The Obscure Origins of Yom Kippur

It is the holiest day in Judaism, yet its intent has markedly changed and its practice today is a far cry from the rites of ancient times

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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An ultra-Orthodox woman scapegoating a chicken in preparation for Yom Kippur.
An ultra-Orthodox woman scapegoating a chicken in preparation for Yom Kippur.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is by far the most widely observed of Jewish holidays and fast days.

It is a solemn day. The synagogues are packed with men and, usually in a separate section, women – often dressed in white, all praying that their sins be forgiven. Many of the worshipers wear Crocs, as leather shoes are not permitted.

Outside, children on bicycles race down the streets that in Israel at least, for this one holiest day of the year, are vacated by cars. Nothing but the odd ambulance or police car moves (except in mixed and Arab towns).

Yom Kippur in Israel is a special day indeed, but it is a far cry from the Day of Atonement of old.

Whiff of Babylon

Just when Yom Kippur began has been hotly debated by academics for over a century. The main question is whether it happened during the First Temple period. The evidence seems to indicate that it did not exist then.

Writing just after the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, Ezekiel seems unaware of Yom Kippur. It is not on his list of holidays to be observed when the Temple would be rebuilt.

Neither does Zecharia seem to have any notion of it when he instructed the Jews returning from captivity on observation of fast days. When Ezra reads the Torah to the returning Jews on the first of Tishrei, they learned that they need to prepare for Sukkot, but Yom Kippur is not mentioned. This is only proof of omission, but it’s all we have.

Thus, it seems that the three biblical mentions of the Day of Atonement (Numbers 29:7-11, Leviticus 16:1-34, and Leviticus 23:26-32) were inserted by priests during the Second Temple period to validate new rites added to purify the Temple in advance of the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar at the time, Sukkot.

The priests of the Jerusalem Temple who inaugurated Yom Kippur seem to have had the 12-day Babylonian festival marking the new year, Akitu, in mind, particularly the fifth day of Akitu, which has some striking similarities to Yom Kippur that are unlikely to be coincidence.

That fifth day involved a purification ceremony called kuppuru, which involved dragging a dead ram through the temple, supposedly purifying it of impurities. Kuppuru and its Hebrew cognate kippur meant “to uncover” or specifically in this case “to remove impurity,” which means a better translation of Yom Kippur to English would be "Day of Purification."

Preoccupation with sin

The purification of the Temple using an animal carcass was not the only similarity between Yom Kippur and the fifth day of Akitu. The two both share an occupation with sin, though they deal with it in a different way.

While in Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is the only day the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, in the Babylonian tradition, the fifth day of Akitu was the only day the king enters the sanctuary of the god Marduk, accompanied by the high priest. Facing the statue of Marduk, the king would intone: "I have not sinned, O Lord of the universe, and I have not neglected your heavenly might."

In the Jerusalem Temple on the other hand, no statement of good behavior was made. On the contrary, the high priest confessed to all the sins of the Jews in the presence of God, in a strange and ancient ceremony: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21)

The original scapegoat

The Temple priests, the Zadokites, saw themselves as descended from Aaron and backdated their legal prescriptions to him.

The practice of transferring the disfavor of a deity to an animal that is then removed from the community, what we call a "scapegoat" based on the biblical passage above, was common in the ancient Near East. It was probably practiced by at least some of the Hebrews from time immemorial long before incorporation into Yom Kippur ritual.

Slichot prayers at the Western Wall, ahead of Yom Kippur 2012. Photo by Michal Fattal

The earliest known reference to the practice was found in Ebla (in what is today war-torn Syria), in 1975, at a site archaeologists called "Palace G." Among the texts found there dating from 2,400 to 2,300 BCE were two descriptions of a scapegoat ceremony, which are very similar to those found in the Jewish tradition. One reads: “We purge the mausoleum. Before the entry of Kura and Barama, a goat, a silver bracelet [hanging from the] goat’s neck, towards the steppe of Alini we let her go.”

An obscure origin for the fast

The biblical accounts of the Yom Kippur ceremonies are laconic. It is hard to know what exactly was done on that day. Even the act of fasting is not explicitly mentioned, just the phrase “ye shall afflict your souls,” which elsewhere in the Bible usually refers to fasting.

That is the only source for the most widely-practiced Yom Kippur tradition.

Thus to get a clearer view of what Yom Kippur was like in the Second Temple period we can only rely on the Mishnah, which was redacted over a century after the destruction of the Temple in 220 CE. Specifically, we should look in tractate Yoma, literally “The Day,” dedicated to Yom Kippur.

The Mishnah description - the first seven of eight Yoma chapters - is almost entirely about rites at the temple itself, nearly all officiated by the high priest himself. Only the eighth and final chapter deals with what everyone else is supposed to do on this holy day. Here is a summary of ancient Yom Kippur rites according to these chapters.

The High Priest's rites

A week before Yom Kippur, the high priest would leave home and move into the Palhedrin Chamber in the Temple compound, where he would spend the week studying and practicing the rites he was to perform. On the night before Yom Kippur, he would stay up all night studying Torah, lest he sleep and have a “nightly emission” which would render him unclean and thus unfit to perform the ceremonies, dooming all of Israel.

