Yom Kippur has long been considered the most holy day in the Jewish Biblical calendar (Kasden, in God’s Appointed Times – note, however, that this not a “Jewish” observance). There are a great many customs associated with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. An entire section or tract of the Talmud – eight chapters – is dedicated to this day. You might be surprised, though, to find out just how little the Bible actually says about it.
The phrase yom kippur is not found in Scripture. The actual words translated as Day of Atonement, yom hakippurim (literally the day of the atonements or day of the coverings), occur only three times – twice in Leviticus 23 in the list of annual Appointed Times, and once in Leviticus 25 as the beginning of the Year of Jubilee.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.”
You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land.
Though not called by this name, the day is clearly referenced in Exodus 30:
Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD.
There are extensive instructions for how Aaron and successive High Priests are to “make atonement” described in Leviticus 16, and further details of the offerings are given in Numbers 29.
Did you notice anything unusual here? All of these references are in the Torah. Outside of Torah, Yom Kippur is not directly mentioned in the Bible. It is not in any of the rest of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament) or in the New Testament writings. Everything we know about Yom Kippur from Scripture is found in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.
To be fair, there are other passages that might be about Yom Kippur, such as Isaiah 58. Many believe that when Luke references a fast in Acts 27:9 he is talking about Yom Kippur. These are probably valid points, but they are not conclusive.
What are we to do on Yom Kippur?
Unless you happen to be the High Priest, the answer is pretty simple: nothing.
Yom Kippur is the only one of the annual Appointed Times that is on par with the weekly Sabbath. On the weekly Sabbath, we are instructed to not do any work (Leviticus 23:3). None of the annual Feasts have that instruction except for Yom Kippur (Leviticus 23:28, 31). For more on the importance of the seventh day Sabbath, see my post titled Sabbath – First of the Feasts?
Doing no work at all is mentioned three times in this short passage of Leviticus 23:26-32 and once in Leviticus 16:29. Specific time limits are expressed as to when this takes place – “on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath” (Leviticus 23:32). Based on this emphasis, we can conclude that Yom Kippur is, indeed, the most holy day of the annual cycle. Second in importance as a set-apart, holy time is the weekly Sabbath, occurring every seventh day independent of and not associated in any way with the cycle of the sun, moon or stars. The remaining joyous times of celebration listed in Leviticus 23 are tied for third, so to speak.
Torah also instructs us to humble or afflict our souls. The Hebrew word is ענה ‘anah (Strong’s #H6031) and it also occurs three times in Leviticus 23:27-32 as well as twice in Leviticus 16 – so it also must be pretty important. The first meaning listed in Brown-Driver-Briggs is to be occupied or busied with something. That meaning hardly fits with the command to do no work at all. It is only used this way in a couple of places in Ecclesiastes.
The second and predominate meaning is “to afflict, to oppress, to humble, to be afflicted, to be bowed down” (BDB). The Piel (and Pual) form used here in Leviticus further indicates this “expresses an ‘intensive’ or ‘intentional’ action” (Strong’s TVM). About eighty times in the Hebrew Bible ‘anah means aflict, oppress, humble or something similar. It never means “fast.” There are other Hebrew words, צוּם tzum (Strong’s #H6684) or צום tzom (Strong’s H6685) that mean fast or fasting.
Why Do We Fast On Yom Kippur?
We are instructed to intensively and intentionally humble and afflict our souls. Although how we do that is not detailed here, there are other passages where fasting is closely associated with this.
Why have we fasted (H6684) and You do not see?
Why have we humbled (H6031) ourselves and You do not notice?
Is it a fast (H6685) like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble (H6031) himself?
I humbled (H6031) my soul with fasting (H6685),
And my prayer kept returning to my bosom.
Then I proclaimed a fast (H6685) there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble (H6031) ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.
Fasting has long been understood as the intended physical expression of the affliction or humbling we are instructed to do on this day. Scripture supports this understanding. Must we fast? If you choose not to do so, you better have a pretty good reason. And the reason can’t be that you don’t want to do it. That could hardly be called “humble affliction.”
Fasting alone, however, doesn’t mean one is being humble or afflicted. We fast for a variety of reasons, including diet and health. Sometimes even that may seem like affliction, as when I was required to fast before an unpleasant medical procedure. But that clearly isn’t the affliction in the context of these passages.
If we fast just to be fasting, even if the fasting is perceived as obedience to these instructions, we might as well not do it. Read the full passage in Isaiah 58 which directly addresses this issue.
Yeshua taught about fasting in his Sermon on the Mount:
Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Notice the he said “when” not “if” you fast. It was expected that his followers would fast. His instructions are to not make a show of it. In fact, Yeshua tells us to go about our daily hygiene as we normally do, even though Jewish custom on this day is not to bathe, brush your teeth or use deodorant. If you are fasting in order to be seen as fasting, you are performing a work – something strictly forbidden on Yom Kippur. Our works can never gain atonement.
There can be valid reasons, such as a medical condition, why someone might not fast. The sages of old have recognized this. It all comes down to the spirit and motive behind why we do what we do.
We must make certain two things mark this day for us: we are not to do any work at all, and we are to humble or afflict our souls. We don’t do anything else, yet this is call the Day of Atonement. It is important to note that atonement is made for us, not by us. We cannot atone for our own sin.
It is not the intention of this post to delve into the doctrine of atonement. Leviticus 16 provides a detailed description of what the High Priest is to do on Yom Kippur. One point of note is that these instructions, through verse 28, are given to Aaron and not to the High Priest in general. Then following the instructions for the rest of us to 1) do no work and 2) humble ourselves, verses 32 to 34 close this chapter by applying these acts to the “priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place.” This is an indication that this particular service is to be performed by and within the Aaronic priesthood only.
The New Testament book of Hebrews provides an extensive discussion of Yeshua as High Priest making atonement once and for all. Perhaps on this day, you may wish to read and meditate on these passages in Leviticus and Hebrews as you cease from all work and afflict your soul by fasting. Remember, nothing we can do can atone for sin. Today, only Yeshua can do that.
Unless marked otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation
Here is the Brown-Driver-Briggs entry for `anah
.1) (Qal) to be occupied, to be busied with
.2) to afflict, to oppress, to humble, to be afflicted, to be bowed down
. a) (Qal)
. 1) to be put down, to become low
. 2) to be depressed, to be downcast
. 3) to be afflicted
. 4) to stoop
. b) (Niphal)
. 1) to humble oneself, to bow down
. 2) to be afflicted, to be humbled
. c) (Piel)
. 1) to humble, to mishandle, to afflict
. 2) to humble, to be humiliated
. 3) to afflict
. 4) to humble, to weaken oneself
. d) (Pual)
. 1) to be afflicted
. 2) to be humbled
. e) (Hiphil) to afflict
. f) (Hithpael)
. 1) to humble oneself
. 2) to be afflicted