.

white parochet Torah Ark

The ark of the synagogue in Carpentras, France is covered with a white parochet (curtain) for Yom Kippur.

Atonement and the Mercy Seat

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:45)

The Hebrew word kippur (Yom Kippur) comes from the root kafar (כפר   k-p-r), meaning to atone, to wipe away and to cover.

The related Hebrew words for ransom and reconcile also come from this root.

This third sense of the word, to cover, is seen in the related word kaporet.

Although today the parochet (curtain) that covers the Aron Kodesh (lit. Holy Ark, Torah Ark, an ornamental closet for Torah scrolls) is often called the kaporet, in the days of the Tabernacle and the Temple, the cover for the Ark of the Covenant (Aron HaBrit) was called the kaporet, sometimes referred to as the mercy seat.

God told Moses to fashion the kaporet out of pure gold, with two cherubim facing each other with their wings outstretched over the cover.  When God spoke to Moses, he would hear the voice coming from between the cherubim.  In other words, it was a place of meeting.  (Exodus 25:17–22)

“There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all My commands for the Israelites.”  (Exodus 25:22)

Inside the ark were placed the tablets of the covenant law.  The ark and the kaporet were placed inside the Holy of Holies. 

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, by James Tissot

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, by James Tissot

When the day came to make atonement for sin between man and God, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the bull offering on the kaporet.  There he would intercede for the people, seeking forgiveness on behalf of the entire nation. 

That annual Yom Kippur sacrifice (korban), however, had limitations, since this could only happen once a year, and happened year after year, so that the sinner could draw near to God after being cleansed from the defilement of sin through the sacrificial blood.

In fulfillment of Yom Kippur, the blood shed by Yeshua on the Roman execution stake atoned for sin once and for all time.  Through this atonement, our souls have been ransomed from death and hell.  He mercifully wipes away the sin of those who repent and earnestly return to God, providing each one of us direct access to our Heavenly Father.

Yeshua on the Roman Execution Stake

“God presented Messiah as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith.  He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—He did it to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the One who justifies those who have faith in Yeshua.”  (Romans 3:25–26)

A Contrite Heart

“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”  (Leviticus 17:11)

Although the Scriptures tell us that blood carries life and, thus, makes atonement for our sins, the Holy Temple is no longer in existence today in order to offer up the required sacrifices and burnt offerings. 

In the absence of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), Rabbinic Judaism has ordained three substitutionary sacrifices of sorts:  tefillah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (giving of charity)

However, we know from the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for this day that God does not accept just any kind of prayer and repentance.  He longs to “revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite [daka / bruised, crushed].”  (Isaiah 57:15)

Selichot at the Western Wall-10 Days of Repentance

A man recites selichot (prayers of penitence) in Jerusalem at the Western (Wailing) Wall during the Days of Awe.

Repentance (teshuvah) is turning from sin and living a holy life.  This contrition begins with the act of confession.

There is a saying that confession is good for the soul and indeed the Word of God confirms this truth in the proverbs of King Solomon:

“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”  (Proverbs 28:13)

The Brit Chadashah (New Testament) also confirms the power of such humility: 

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  (James 5:16)

We should be continually confessing our sins to God and to our High Priest Yeshua HaMashiach (who intercedes on our behalf), while walking in humility and holiness.  Still, Yom Kippur gives us a special opportunity to stop all the busyness of life and seriously attend to this important matter.

A Jewish man prays at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur.

A Jewish man prays at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur.

The Fast He Has Chosen

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny [afflict] yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you.  Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.”  (Leviticus 16:29–30)

The central themes of Yom Kippur are atonement and repentance.  These are the focus of intensive prayers, both corporate and personal, throughout the whole day in the synagogue.

It is common practice to observe a total fast on Yom Kippur lasting 25 hours.

The Hebrew word for fast is tzom (צום), but that is not the word that appears in the commandments regarding Yom Kippur; rather, we are commanded to “afflict our souls.”

Yom Kippur at the Western (Wailing) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Yom Kippur at the Western (Wailing) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

According to halakhah (Jewish law), there are five afflictions on Yom Kippur.  Traditionally, we abstain from the following five pleasures:

  1. Eating and drinking;
  2. Washing and bathing;
  3. Anointing the body;
  4. Wearing leather shoes; and
  5. Marital relations.

It is thought that when we afflict our bodies in this way, we also afflict our souls.

Of course, it is possible to observe these traditions in hypocrisy, without accompanying them with sincere repentance.

The Haftarah for Yom Kippur seems to address this issue.  In it the people of Israel complain to God, saying they had sought Him, worshipped Him, fasted, and prayed and yet they saw no results.

“‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’”  (Isaiah 58:3)

God answers, making it clear the type of fast that is pleasing to Him:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  (Isaiah 58:6–7)

helping Jerusalem love

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”  (James 1:27)

A person who truly follows God reaches out in compassion to others.

We can become so occupied with our own personal cares and concerns that our religious observance becomes more of a ritual than an engagement of the heart.  It is all too easy to focus on providing for our own needs and forget to aid the oppressed and provide food, shelter and clothing to the needy.

But God does not forget them, and He wants us to partner with Him in this important work.

The New Covenant also tells us that this is what God considers “true religion.”  It is not reading our Bibles every morning and going to church each week; it is helping widows and orphans, and the poor of this world.

helping the poor

A French Orthodox Jewish man takes a moment to help a poor man in Marseilles, France.

Ministering to the Lord

So vitally important is our attitude and conduct, especially towards the helpless and oppressed, that the Son of Man, Yeshua the Messiah, takes it personally.

When we give food, shelter and clothing; and visit those who are sick or imprisoned, then the Lord said we are actually ministering to Him.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”  (Matthew 25:34–36)

And even though this kind of generosity is a fast, it carries with it the great rewards of healing, guidance and divine protection:

“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”  (Isaiah 58:8–9) 

Reaching to Yeshua

“Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm.  Nothing is too hard for you.”  (Jeremiah 32:17)

We must always keep in mind, however, that good works cannot save us from sin; in fact, even the blood sacrifices of bulls and goats in the Temple could only cover but never completely take away our sins.

“It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”  (Hebrews 10:4)

Only the blood of Yeshua, the Lamb of God, can make perfect atonement (kaparah) for our sins.  

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Messiah, a lamb without blemish or defect.”  (1 Peter 1:18–19)

So even though good works will not save us, they are evidence of a transformed life.  We show that we are a true disciple of Yeshua by living in righteousness and caring for what He cares for. 

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