The Historical Background
The Lord said to Moses, "The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present an offering made to the Lord by fire. Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Anyone who does not deny himself on that day must be cut off from his people. I will destroy from among his people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a Sabbath of rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your Sabbath (Leviticus 23:26-32).
Yom Kippur has long been considered the most holy day in the Jewish biblical calendar. The name itself describes the history of the holy day for it was on this very day, once a year, that the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the nation. In a word, Yom Kippur illustrates regeneration for those who follow God's way of atonement.
Leviticus 16 goes into great detail about the ceremony, centered on the sacrifices of two goats. One goat, called Chatat was to be slain as a blood sacrifice to symbolically cover the sins of Israel. The other goat, called Azazel, or Scapegoat, would be brought before the priest. The priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat as he confessed the sins of the people. But instead of slaying this animal in the traditional fashion, the goat would be set free in the wilderness symbolically taking the sins of the nation out from their midst.
What a picture this must have been of God's gracious provision. Atonement and forgiveness by way of vicarious sacrifice! This theme of Yom Kippur made it the preeminent holy day in ancient Israel. Likewise, because of its proximity to Rosh HaShanah ten days earlier, Yom Kippur's theme was all the more important. What was started on the first of Tishri, namely, repentance and self-evaluation, was completed on the tenth of the month with atonement and regeneration. There is no more important theme in the Holy Scriptures than receiving atonement for sins in God's prescribed manner!
Throughout the Temple period to today, Yom Kippur has maintained a special relationship to the Jewish people. In Temple times, the observance of the Day was more clearly defined. It centered on the sacrifices. In 70 C.E., however, the Temple was destroyed; hence, rabbis and theologians have been confronted with some perplexing questions.
How do we celebrate Yom Kippur without the proper place of sacrifice? How do we have Yom Kippur without the proper Kaparah sacrifice? The rabbis of the first century decided to make substitutions to fill the gap. Tefilah (prayer), Teshuvah (repentance) and Tzedakah (charity) replace sacrifices in the modern observance of Yom Kippur. This explains why the modern observance is so different than it was in biblical times. There are Orthodox Jewish sects who still see the need for a Temple and animal sacrifices to be revived in Israel. The "Temple Mount Faithful" are actively reproducing the holy vessels and priestly garments to prepare for the coming Temple. They have attempted to place the first cornerstone on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, strongly believing that such a structure will be rebuilt soon!
While the vast majority of Jews see these things as an aberration, it nonetheless points out the need for atonement as spoken of in the Bible. If one looks carefully at the modern synagogue observance of Yom Kippur, it will not be hard to see that the theme is still there, although submerged by tradition.
The materials here were taken directly from God's Appointed Times with the publisher's permission.
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