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Atonement, Day of

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Biblical Data.

— In Bible, Talmud, and Liturgy:

The term , "Yom Kippur," is late rabbinic. The Biblical laws relating to it are found in Leviticus 16 (ceremonies); ib. 23:26-32 (list of holidays); ib. 25:9 (ushering in the jubilee); Numbers 29:7-11 (sacrifices).

Ceremonies According to Bible and Mishnah.

The Day of Atonement, according to Biblical tradition, is one in the cycle of holidays instituted by Moses. It occurs on the tenth day of the seventh month, and is distinguished by abstaining thereon from food ("afflicting one's soul"; compare Isa. Iviii. 3, 5) and by an elaborate ceremonial. The details of the ritual, in accordance with rabbinical interpretation (Sifra and Rashi on Leviticus 16; Mishnah and Gemara Yoma; "Yad" Hil. 'Abodat Yom ha-Kippurim; Asheri), proceed about as follows: In the early morning the high priest, in his robes of office (described Exodus 28, ), offered the daily morning sacrifice (Numbers 29:11; Exodus 29:38 et seq.) and performed the ordinary morning rite of dressing the lamps, which was accompanied by an offering of incense (Exodus 30:7). Next in order was the festival sacrifice of a bullock and seven lambs (Numbers 29:7 et seq.). Then began the peculiar ceremonies of atonement, for which the high priest put on special vestments of linen (Leviticus 16:4). With his hands placed on the head of a bullock (contributed from his own means), he made confession of his own sins and of those of his nearer household (verse 6, see Rashi). The two goats contributed by the people (verse 5) were placed before him, being designated by lot, the one for a sinoffering "for the Lord," and the other to be sent away into the wilderness "for Azazel" (verses 7-10). Once more the high priest made confession over his own bullock, for himself and his wider household—his brother priests (verse 11a). After killing the animal (verse 11b) and receiving its blood into a vessel, he took a censer full of live coals from the altar of burnt offering (Exodus 27:1-8) and two handfuls of fine incense into the sacred recess behind the curtain, the Holy of Holies; there he placed the incense on the coals, the cloud of incense enveloping the so-called "mercy-seat" (verse 12 et seq.), and offered a short prayer (Yoma 5:1). He returned for the vessel containing the blood of the bullock and reentered, sprinkling some of it with his finger eight times between the staves of the Ark (verse 14; Exodus 25:13-15). He then left the sacred compartment to kill the people's goat (marked "for the Lord"); with its blood he reentered the Holy of Holies, there to perform the same number of sprinklings in the same place (verse 15).

Process of Purification.

By these rites the most holy place was rendered free from all impurities attaching to it through the intentional or unintentional entrance of unclean persons into the sanctuary (verse 16, see Rashi; Numbers 19:13, see Rashi). By sprinkling the bullock's blood and similarly that of the goat eight times against the curtain, the entrance to the Holy of Holies was purified (verse 16b, see Rashi). No one was permitted to remain in the sanctuary while the high priest officiated in the Holy of Holies (verse 17). The high priest then mixed the blood of the bullock and goat, and put some of it on the four corners of the altar of incense (Exodus 30:1-10); he furthermore sprinkled some of it with his finger seven times on the surface of the altar, cleaned of its coal and ashes (verse 18 et seq.), while the remainder was poured out at the base of the altar outside (Leviticus 4:7). The live goat was now brought forward. The high priest laid his hand upon its head and confessed "all the iniquities of the Israelites, and all their transgressions, even all their sins," which were thus placed upon the goat's head. Laden with the people's sins, the animal was sent away into the wilderness (verses 20-22). The high priest then took those portions that belonged on the altar out of the bodies of the bullock and the goat, and placed them temporarily in a vessel; the carcasses of the animals were sent away "to the place where the ashes are thrown out" (Leviticus 4:12) and burned there (verse 27; Yoma 6:7). Clothed in his ordinary robes, the high priest offered another goat for a sin-offering (Numbers 29:11), and two rams for a burnt offering, one of which was contributed by himself (verse 24). The altar portions of the bullock and goat were now burned on the altar (verse 25; Yoma c.; see Bertinoro), and the daily evening sacrifice was offered (Numbers 29:11; Exodus 29:41). Once more the linen garments were put on, for the high priest again repaired to the Holy of Holies in order to remove thence the censer; the sacred vestments were then deposited in the sanctuary. In his ordinary robes, the high priest closed the service with the evening rite of lighting the lamps, which was accompanied by an offering of incense (Exodus 30:8; Yoma 7:4).

