10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Yom Kippur

How to appease the demon Azazel, our Akkadian roots, self-flagellation and sheep - read on.

Detail from 'Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur'
Detail from 'Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,' by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878. Wikimedia Commons

You may go to synagogue every Yom Kippur and have fasted religiously since you were knee-high to a Torah scroll, but do you really know the history of this holiest of days? Some of its antecedents and traditions may be quite the surprise for even the most diligent of worshippers.

A demon is appeased on Yom Kippur

During the time of the Second Temple, a complicated ceremony officiated by the high priest took place on Yom Kippur. One of the rituals, as described in the Talmud itself, involved appeasing a demon.

The high priest would hold a lottery among two identical goats. One was designated to the Lord, which meant it was promptly taken to the altar, slaughtered and its blood was splattered in the Holy of Holies. The other was designated for Azazel, a demon of the wilderness, who - according to Enoch 1 - taught men how to make weapons and women how to adorn themselves with makeup.

A red band was tied to this unfortunate goat’s horns and he was taken by another man - usually a priest - to the Judaean Desert. Jerusalem notables accompanied the man and goat on their 12-kilometer trek. They ritualistically halted for refreshment at 10 huts specially erected for this purpose, where food and drink were ceremoniously offered the man, who would refuse it. The goat's preferences were apparently not considered.

After the 10th booth, the man and beast proceeded alone. When they arrived at the top of a cliff face, the man would hoist the goat into the air and toss him down the hill backwards. The goat would tumble down the hill and die, at which point a system of flag signals would inform the high priest that he could continue with the rest of the day’s rituals.

Don’t let the high priest sleep

If the high priest has a wet dream the night before Yom Kippur, he can't lead the Day of Atonement rites and all of Israel will be damned. That is why, as the Talmud tells us, he may not sleep the night before. To ensure this, tradition has it that the high priest would teach Torah all night, and if he wasn’t knowledgeable enough to do this - which would apparently happen from time to time - Torah would be taught to him. The Talmud even goes as far as to tell us that when he became extremely sleepy, his bare feet would be placed on the cold temple floor.

Yom Kippur is an Akkadian rite

There is good cause to believe that the ritual of Yom Kippur comes from a more ancient non-Jewish rite. Several Akkadian and Babylonian texts discovered in the early 20th century reveal that ceremonies similar to Yom Kippur were observed by these peoples, well predating the earliest Hebrew references to the day, which date from the 5th Century BCE.

For example, the Babylonians had a temple purification ceremony that was a part of their new year holiday Akitu, celebrated in the month of Nissan. Their ritual involved appeasing gods and cleansing the temple from sin and uncleanliness.

The word used by them for this action was kuppuru – sounds familiar, doesn't it. "The high priest will call for the slaughter and he will cut off the head of the sheep and the exorcist will perform ukappar on the temple with the carcass of the sheep," one inscription describing Akitu in an Akkadian temple reads.

Yom Kippur is a day of dancing and romancing

These days Kippur is associated with deadly seriousness, aside from say the kids cruising the empty streets on their roller blades. But the Mishnah says that Yom Kippur and Tu BeAv were the happiest days on the Jewish calendar in which “the maidens of Jerusalem go out in white clothes...and the girls of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards and would say: ‘Boy, take a look at what you are choosing. Don’t put your eyes on the beauty, but on the family.’” (Taanit, 8).

I said what? Undoing one’s vows

Yom Kippur Eve service opens with a moving ancient Aramaic prayer called “Kol Nidre” – "all my vows". While this tradition has been adopted in communities around the world by now, it was controversial at its inception. It is first mentioned in Amram Gaon’s prayer book in the 9th century, which provides the prayer but growls that it is foolish to recite it. In general, Jewish sages of the period (the Gaonim) thought it was a cheap trick – tantamount to a legal formula for cancelling all past and future vows.

