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Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement): The Holiest Day in Judaism

Torah, Western Wall, Jerusalem

The Day of Atonement, Biblically speaking, is the holiest day of the year.

The first Believers fasted on Yom Kippur, and according to the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) Yeshua (Jesus) perfectly fulfilled this day when He died for our sins.  (Hebrews 8–10; Romans 5:11, 9:15)

In Israel on Yom Kippur and in Jewish communities around the world, everyone will be in their local synagogue.

Even many secular Jews who don’t observe other Jewish holidays consider this day, with its themes of atonement and repentance, significant.

“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)

Jews Praying- Synagogue-Yom Kippur-Maurycy Gottlieb

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Gottlieb

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Leviticus 16:1–34; Isaiah 57:14-58:14.

Yom Kippur is a solemn fast day.   For nearly 26 hours, we “afflict our souls” in the following five ways:

  1. We don’t eat or drink;
  2. We don’t wash;
  3. We don’t use lotions or perfumes;
  4. We don’t wear leather footwear; and
  5. We abstain from marital relations.

Despite that, the observance of this day is characterized by a sense of peace because of our confidence in our relationship with God and His provision for atonement.

Kol nidre-Machzor Worms-Hebrew-Calligraphy

The beautiful Hebrew calligraphy of Kol Nidre in the Machzor Worms, which is one of the oldest ritual festival prayer books in existence.  It was used by the Jewish community of Worms, Germany from 1272 until the synagogue’s destruction on Kristallnacht, November 1938.

Before the sun set on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish People gathered in their synagogues to hear the cantor chant Kol Nidre (All Vows) and recite penitential prayers from a special prayer book called the Machzor.

The next morning, the Jewish People return to their synagogues for the morning prayer service in which several sections of the Torah portion are read.  The entire Book of Jonah is read during the afternoon service.

This service concludes shortly before sunset with the Ne’ila (Closing of the Gates) prayer, which is traditionally the last moment for repenting before God seals His judgments in His Book.

Yom Kippur will end at nightfall with the blowing of the shofar, and the Jewish People will return home to enjoy a festive meal.  Many of us will also begin building our Sukkah for the holiday of Sukkot, which is just four days away.

Jewish man-Selichot-Western Wall

Orthodox Jewish man praying Selichot, Jewish penitential prayers and poems, in preparation for Yom Kippur, at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Yom Kippur During Temple Times

“Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die.”  (Leviticus 16:2)

Yom Kippur was the one day in the year that the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) could enter the Holy of Holies in order to make atonement for the nation of Israel.

Before he could minister before the Lord on this holy day, the high priest first bathed in water (immersed himself in the mikvah) and then put on a special linen tunic.

In the Holy of Holies, the high priest was not to wear his usual golden garments, designed for splendor and beauty; instead, he was to wear simple, white linen clothing that represented purity and humility, which befits this most sacred of all days.

Kittel-Wedding-Robe-Yom Kippur

Many Jewish men wear a kittel, a white robe-like garment, for evening prayers on Yom Kippur.  It is also worn on their wedding day.

Wearing White on Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur, many religiously observant Jewish men dress in simple, white linen when attending Yom Kippur services.  They also wear rubber soled sneakers instead of leather shoes, in remembrance of Yom Kippur’s animal sacrifice.

And women wear elegant dresses while wearing canvas running shoes.

The rabbis give another reason for wearing white on this holy day.  Israel comes before God, not in drab clothing like a penitent sinner, but arrayed in white as if going to a feast, confident that they will be pardoned as they come in sincere repentance.

In the Book of Revelation, we see a connection to the tradition of wearing white and the Book of Life:

“He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.”  (Revelation 3:5)

Kapparot-ritua-Yom Kippur-Chicken

Kapparot is a ritual some Jews perform before Yom Kippur, where a chicken is waved over the head three times in order to symbolically transfer one’s sins to the chicken.  The chicken is then slaughtered and donated to the poor.

Since the Holy Temple is no longer standing and no sacrifices for sin can be offered, those who know Yeshua (Jesus) can trust in the sacrifice that He made for our atonement.

However, about 99% of the Jewish People today do not believe that Yeshua is the Messiah.

And with no Temple in Jerusalem for the past 2,000 years, they have replaced the animal blood sacrifice with prayer (tefilah), repentance (teshuvah), and charity or good deeds (tzedakah).

Perhaps we can give credit to the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who sacrifice chickens in a ritual called kapparot.  At least in performing this ritual, they still acknowledge the need for a blood sacrifice (even though this is not the animal prescribed in the Torah for sacrifice).

And as we are now in the End Times, perhaps it will make it easier for these Ultra-Orthodox Jews to recognize the atoning sacrifice Yeshua accomplished on our behalf as the Messiah.

Nubian Ibex-Goat

The Nubian ibex is a desert-dwelling goat species found in Israel.

The Azazel

“But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.”  (Leviticus 16:10)

On Yom Kippur, the High Priests cast lots for two goats.  One was offered as the sacrifice, but the other goat was chosen as the Azazel (the scapegoat).

Azazel is a very special Hebrew noun meaning dismissal or entire removal.  The entire removal of the sin and guilt of Israel is symbolized by the High Priest laying both his hands on the head of this live goat, confessing over it all the transgressions of the children of Israel.

The goat would then be released into the wilderness, thus physically carrying the burden of Israel’s sin into the wasteland.

