By Shelley Neese
Yom Kippur occurs this year on September 27th and 28th. Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish Calendar. It is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, requiring total rest and fasting. The theme of the day is repentance and atonement.
In the days of the Tabernacle and Temple, there was strict emphasis put on the ceremonial details of the day. Leviticus chapter 16 instructs that on Yom Kippur, also called the Day of Atonement, Aaron the High Priest was to ritually bathe and dress in his priestly linen garments. Next, he sacrificed a young bullock as a sin offering for himself and his household. Aaron then brought two goats—similar in size and appearance—to the entrance of the Tabernacle. Lots were cast to determine the fate of each goat. One lot was inscribed “to Yahweh” and the other said “to Azazel.” When the priest pronounced the hallowed name, nearby worshipers bowed to the ground and responded: “Blessed be the Name; the glory of His kingdom is forever and ever.” The goat designated “to Yahweh” was slain, while the Azazel goat was escorted into the wilderness and released.
The stakes of the Yom Kippur ceremony were high. The fifteen animal sacrifices, performed throughout the day, made atonement for all the people of the congregation. On every other day of sacrifice, the priest confessed the sins of the people over the animal to be placed on the altar. On Yom Kippur, however, the goat designated for Yahweh was sacrificed without the confession ritual. Instead, Aaron laid both hands on the live goat’s head and confessed the sins of the nation. Concurrently, the dispatched goat was led by someone “appointed to the task” to a remote place in the wilderness.
The collection of Jewish oral traditions known as the Mishnah provides additional insight into the conduction of the Yom Kippur service from the Second Temple period. The Yom Kippur goats were sold on the same day for the same price at the eastern gate of the Temple. The lots described in Leviticus were pulled out of an urn. The High Priest prepared the goat assigned to Yahweh to be ritually sacrificed on the Temple altar. A piece of scarlet thread was tied around the goat’s neck. The veil to the Holy of Holies was pulled back and the High Priest entered the sanctuary alone. He carried a bowl of the goat’s blood and sprinkled it along the edge of the curtain and on the altar of incense. This was the only day of the year that the High Priest was admitted into the Holy of Holies.
For the Azazel goat, the priest tied a scarlet thread around its horns. While the multitude watched, the High Priest placed his hands on the live goat, repeated the holy name of God, and imparted Judah’s sins onto the goat on behalf of the people. The congregants petitioned God with their own prayers. A person specially appointed for the task escorted the goat out of Jerusalem, through the eastern gate and towards the Mount of Olives. Accompanied by Jerusalem notables, ten stations were set up along the way, marking the path for the escort and goat. The escort was offered food at each station, but he ceremonially turned down replenishment.
Once the priest reached a certain destination at a high cliff in the Judean wilderness, a portion of the scarlet thread was removed and tied to a nearby rock. The sin-burdened goat was pushed backwards down a precipice to his death. A series of waving flags telegraphed the completion of the task back to the waiting priests in the Temple. The witnesses anxiously awaited a report from the priest who inspected the thread. If the thread turned white, the thread symbolized the forgiveness of their sins. If the thread remained scarlet, it meant God had withheld his atonement. The tradition is connected to the Isaiah prophecy: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” For a period in Israel’s Second Temple history, when the Temple priest was well known for his righteousness, the Talmud reports that the thread always turned white. But during the last forty years of the Temple’s existence, the thread each year remained scarlet. The Temple was destroyed and the Yom Kippur rites as delineated in the Bible ended.
With no Temple, Judaism had to redefine the rituals of the sacred day. The focus shifted from the sacrifices to rigorous fasting, prayer, and five synagogue services. The book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur for its theme of repentance and forgiveness. People greet each other on Yom Kippur saying, “G’mar Hatima Tova,” which means “may your name be sealed in the book of Life. Jews believe that it is on Yom Kippur that God decides who will be sealed in the Book of Life. They wear white to symbolize their pure hearts before the eyes of God.
As a Christian, I believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection provide the means for my atonement. I know that because of the language and ideas set forth in the Jewish rituals and the Hebrew Bible. Without the Levitical explanations of Yom Kippur, and the Jewish teachings of substitutionary sacrifice as a means of communion with God, I would have no context for the salvific qualities of Christ’s shed blood. In case the Messianic overtones of the Yom Kippur service were lost on Gentile believers, the writer of Hebrews spelled it out. Describing the animal sacrifices conducted in the Tabernacle, Hebrews states, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Hebrews concludes that if the blood of goats and bulls sanctified the children of Israel year after year, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”