Yom Kippur, according to tradition, was first observed in the Sinai Desert, during the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, which some sources date to about 1440 B.C.E. But a careful reading of the Bible shows that the Day of Atonement must have been established later, much later – quite possibly, around 400 B.C.E.
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God punished two of Aaron’s sons for using unsanctioned fire during a ritual by burning them alive in the Tabernacle, according to Leviticus 10 (“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them”). To cleanse the Tabernacle of this defilement, God commanded Moses to instruct Aaron to conduct a complicated ceremony (Lev. 16). This ceremony, the text says, must be repeated every year on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishri – the date on which Yom Kippur is marked to this day.
Evidence that commemoration of the Day of Atonement actually began much later is circumstantial, but compelling.
Had the holiday existed from the time the Israelites wandered the desert, continuing through the conquest of the Holy Land, the era of the Judges, the First Temple period, exile in Babylonia and the return to Zion, and the establishment of the Second Temple – we would expect it to be mentioned here and there. But references to it in the Bible are confined to two short accounts which seem to be belated additions to more general lists of holidays (Lev. 23 and Numbers 29). A third reference to Yom Kippur, in Leviticus 25, evidently refers to a completely different holiday, celebrated every 50 years, in which slaves are freed and debts are forgiven.
It may simply be omission that Yom Kippur is not mentioned in the rest of the Bible. But in the passages dealing with events observed during the month of Tishri, the silence on the Day of Atonement is glaring.
For example, when King Solomon built the First Temple, the two-week long celebration that is described (in 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 7) included the date on which Yom Kippur is observed. Did Solomon party on the holiday that year?
Then, when the prophet Ezekiel describes the occasions that should be marked once the Jews return from their exile and the Temple is rebuilt, not only does he not mention Yom Kippur: He speaks of two additional dates on which the Temple itself is to be ritually cleansed (ostensibly due to the unabsolved sins of the Jewish community), but one of them is just nine days before Yom Kippur. Why would he add a new date so close to another day of atonement, assuming it already existed?
The odd nonappearance in the sources of Yom Kippur continues after the Exile. The returning Jews reached Jerusalem on the first day of Tishri, and spent their first two weeks building an altar in preparation for the festival of Sukkot. Yom Kippur fell within this period – but is not mentioned (Ezra 3).
What Ezra didn’t say
In 516 B.C.E., the Temple was rebuilt. When the prophet Ezra reaches Jerusalem on the first day of Tishri, in what is thought to be 457 B.C.E., he reads the Torah to the people. They learn that they must prepare for Sukkot two weeks later. But he makes no mention of Yom Kippur (Nehemiah 8).
This is tell-tale, since Yom Kippur falls four days before Sukkot; in the Torah, indeed, the Day of Atonement is mentioned as occurring right before Sukkot. It indicates that Ezra’s Torah didn’t have a reference to Yom Kippur, or the passages in which it is mentioned.
We do know that the holiday was observed by the 3rd century B.C.E., because it’s mentioned in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Torah. Perhaps, after the time of Ezra, someone – probably a temple priest – “invented” Yom Kippur and added Leviticus 16 into the biblical text.
Between the time of Ezra and the compilation of the Septuagint, there was a 200-year window. But we may be able to narrow the time-frame down, since during this period there was not only one Jewish Temple in the Land of Israel, but two: one in Jerusalem and one at Mount Gerizim in Samaria.
Those 200 years were marked by mounting antagonism between the two communities, which, at some point, split up into followers of two distinct religions: Jews and Samaritans. As we move forward in time, therefore, the likelihood of a holiday whose observance was initiated in one temple being adopted by adherents of the other diminishes. Since both Jews and Samaritans mark Yom Kippur, albeit with some differences - the day was probably added to the Hebrew calendar at the beginning of this 200-year period, probably around 400 B.C.E.
This is not a well-documented era in Jewish history. Indeed, the period covered in the Bible ends at around 413 B.C.E., when Nehemiah died. Nevertheless, from letters sent by a Jew living in Elephantine in southern Egypt, dated to 408 B.C.E., we know that the man who took Nehemiah’s place as governor of Judah was a Persian named Bagoas, and that the high priest at the time was named Johanan (the Bible calls him Jonathan, which is probably a transcription error).
The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius recounts a story pertaining to these individuals, which may hold the key to the origins of Yom Kippur.
When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in 444 B.C.E., he found that the Jews in the city were mixing with the local population. Even worse, Jeshua, son of Joiada the high priest and heir to the priesthood, married the daughter of his enemy Sanballat the Horonite, governor of Samaria: “And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son in law to Sanballat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me,” he writes (Nehemiah 13:28). When Joiada died, Nehemiah replaced him with Jeshua’s younger brother, Johanan. But then, in 413 B.C.E., Nehemiah himself died.
According to Josephus, in his book “The Antiquities of the Jews,” Bagoas conspired with Jeshua to have him replace his younger brother as high priest. When Johanan learned of this, he confronted his brother in the Temple and killed him. When Bagoas subsequently heard what had happened, he rushed to the Temple. “Have you had the impudence to perpetrate a murder in your temple!” Bagoas shouted as he made his way into the holy sanctuary. Those in attendance pleaded with him not to enter as his presence would defile the Temple. He ignored their cries, declaring, “Am not I purer than he that was slain in the temple?”
Josephus doesn’t say what happened after this shocking event took place. But clearly, this was a huge crisis. The Temple had to be cleansed, but how?
After looking through the Bible and not finding reference to a ceremony that could make amends for what had happened, Johanan and his fellow priests must have looked elsewhere, until they found the text that constitutes what is now the bulk of Leviticus 16, describing the ritual carried out by Aaron.
We don’t know where the text came from, but there are certain indications that it originated in a source that was different from the rest of Leviticus (for example, what is called “the Holy of Holies” is here and only here called “The Holy”). Also, the ceremony described in Leviticus 16 is quite different from all other religious rituals described in the Bible, especially those related to the scapegoat – that is, the practice of transferring the sins of the people to a goat, and then sacrificing the animal to a deity called Azazel.
Yet while the Leviticus ritual stands out as strange in the Bible, similar rituals were practiced in the ancient Near East, as early as the 24th century B.C.E.
The passage may have been inserted into the biblical story of Aaron as an “emergency” measure allowing for expiation after two of his sons were killed in the Tabernacle, in order to lend substance to the sacrificial ceremony. The parallel to the murder of a priest by his brother in the Temple is striking. Then five verses were added to indicate that this ritual was to be observed annually on the 10th of Tishri.
According to Josephus, Johanan was succeeded by his son Jadua. His other son, Menashe, was appointed by Sanballat to be high priest of the Samaritan temple. If this actually happened, then Menashe may have taken the ritual and the updated text of Leviticus with him to Mount Gerizim, which would explain how both the Jews and the Samaritans both celebrate Yom Kippur.
Whether ancient Israelites in the desert, Johanan the high priest, or one of his successors established this holiday, it was marked in this way for about 470 years, until the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. After that, the rabbis had to reinvent the holiday – with no temple, priests, sacrifice or scapegoats.