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Making Amends: Forgiveness and Yom Kippur

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement.  Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord.’”  (Leviticus 23:26–27)

Ten days following the Biblical holiday of Yom Teruah (Day of Blasting), more commonly known as Rosh Hashanah (New Year), we observe Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

It is a solemn day—a day of fasting and doing no work; a day for inspecting one’s inner motives and thoughts; a day for teshuvah (repentance) and redemption.

On this somber day, we recognize our sins and ask God to forgive us for another year, to write our name in His book of life, health and prosperity.

This is such a serious holiday that Yom Kippur is wrapped in preparations of repentance, such as the reciting of the selichot prayers beginning on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.

These special prayers are taken from verses of the Torah and other poetic Hebrew works in which the penitent asks God to forgive him or her personally, as well as the community as a whole.

In fact, the spirit of mourning and repentance really began on the 17th of Tammuz, stretched to the fast of the 9th of Av and continues on through the Days of Awe—that period of intense introspection and repentance that lasts from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

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A Jewish man prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall at Yom Kippur.

The Bible tells us that the tenth day of the seventh month is a day of atonement in which “atonement is made for you before the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:28)

This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday, September 22nd and will end at sundown September 23rd.

Scripture is clear that this is a day to “afflict the soul” (Leviticus 16:31), and to atone for the sins of the previous year.

Although this is a day for fasting both food and water from sundown to sunset of the following day, exceptions are made for children under nine years of age and for pregnant women who are not permitted to fast even if they want to.

We fast to fulfill the command written in Leviticus 29:27: “You shall practice self-denial.”

Fasting is considered a form of self-denial.  Through fasting we are able to set aside things of the flesh and concentrate on the spirit through prayer, repentance and a desire for self-improvement.

There are other restrictions regarding this holy day, such as washing and bathing, engaging in conjugal relations and the wearing of leather shoes.  It is believed that on a day that we are asking God for forgiveness, it is not appropriate to wear the skin of a slaughtered animal.

It is also customary to wear white, which calls to mind the verse that our sins shall be made as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

Another Biblical command for the Day of Atonement is to sound the shofar (ram’s horn), which is traditionally blown at the end of the Neilah service, the final service of the day.

Neilah literally means locking, although by interpretation it is translated as closing of the gates.  It signifies the finality of God’s judgment and the closing of the Day of Atonement.  (myjewishlearning)

“Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.” (Leviticus 25:9)


Ram’s horn shofar: the call of the shofar is a call to teshuvah (repentance).

A Temple Substitute: Prayer

The Bible describes Yom Kippur not only as a day for the spiritual cleansing of the people, but also for the purification of the Temple by the High Priest from the many sins of the people.

With the destruction of the Temple, the second aspect of atonement of the people gained precedence.   As the website My Jewish Learning describes it: “The atonement we now perform is turned inward; it is an act of self-purification in which we purge our own lives from the stain of our misdeeds.”

In place of the traditional sacrifices, we now experience an internal drama extending from the opening strains of the traditional chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer (“All Vows” in Aramaic) in which we are released from all debts and obligations between man and God extending from the previous year, through the many recitations of prayers, selichot (poems of supplication and forgiveness) and viduyim (confessions of sin), culminating with the closing Neilah service and the sounding of one long majestic shofar blast, signifying completion and release.

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Selichot prayers before Yom Kippur (Photo by Jael Shilo)

The purpose of this holy day is to bring about a reconciliation between the individual and God and between individuals.

According to Jewish tradition, it is this day that God seals the fate of each human being for the next year.

This is described quite beautifully in the prayer that is recited during the additional or musaf service, while the Torah ark is being opened.  That prayer is titled Unetaneh Tokef / ונתנה תוקף (Let Us Cede Power).  Some have considered it to be the most stirring prayer of the entire service.

This piyyut or poetic prayer is believed to have been written by an 11th-century sage named Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany who was martyred for refusing to convert to Catholicism.  He is said to have composed this prayer on his death bed after having his limbs severed.  He was carried into the synagogue on Yom Kippur where he recited it and then died.

Yom Kippur by Adolph Menzel

Yom Kippur, by Adolph Menzel

In this piyyut, the martyred rabbi lists the varied fate of mankind saying that on Yom Kippur God sits on His throne and judges all.

“And the great shofar will be sounded,” the prayer states, “and a still, thin voice will be heard.  Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’ — for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.”

It then lists the many fates that await those who are judged, saying that some will live and some will die.

It is inscribed on that mighty day (Yom Kippur) “who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning.

“Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

Still, it ends on a hopeful note:  “But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe decree.”

Yom Kippur, then, is essentially a Jewish person’s last chance to make an appeal to change the judgment to good, to show our true repentance and to make amends.

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Blowing the shofar in the synagogue on Yom Kippur.  (Photo by Max@Nathans)

Seeking Forgiveness

By tradition, amends between man and man must have already been resolved prior to the actual holy day in order for God to be open to resolving the conflict between Himself and the petitioner.

Before we can seek forgiveness from the Father, we as Jews are taught to seek forgiveness from those whom we may have offended.  This is exactly what Yeshua taught His disciples when He said:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23–24)

If we seek forgiveness and the person does not want to forgive, we should ask at least two more times.  If they still refuse, it is said to be upon them.

Repentance, forgiveness, and making amends, therefore, are basic to our faith in the God of Israel, as we see through the fulfillment of the command to celebrate this Day of Atonement.

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As much as Yom Kippur is about repentance and atonement, it is also about reconciliation, making amends, forgiveness, and restored relationships.

Making Amends and Repairing Relationships With God and Man

Those who follow Yeshua understand that He has fulfilled Yom Kippur by making atonement for all mankind.  The personal sacrifice of Yeshua is our bridge to God.  Those who cross the bridge on any day of the year enter into full atonement and eternal life once and for all.

While we gain right-standing with God through the acceptance of the sacrifice that Yeshua made on the tree (execution stake), we can deepen our fellowship with Adonai and one another by understanding the transformative power of reconciliation during the High Holy Day season.

Judaism teaches that true teshuvah or repentance involves the “repair” of our relationship with our fellowman, as well as with God the father.

The 12th century Spanish rabbinic scholar Maimonides lists the following four steps to repentance:

  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1). 
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2). 
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” to appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9). 
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

The Western (Wailing) Wall is busy 24 hours a day during the High Holy Days.  (Photo by Or Hiltch)

When we give our all to make amends and right the wrongs that we have done to others, we benefit immensely—instead of our emotions moving from bad to worse, we can be transformed by sincere repentance. 

The person you have offended may never forgive you, and it may actually be impossible to right the wrong, as in the case of Bernard Madoff who stole entire life savings from people and millions from charities through a grand Ponzi scheme.

Yet, if people who committed even such devastating offenses such as this were to devote themselves to repairing the damage they committed, instead of brushing it off and saying, “Oh well, that was in the past, and the Lord has forgiven me,” they would be changed for the better even if no one ever forgave him.

This concept of repairing wrongs committed to others also ties in with the Jewish concept of Tikkun haOlam (repairing the world), which are the efforts that we make over and above those commanded by God, to perfect the world.  Based in rabbinic Judaism with roots in the mystical Kabbalah, it has come to be interpreted as social action or social justice.

Having righted our relationship with our fellow man, we now, on this holiest of all days on the Jewish calendar, approach God humbly, with a repentant soul, seeking another year of health, grace and forgiveness, being written and sealed into the Book of Life.

If, however, we have truly accepted the gift of salvation through Yeshua, we are already and eternally written into the Lamb’s Book of Life, and this day, though somber, is a day for gratitude and expressions of forgiveness toward the repentant.