Ancient Yom Kippur Observances

How the Day of Atonement was marked before the destruction of the Second Temple.

Unlike the first day of the seventh month [which became known as Rosh Hashanah], the 10th day has a specific designation and purpose in the Torah, with elaborate rites connected to it:

 “Mark, the 10th day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord; and you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God… Do no work whatever; it is a law for all time, throughout the generations in all your settlements. It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath” (Lev. 23:27-32).

The designation of this day is reiterated in Numbers:

“On the 10th of the same seventh month you shall observe a sacred occasion when you shall practice self-denial. You shall do no work” (Num. 29:7).

Self-denial–inui nefesh in Hebrew (literally, afflicting one’s soul)–traditionally has been understood to refer to fasting. For the Israelites, this Day of Atonement was therefore a day for fasting and complete cessation of work, observed by individuals in their homes and settlements.

While observed today as a time for individual atonement, the biblical Yom Kippur is primarily a priestly institution:

“The priest who has been anointed and ordained to serve as priest in place of his father shall make expiation. He shall put on the linen vestments, the sacral vestments. He shall purge the inmost Shrine; he shall purge the Tent of Meeting and the altar; and he shall make expiation for the priests and for all the people of the congregation ” (Lev. 16:29-33).

Since Yom Kippur rites were performed in the sanctuary  by  the High Priest, the presence of the common people was not required. Individual observance was merely an accompaniment to the work of the High Priest, who was engaged in “rites of purgation” or “rites of riddance,” in the sanctuary.

The Torah emphasizes these rituals of purging or cleansing the sanctuary and the altar, and the priests’ atonement for themselves and for the people. Kaparah (atonement) means to cleanse that which has been defiled or contaminated. The sanctuary was a place of holiness and of ritual purity, which was tainted over the years by human beings who entered it in states of ritual impurity. If the sanctuary was to function as a holy place, as the dwelling place of the Holy One, it had to be purged of this impurity.

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.

These changes mark an overall trend toward inwardness and ethical‑moral concern within Jewish spiritual practice. What had begun as a problem of ritual impurity developed into a concern with human decency. The Prophets’ focus upon moral concerns became incorporated into ritual observance. Isaiah’s words challenging the value of fasts, incorporated later by the Rabbis into the Yom Kippur services as the prophetic reading, took on new significance:

Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn. And your healing spring up quickly. (Isaiah 58:5‑8)

Despite this change in focus, the ancient rituals of the day were in no way devalued or minimized. On the contrary, ceremonies in the Second Temple were much more magnificent than those in the wilderness Tabernacle or the First Temple, as was the building itself. Rituals in the Second Temple were carried out with great splendor. if anything, the presence of so many pilgrims at these rites made them more solemn and impressive than ever before.

Excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.


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