Talmudical Amplifications.

In the Mishnah the ceremonial is further enriched by elements having no Scriptural basis. Thus, before removing his linen garments for the first time, the high priest read to the people portions from the Pentateuch relating to the Day of Atonement (Yoma 7:1). The Mishnah reproduces the exact wording of the three confessions (3:8, 4:2, 6:2); it states also that as often as the high priest uttered the divine name (see TETRAGRAMMATON), the assembled multitudes outside, while prostrating themselves, responded: "Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever and ever" (6:2). Much is also said about the preparations which the high priest was to undergo during the week preceding the fast-day, and the night previous to the great day in particular; especially how he was to guard against pollution (1:1-7). So great, according to the Mishnah (7:4), was the dread that some mishap might befall the high priest while officiating in the Holy of Holies, that at the conclusion of the service he was escorted home and congratulated by his friends, whom in turn the priest was wont to entertain in the evening at a feast. Mirth was indulged in by the people in general; the young men and maidens enjoyed themselves by dancing in the vineyards (Ta'anit 4:8).

Place in Post-Exilic Judaism.

The Day of Atonement is the keystone of the sacrificial system of post-exilic Judaism. In the belief that the great national misfortunes of the past were due to the people's sins, the Jews of post-exilic times strove to bring on the Messianic period of redemption by strictly and minutely guarding against all manner of sin. The land being defiled by the sin of the people, the pollution must be removed lest the Divine Presence withdraw from among them. Hence the sacrificial system with its sinand guilt-offerings. While provision was made for the expiation of the wrong-doings of individuals by private offerings, the public sacrifices atoned for the sins of the community. Especially dangerous seemed the errors unwittingly committed (Psalms 19:13). On the Day of Atonement such sins as may not have been covered by the various private and public expiatory sacrifices were to be disposed of by a general ceremony of expiation. In this elaborate ceremonial, as described, the ordinary rites of the sin-offering are to be discerned in an intensified form. In every sacrifice there is the idea of substitution; the victim takes the place of the human sinner. The laying of hands upon the victim's head is an ordinary rite by which the substitution and the transfer of sins are effected; on the Day of Atonement the animal laden with the people's sins was sent abroad (compare the similar rite on the recovery of a leper, Leviticus 14:7; AZAZEL). The sprinkling of the blood is essential to all sin-offerings. By dipping his finger in the victim's blood and applying it to a sacred object like the altar, the priest reestablishes the union between the people that he represents and the Deity.

Place in Rabbinic Judaism.

In rabbinic Judaism the Day of Atonement completes the penitential period of ten days ( ) that begins with New-Year's Day, the season of repentance and prayer; for though prayerful humiliation be acceptable at all times, it is peculiarly potent at that time (R. H. 18a; Maimonides, "Yad," Teshubah, 2:6). It is customary to rise early (commencing a few days before New-Year); the morning service is preceded by litanies and petitions of forgiveness (, "seliḥot") which, on the Day of Atonement, are woven into the liturgy (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 581; Zunz, "S. P." 76 et seq.). New-Year's and Atonement days are days of serious meditation (, "awful days," Zunz, "S. P." 82, note). The former is the annual day of judgment (), when all creatures pass in review before the searching eye of Omniscience (R. H. 1:2). According to the Targum, the day of the heavenly session in Job 1:6 et seq. was no other than the first of the year (, resh shatta; see also Zohar Ex. 32b, ed. Wilna, 1882). Accordingly, the Divine Judge receives on that day the report of Satan, arch-fiend and accuser in heaven; the other angels, it is presumed, are friendly to the accused, and plead their cause before the august tribunal. The sounds of the "shofar" are intended to confuse Satan (R. H. 16b). There is, indeed, in heaven a book wherein the deeds of every human being are minutely entered (Abot 2:1, 3:16; a book of record, "book of remembrance," is alluded to, Malachi 3:16). Three books are opened on the first day of the year, says the Talmud (R. H. 16b); one for the thoroughly wicked, another for the thoroughly pious, and the third for the large intermediate class. The fate of the thoroughly wicked and the thoroughly pious is determined on the spot; the destiny of the intermediate class is suspended until the Day of Atonement, when the fate of every man is sealed (R. H. 16a). In the liturgical piece "Unetanneh Toḳef," ascribed to R. Amnon Of Mayence (Zunz, "Literaturgesch." p. 107), a still weirder scene is unfolded:

"God, seated on His throne to judge the world, at the same time Judge, Pleader, Expert, and Witness, openeth the Book of Records; it is read, every man's signature being found therein. The great trumpet is sounded; a still, small voice is heard; the angels shudder, saying, this is the day of judgment: for His very ministers are not pure before God. As a shepherd mustereth his flock, causing them to pass under his rod, so doth God cause every living soul to pass before Him to fix the limit of every creature's life and to foreordain its destiny. On New-Year's Day the decree is written; on the Day of Atonement it is sealed who shall live and who are to die, etc. But penitence, prayer, and charity may avert the evil decree."