Golden Gate-Sha'ar Harachamim-Jerusalem

The Golden Gate, which is called Sha’ar HaRachamim (Gate of Mercy) in Hebrew, is located on the eastern side of the Temple Mount.  It’s thought that the Azazel was led through this gate to the wilderness.  It’s also thought that Messiah will come through this gate.  Suleiman wanted to prevent this and had the gate sealed in 1541.  A Muslim cemetery was placed in front of it to defile the area.

The Azazel and Messiah Yeshua

“He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.  He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task.  The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.”  (Leviticus 16:21–22)

There are striking similarities between these verses in Leviticus 16 and those of Isaiah 53:

“And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all … For He shall bear their iniquities….”  (Isaiah 53:6, 11)

Rabbis of ancient times viewed Isaiah 53 as a Messianic prophecy. Most agreed that it speaks of the Messiah of Israel.

Sadly, this Messianic prophecy has been effectively hidden from most Jewish people, even those who faithfully attend synagogue services, by omitting the entire chapter from the Sabbath readings.

Why?  Maybe because the chapter so perfectly describes the atonement Yeshua made for us through the sacrifice of His own life as the suffering servant.

Revealing the Jewish Messiah to the Jewish People through their own Scriptures is why we so desperately need to make the Messianic Prophecy Bible available to them!


Jewish men sort through prayer books (siddurs) on a table at the Western (Wailing) Wall in preparation for morning prayer.

The current rabbinic interpretation of Isaiah 53 proposes that this passage does not speak of the Messiah but that it speaks of the nation of Israel.

This interpretation seems to have gained serious adherents only in the 13th century.  In reality,  it is a lie that has been promoted throughout the Jewish community to blind Jewish people from seeing that Isaiah 53 perfectly describes Yeshua who suffered for our sins.

Not all rabbis have agreed with this willfully wrong interpretation.  In a strongly worded 14th century commentary, Rabbi Moshe Kohen ibn Crispin said:

“[In contrast to those] having inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts and their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret the parasha [Isaiah 53] in accordance with the teachings of our rabbis, of the King Messiah… and adhere to the literal sense. Thus I shall be free from forced and far-fetched interpretations of which others are guilty.”

Similarly, Moses Alshech, a 16th century rabbi, preacher, and Bible commentator also said, “Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet [Isaiah] is here [chapter 53] speaking of the Messiah.”

Isaiah 53:5, Messiah,

Numerous rabbinic commentators also take for granted that Isaiah 52:13–53:12 refers to the Messiah.

The following quotes are gleaned from traditional rabbinic sources, such as the Talmud (oral law):

“He, Messiah, shall intercede for man’s sins, and the rebellious, for his sake, shall be forgiven.”  (Jerusalem Targum on Isaiah 53:12)

“And when Israel is sinful, the Messiah seeks for mercy upon them as it is written, ‘By his stripes we were healed,’ and ‘he carried the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.’”  (Genesis Rabbah on Isaiah 53:5, 12).

In a limited sense, however, Israel has suffered as an azazel “scapegoat” for the nations.

Because of the blindness with which Adonai temporarily afflicted Israel with regard to their Messiah, salvation (Yeshua) has come to the Gentiles.

“For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in… and so all Israel shall be saved.”  (Romans 11:25–27)

Orthodox Jewish man and Israeli soldier pray at the Western (Wailing) Wall

Orthodox Jewish man and Israeli soldier pray at the Western (Wailing) Wall

Iniquity and Lasting Atonement

 “And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity [avon] of us all.”  (Isaiah 53:6)

 In Hebrew, the word iniquity is avon.

 This word differs from the Hebrew word for sin (chata) which means to fall short and miss the mark. 

Avon is rooted in the Hebrew verb avah meaning to twist and to distort.  It signifies an inner crookedness or spiritual state of being bentin other words, perversity, as well as a willful departure from the law (Torah) of God.

 While the ordinary sacrifices were limited to atoning for involuntary or unintentional sins, this special sacrifice on Yom Kippur atoned for willful sin.

 The blood of bulls and goats can never fully remove sin and iniquity; it can only cover it for a time.

Forgiveness-Elul-Ten Days of Awe-High Holy Days-Yamim Noraim

Jewish men at the Wailing Wall praying for forgiveness.

A perfect, absolutely sinless One was required to pay the price for our rebellion and uncleanness.  Only Yeshua the Messiah could fulfill this role.

As the Messiah, His body and blood are the kapparah (atonement) and korban (sacrificial offering) for our sins.  And when He rose on the third day, He revealed the absolute holiness of His life and the effectiveness of His sacrifice on the execution stake for all mankind.

Rabbinic tradition states that on Yom Kippur the Cohen (Jewish priest) would tie a scarlet cloth to the horn of the Azazel and that when the sacrifice was fully accepted, the scarlet cloth became white.

 This wonderfully symbolized God’s gracious promise in Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”


Rabbi with two Torah scrolls in the Aron Kodesh (Torah Ark) in the background.

Assurance of Atonement for Sin

“Sins overwhelmed me, but You atoned for our transgressions.”  (Psalm 65:3)

The rabbis recognized that every man is in need of atonement for his sins, for it is written, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”  (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

A Talmudic story is recorded in which Yohanan ben Zakkai’s disciples gather around his deathbed and find him weeping.

They ask, “Rabbi, you are the light of Israel, the pillar on which we lean, the hammer that crushes all heresy.  Why should you weep?”

In answer, the rabbi confesses that he is afraid to die because he is not sure whether he will end up in heaven or hell.

Although God has provided atonement for all of our sins through the blood of the Messiah Yeshua, nearly all the Jewish people today are completely unaware of God’s Plan of Salvation through the Jewish Messiah.