Self-flagellation was practiced by Jews too

During the Middle Ages, the practice of self-flagellation became commonplace on the day before Yom Kippur both in Europe and in the Arab world. Jewish men would use whips, often inscribed with biblical passages such as “it shall be a holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:27) – and would whip their own backs, usually 39 times.

Through the years, the practice became less and less common. By the 20th century the practice has been all but eliminated, though some people still do it this very day, in some form or other.

When exactly is Yom Kippur in Japan?

In 1940, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania, issued thousands of travel visas to Jews trying to escape the Nazis, against the explicit orders of his superiors. It is estimated that some 6,000 Jews travelled via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, arrived at Japan and thus were saved due to his actions. Many of them arrived in Kobe, where a community of Russian Jews already lived.
The arrival of hordes of learned and opinionated yeshiva students in Japan raised halakhic difficulties about the timing of Shabbat. This has to do with complicated considerations as to whether the Jewish “dateline” was 90° or 180° from Jerusalem.

The problem peaked in the weeks leading to Yom Kippur that year, with letters zigzagging the globe.

The rabbinic deliberations birthed two unhappily conflicting decisions.

Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz - the Chazon Ish – ordered Yom Kippur in Japan to be celebrated on the same day as in Israel. But others insisted it should be celebrated a day later, as was the local custom, and as decided by a council of Jerusalem’s leading rabbis. The Chazon Ish refused to change his ruling even after hearing the rabbis’ decision. The result was a lot of confusion in Nippon. Most of Kobe's Jews elected to mark Kippur according to the local custom. But a number of yeshiva students decided to fast 50 hours – just to be safe.

Yom Kippur will never be earlier

This year Yom Kippur falls on the evening of September 13th. The last time Yom Kippur fell so early in the year was in 1899. This will happen again in 2089, but that will be the last time. At least, the last time for many millennia.

And this is why? You see, the Hebrew Calendar drifts two hours in comparison to the Gregorian Calendar every 19-year cycle, which adds up to a full day every 231 years. The last time Yom Kippur fell on the evening of September 12th was in 1766.
After 2089 the earliest Yom Kippur will fall on is the evening of September 13th, that is - until the Jewish year creeps all the way around, but that is thousands of years in the future.

Yom Kippur is a late addition to the Jewish calendar

There is good evidence, though naturally this is widely disputed, that Yom Kippur was a late addition to the Hebrew calendar and Jewish rites. This is based on the fact that it is absent from the several lists of holidays and fast days mentioned in the Bible. The Book of Nehemiah, which dates from the 5th century BCE, recount the holidays celebrated by the Jews during the month of Tishrei (chapters 8-9) but has no mention of a holiday on the 10th of the month. The Book of Zechariah, written in the 6th Century BCE, lists the fast days observed by Jews (Ch. 8, 19), with no mention of the Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is first mentioned in Leviticus, which according to the Documentary Hypothesis was written post-exilic Judah during the 5th Century BCE.

While you were fasting

While Jews around the world fast on Yom Kippur, life continues. It is well known that the Yom Kippur War started on Yom Kippur, but did you know that Nigeria became independent on Yom Kippur (1960)? So did Fiji (1970).

The false messiah Shabbatai Zevi died on Yom Kippur (1676), as did Sigmund Freud (1939), Marcel Duchamp (1968) and Tevfik Esenç, the last speaker of the Ubykh language, a Northwest Caucasian language (1992).

American comedian and actor Bill Murray was born on Yom Kippur. So was the rapper Lil Wayne (1982), and the actress Alicia Silverstone (1976).

The Jazz Singer, the first talking movie, premiered on Yom Kippur (1927). The first game of the modern baseball World Series the Boston Americans vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates was held on Yom Kippur (1903), as was the most lopsided football game in college football history, when Georgia Tech beat Cumberland University 222-0 (1916).

The first black-owned radio station began broadcasting on Yom Kippur - WERD - in Atlanta (1949). The first black Miss America - Vanessa Williams - was crowned on Yom Kippur (1983). And the first papal visit to the United States started on Yom Kippur, the same day the Panama Canal was returned to the Panamanians (1979).