In the morning, the high priest would immerse in a mikveh and adorn special golden clothes. He would then proceed to offer the normal daily sacrifice (the Tamid): A lamb doused with oil wine and flour would be burned on an altar. On all other days this would have been performed by a lower-ranking priest.

After the sacrifice, the priest would remove his golden garments, wash his hands and feet in a mikveh twice and don a set of special linen garments. He was now ready for the next stage.

Purifying blood

A bull bought with his own money would be brought in and the high priest would rest his hands on its head and confess his and his family’s sins before God, pronouncing his name, the Tetragrammaton.

Upon hearing God’s name, which in all other contexts was prohibited, the crowd would prostrate themselves. Then the high priest would kill the poor beast and its blood would be collected in a bowl for further use.

From the altar, the high priest would go to the Nikanor Gate in the eastern side of the temple, to which two goats had been led by priests. Pulling lots out of a box, the goats were randomly assigned to God and to Azazel, a slight corruption of the name of a wilderness demon. The one assigned to Azazel would be marked with a red string tied to its horns.

The next step was the trickiest. The high priest would carry glowing hot embers in a special shovel held using his armpit while his hands were full of incense. He would enter alone into the Holy of Holies, which was a large empty room only entered by the high priest and only on Yom Kippur, and place the shovel, embers and incense in its middle. He would wait for the room to fill with the aromatic smoke, then leave.

Once outside, he was handed the reserved bowl of bull's blood and would enter again, this time flicking blood all over the room with his finger. He would leave the Holy of Holies and place the bowl with the remaining blood on a special stand at the entrance.

At this point the high priest would return to the Nikanor Gate, place his hands on the goat assigned to God and made a confession on behalf of the priestly class, once again pronouncing God’s holy name, at which point once again the crowd would prostrate themselves. Then he would kill the goat and its blood would be drained into a bowl.

This bowl of blood would be borne by the high priest to the Holy of Holies, where once again he would enter alone, sprinkle blood with his finger, exit and place the bowl on another stand.

Standing between the two bowls of blood, the high priest would sprinkle their contents with his finger on the curtain obscuring the Holy of Hollies.

Next came purification of the golden incense altar. The high priest would pour the remaining goat blood into the bowl of bull blood. He would carry the blood mixture to the incense altar, and smear it with blood, then sprinkle some more.

This done, the high priest would return to the Nikanor Gate, place his hands on the head of the surviving goat and, pressing down, would confess the sins of all the People of Israel, once again pronouncing God’s name. During this, people in the crowd would make their own private confessions.

Sacrificing the scapegoat

Then the goat would be led into the wilderness by a specially appointed man, usually a priest, accompanied by the city’s dignitaries. Along the way they would stop at ten booths where food and drink were offered to the man, who would ritually decline.

At the tenth booth, the man and the goat would continue alone until reaching the top of a cliff in the Judean Hills. He would turn his back to the cliff, hoist the goat over his head and throw it down to its death.

While this was taking place, the high priest would disembowel the bodies of the bull and the goat. Once he was done the goat and bull would be taken to the Beit HaDeshen. Upon confirmation that the second goat was dead, the bull and goat carcasses would be burnt to ashes as the high priest exited the Nikanor Gate and entered the Women’s Courtyard, where he read the biblical passages describing the Yom Kippur sacrifices and rites.

After finished with this the high priest would make another wardrobe change, wash twice in a mikveh and put on another set of golden clothes. Once ready, he would go to the outer altar, where he would slaughter two rams and collect their blood into bowls, which he used to pour on the altar. Then he would disembowel the rams. Once this task was complete he would burn them on the altar, adding grain and wine.

Next up was the Musaf sacrifice, in which in a succession of animals were killed and burned: A bull, a deer, seven sheep, and yet another goat. Then the bowels of the bull and the goat from earlier in the day were burnt to ashes. After this, another ritual washing and change of clothes took place, and this time linen clothes were donned.

Now the high priest would return to the Holy of Holies and remove the shovel, embers, and incense. Then once again he would wash and change, into another set of golden clothes. Once dressed, he would sacrifice a lamb doused in flour and wine as a Tamid offering.

By this time it would be early afternoon and the day’s work was over. The dignitaries would retire to the high priest’s home, where they would celebrate with a feast.

As regards to everyone else, the Mishah says that people must abstain from food and drink, from anointing themselves with oil, wearing sandals, and sex. The young and infirm may eat and drink, it qualifies.

Elsewhere the Mishnah provides more detail what the people may do and may not: for example, if a person is buried by a landslide, one should check to see if he’s alive so he can be rescued. If he isn't, the body must stay there until the next day.

Yoma ends with a discussion on whether all transgressions are remitted on Yom Kippur. It says that those transgressions carried out against other person’s are not, while those against God are. This is the origin of the tradition of asking your fellow man for forgiveness on the days leading up to Yom Kippur.

Naturally, once the Temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 CE, the main function of Yom Kippur, purifying the Temple in preparation for Sukkot, could not continue. Instead a new form of Yom Kippur formed over the centuries, centered on acknowledgement of wrongs, atonement - and praying for forgiveness in synagogues.

This article was originally published in September of 2014

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