History of Yom Kippur

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The shift in focus from the High Priest-centered ritual to the idea of a trial examining the sins of Israel is a perfect example of rabbinic ingenuity in the face of political turmoil. In a text from the midrashic collection Avot De-Rabbi Natan we learn a story of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai walking with his colleague, Rabbi Joshua. Upon seeing the ruins of the second Temple, Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us, that the place which granted atonement lies in ruins!”  Rabbi Yohanan replied, “Do not be distressed, there is another kind of atonement which is like it--and what is that? It is the doing of good deeds.” With the Temple in ruins, the rabbis developed a new, more portable agenda to allow for the expiation of sins far removed from the Temple cult.

While most of the holidays originating in the Bible have their logical place on the agricultural calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not necessarily fit that mold.  The rabbis tell us that the 10th of Tishrei was the day on which Moses completed and brought down the second set of commandments from Sinai, signifying that God had granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. This rabbinic interpretation lends historical significance to the otherwise unexplained placement of the holiday 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. 

In The Jewish Way, Rabbi Irving Greenberg explains that the High Holidays--the period including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the 10 days of repentance between them--concentrates a person’s mind on themes of mortality and the meaning of life.  This period is a time to take stock and do Heshbon HaNefesh (an accounting of one’s life) and to take action by doing teshuvah (repenting from one’s sins). This is the crucial message that we take with us from the beginning to the end of Yom Kippur. 

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