All depends on whether a man's merits outweigh the demerits put to his account (Maimonides, "Yad," Teshubah, 3:3). It is therefore desirable to multiply good deeds before the final account on the Day of Atonement (ib. 3:4). Those that are found worthy are entered in the Book of Life (Exodus 32:32; Isaiah 4:3; Psalms 69:29 [A. V. 28]; Daniel 12:1; see Charles, "Book of Enoch," pp. 131-133). Hence the prayer: "Enter us in the Book of Life" (, "inscribe us"; but , "seal us," that is, "seal our fate"—in the closing prayer on the Day of Atonement). Hence also the formula of salutation on New-Year's Eve: "May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life] for a happy year." In letters written between New-Year and the Day of Atonement, the writer usually concludes by wishing the recipient that God may seal his fate for happiness (). Thus, in late Judaism, features that were originally peculiar to New-Year's Day were transferred to the Day of Atonement. The belief that on the first day of the year the destiny of all human beings was fixed was also that of the Assyrians. Marduk is said to come at the beginning of the year ("rish shatti") and decide the fate of one's life (Schrader, "K. B." , second div., 14 et seq.).

Rabbinic Aspects of Atonement.

Day of Atonement Before Metz, 1870, as Observed by the Jewish Soldiers in the German Army.

The Day of Atonement survived the cessation of the sacrificial cult (in the year 70). "Though no sacrifices be offered, the day in itself effects atonement" (Sifra, Emor, ). Yet both Sifra and the Mishnah teach that the day avails nothing unless repentance be coupled with it (Yoma 8:8). Repentance was the indispensable condition for all the various means of atonement. Repentance must unquestionably accompany a guiltor sin-offering (Leviticus 5:5; Maimonides, "Yad," Teshubah, 1:1). Penitent confession was a requisite for expiation through capital or corporal punishment (Sanh. 6:2; Maimonides, ib.). "The Day of Atonement absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person be secured" (Yoma 8:9). Hence the custom of terminating on the eve of the fastday all feuds and disputes (Yoma 87a; Maimonides, ib.9 et seq.). Even the souls of the dead are included in the community of those pardoned on the Day of Atonement. It is customary for children to have public mention made in the synagogue of their departed parents, and to make charitable gifts on behalf of their souls (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 621, 6). But no amount of charity will avail the soul of a wicked man (Ṭure Zahab to Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 249, note 5).

The Liturgy.

The service in the synagogue opens in the evening with the KOL NIDRE. The devotions during the day are continuous from morning until evening. Much prominence is given to the liturgical pieces in which the Temple ceremonial is recounted (''ABODAH service; Zunz, "Literaturgesch." pp. 27 et seq., 64 et seq.). Ibn Gabirol's ("Crown of Royalty") skilfully deals with the problem of sin: it is appended to the Sephardic liturgy for the evening service, and is also read by the more devout in the Ashkenazic synagogues. In the center of the older liturgy is the confession of sins. "For we are not so bold of face and stiff-necked as to say to Thee, We are righteous and have not sinned; but, of a truth, we are sinners. . . . May it be Thy will that I sin no more; be pleased to purge away my past sins, according to Thy great mercy, only not through severe chastisements." The traditional melodies with their plaintive tones endeavor to give expression alike to the individual's awe before the uncertainties of fate and to a people's moan for its departed glories. On the Day of Atonement the pious Jew becomes forgetful of the flesh and its wants, and, banishing hatred, ill-feeling, and all ignoble thoughts, seeks to be occupied exclusively with things spiritual. However rigorously the rabbinical law may insist on the outward manifestation of contrition, the corrective is provided for in the lessons from the Prophets (Isaiah 58; Jonah; see Ta'anit 2:1), which teach that the true fast-day in which God delights is a spirit of devotion, kindliness, and penitence. The serious character impressed upon the day from the time of its institution has been preserved to the present day. No matter how much else has fallen into desuetude, so strong is its hold upon the Jewish conscience that no Jew, unless he have cut himself entirely loose from the synagogue, will fail to observe the Day of Atonement by resting from his daily pursuits and attending service in the synagogue. With a few exceptions, the service even of the Reformed synagogue is continuous through the day.

