Yom Kippur Observances Through The Second Temple Period

The biblical observance of Yom Kippur became more elaborate in the Temples.

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The rites of purgation described in Leviticus 16 resemble those found in other ancient religions. In fact, the entire biblical ritual of kaparah can best be understood against the background of ancient Near Eastern religions. The fifth day of the 10-day Babylonian new year festival, for example, included a rite called kuppuru, in which a ram was beheaded and its body used to absorb the impurity of the sacred rooms of the temple. Other parts of the animal were thrown into the river, while the officiants were quarantined in the wilderness. The temple was doused and fumigated. Later, sins were confessed and a criminal was paraded and beaten.

The biblical ritual contains many similar features but, as Theodor Gaster points out, has transformed its pagan antecedent. Carried out "before the Lord," it is no longer "a mere mechanical act of purgation.… The people had to be cleansed not for themselves but for their God: 'before the Lord shall you be clean' (Lev. 16:30). Sin and corruption were now regarded as impediments not merely to their material welfare and prosperity but to the fulfillment of their duty to God" [Festivals of the Jewish Year, 1952, p. 144].

The priest was to bring a sin offering that would "make expiation for himself and his household" (Lev. 16:11), to enter the Holy of Holies and place sacrificial blood on the cover of the ark, known as the "atonement seat" (Lev. 16:12-14), and thus to "make expiation in the Shrine" (Lev. 16:17). He then purged the altar by applying sacrificial blood to it: "Thus he shall cleanse it of the uncleanness of the Israelites and consecrate it" (Lev. 16:18-19). Thus, although similar concepts existed in all religions of the time, the Torah eliminated the demonic and magical elements of impurity from the Yom Kippur ritual. Instead, it emphasized that the closer the worshiper came to the presence of God--that is, to holiness--the more restrictions there were in order to ensure ritual cleanliness.

The changes that took place in the observance of Yom Kippur during the Second Temple period were significant. Philo describes the day as one in which it was customary to spend the entire time, from morning to evening, in prayer. Regarding the ritual of the Temple itself, the descriptions that we have in the Mishnah and Tosefta were not edited in their present form until a century or more after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. There is little doubt, however, that they reflect an authentic tradition dedicated to preserving the rituals of the Temple in the hope that they would one day be restored.

The most significant changes were:

1. the expansion of the confessions made by the High Priest;

2. the expansion of the role of the people in the Temple ritual;

3. the inclusion of prayer both by the priest and by the people;

4. changes in the ceremony of the scapegoat.

Most of these changes can be ascribed to the general trend of democratization within Judaism. The people came to participate more and more in the rituals so that the Temple became less the realm of the priests than the center of national worship. The role of verbal prayer also increased at that time. And people became more aware of their need to attain forgiveness and atonement for their own sins as opposed to focusing on purely ritual matters.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.