Analysis of Sources.

— Critical View:

The Pentateuchal references to the Day of Atonement cited in the preceding belong to the Priestly Code, but by no means to one and the same stratum. Leviticus 16, which is entirely devoted to the subject of the fast-day, is apparently composite in origin, as is shown by the incongruity at the beginning: "Aaron shall not enter the Holy of Holies at all times" (verse 2); he may, however, it may be inferred, go in at stated intervals. But the immediate sequel (verses 3 et seq.) rather says: With such and such ceremonies Aaron may go in; only toward the end (verses 29-34) reference is made to the annual celebration of a Day of Atonement. The rabbinical interpretation is obviously harmonistic (see Rashi on verses 2 et seq.); yet there are dissenting voices (see Lev. R., § 21; Ex. R., § 38) which maintain that, while entering the Holy of Holies is obligatory on the Day of Atonement, the high priest may go in at all times provided he carry out the ceremonies prescribed. Observe also the repetitions in verses 6 and 11a; hence the duplicated confession in the Mishnah,verses 29a and 34a.

Analysis of Leviticus 16

According to the analysis of Benzinger (in Stade's "Zeitschrift," 1889, pp. 65-89), the chapter is made up of three distinct strata: (1) verses 1-4, 6, 12, 13, 34b (omitting several glosses), dealing with the manner (no matter what the occasion) of Aaron's entering the Holy of Holies; (2) verses 29b-34a, a law very much like that of Leviticus 23:26 et seq., prescribing the annual observance of a day of fasting and rest, on which the sanctuary and the people are to be purified, presumably by such simple rites of atonement as those carried out on the occasion of the dedication of the tabernacle (Leviticus 9; the Day of Atonement is thus an annual occasion of rededication); (3) verses 5, 7-10, 14-28, of later date than (2), ordaining a more elaborate ceremonial. With (3) goes Exodus 30:10. Leviticus 25:9b is probably a gloss (the surrounding text mainly belongs to H). No mention is made of the Day of Atonement in the older codes, J, E, and D (Exodus 23:14-17; 24:18,22 et seq.; Deuteronomy 16:1-17).

History of the Institution.

The beginnings of the institution may in the critical view be sought for in Ezekiel. In addition to the festivals of Passover and Tabernacles, the prophet ordains two days in the year on which the sanctuary may be cleansed, by the sprinkling of a bullock's blood, from all impurities occasioned through inadvertence: the first day of the first month, and the first day of the seventh (so read with LXX; Ezekiel 45:18-20); that is, with the beginning of both the civil (in the spring) and the ecclesiastical year (in autumn). It appears (from Leviticus 25:9; Ezek. 1) that the new-year was then made to begin with the tenth day of the month. In the Pentateuchal legislation the second alone of Ezekiel's Days of Atonement is kept; it is at the same time transferred to the tenth day of the month, while the first day is made into New-Year's Day, the two days changing places. From the simple rites prescribed by the prophet of the Exile to the elaborate ceremonial of the latest strata in P, there is, however, a lengthy process. Stated days of fasting, mentioned for the first time by Zechariah (7:1-5), clearly refer to the anniversaries of national calamities (the murder of Gedaliah took place in the seventh month; Jeremiah 41:1). No other regular day of fasting was known to the prophet; otherwise he would have mentioned it when he reiterated the indifference of the old prophets to outward ceremonial. Even when Ezra comes to Palestine in the year 444, a day of fasting is observed, not on the tenth but on the twenty-fourth of the seventh month, and by no means according to the ceremonial of Leviticus 16 (Nehemiah 9:1). The law of Ezra may have contained the simpler prescription of Leviticus 23:26 et seq., and the corresponding stratum in chapter; the day was certainly not considered then of the importance that it assumed in the times subsequent to Ezra. See also Liturgy, Sin.

  • Yoma: Mishnah, Talmud, and Asheri; Maimonides, , and ;
  • Ṭur and Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, §§ 602-624;
  • Nowack, Hebr. Archäologie, 1894, 2:183-194;
  • Driver, Leviticus, English translation and notes, in S. B. O. T.;
  • Jastrow, in American Journal of Theology, 1898, 1:312 et seq.;
  • B. Wechsler, Zur Geschichte der Versöhnungsfeier, in Geiger's Jüd. Zeit. 1863, pp. 113-125;
  • S. Adler, in Stade's Zeitschrift, 2:178 et seq., 272.
J. Jr.
M. L. M.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Atonement, Day of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/atonement-day-of.html. 1901.
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