(Updated for 2023)
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is observed on the tenth day of the seventh Biblical month, Tishrei. It is an annual Sabbath, the only one on par with the weekly Sabbath (more on that later). This year it falls on Monday, September 25, 2023. According to Torah, it begins the evening of Sunday, September 24 (9 Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar) and ends the following evening.
Jewish tradition calls Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year. It concludes the High Holy Days, the ten Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) that began at Yom Teruah/Rosh Hashanah, and the 40 days of teshuvah (repentance) that includes the month of Elul, though Elul actually has only 29 days. Yom Kippur is not one of the pilgrimage festivals where all males are commanded to assemble in Jerusalem.
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.
The Hebrew word translated as “exactly” is אך ‘ak (Strongs #H389). Brown-Driver-Briggs lists two definitions:
1) indeed, surely (emphatic)
2) howbeit, only, but, yet (restrictive)
The New American Standard Bible is the only major translation that says exactly. The KJV and NKJV translate it as also; the TLV translates it however; the ESV as now. Nearly all other translations ignore it. Whether or not this is emphasizing the tenth day of the month above others is uncertain. It should be noted that the same word is used in Leviticus 23:39, but nowhere else in this chapter.
Yom Kippur is the only annual Sabbath with the instructions to “not do any work,” the same instruction given for the weekly Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3). All other annual Feast “Sabbaths” come with the instruction to do “no laborious work” (or regular work, ordinary work, or servile work depending on your translation). Literally, it is “no work of service.” On Feast days, we are commanded not to do the work we would do on other days. On the weekly Sabbath and on Yom Kippur, we are told not to do any work at all.
Yom Kippur in Scripture
The Hebrew phrase yom hakippurim (Leviticus 23:27) literally translates to “the day of the coverings.” This is the plural of kippur (Strong’s #H3725), derived from kaphar (#H3722), a verb meaning to cover, and only appears in Scripture in the plural kippurim. It is consistently translated in English as “atonement” in Christian as well as Jewish Bibles.
Atonement (a noun) and atone (a verb) are themselves very interesting English words. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary it is a compound word comprising the words at and one.
Atone. To bring at one, to reconcile, and thence to suffer the pains of whatever sacrifice is necessary to bring about a reconciliation. [Hensleigh Wedgwood, “A Dictionary of English Etymology,” 1859]
All references to the Day of Atonement are found in the Torah. It is not mentioned in any of the rest of the Tanakh (Old Testament) or in the New Testament. Two possible exceptions are fasts described in Isaiah 58 and in Acts 27:9, though these fasts are not specifically identified as the Day of Atonement.
Traditional Jewish Observance
Jewish communities observe a tradition known as yom nora-im, the Days of Awe, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. This is a time of inward reflection, with a focus on forgiving others and making reconciliation. There is a reason this is important.
In Jewish tradition – NOT scripture – a person’s name is inscribed in the Book of Life on an annual basis. This happens on Rosh Hashanah but is not finalized until Yom Kippur. For this reason, these Days of Awe are critical for a person to insure they are accepted for one more year.
On the evening beginning Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre (All Vows) prayer is chanted asking for release from oaths and pledges made during the previous year. This is often said to have originated as the result of persecution in which Jewish people protected themselves by making vows against their beliefs which they never intended to keep.
Synagogue services are generally held on the evening Yom Kippur begins, on the following morning, and the on evening when it ends. Traditionally, the Day of Atonement is 25 hours long, beginning half an hour before sunset on 9 Tishrei and ending half an hour after sunset the next day. This ensures that the full Day of Atonement is observed.
Traditionally there are five prohibitions on Yom Kippur. These are not found in Scripture but are derived from the concept of humbling and afflicting the soul.
1. Eating and drinking
2. Bathing or otherwise washing
3. Applying lotions or perfumes
4. Wearing leather shoes
5. Sexual relations.
In a traditional ritual practiced by some Jewish groups, a chicken is held by its neck and swung around high in the air while it is still alive. Afterward it is slaughtered and given as a charitable donation for the poor. Other traditions use a bag of money instead of a chicken.
I have copied the following directly from The Complete Artscroll Siddur (page 773 and 775):
Take the chicken [or money] in the right hand… and recite the following paragraph. Then – while reciting the appropriate paragraph on the next page – revolve the chicken or money around the head (some do this three times). Follow this procedure three times…
“This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster will go to its death [this money will go to charity] while I will enter and go to a good, long life, and to peace.”
Again, this ritual is NOT found in Scripture. Can a chicken, or money, offered by an individual atone for sin and bring everlasting life?
Atonement in the New Testament
It may be surprising, but the words “atone” and “atonement” are not in the New Testament, at least not in most literal Bible translations. In my preferred translations – NASB and ESV – those words are not used at all. “Atonement” appears once in the KJV (Romans 5:11) but not in the NKJV or RSV. It is used three times in the NIV, a dynamic-equivalent translation.
In fact, there does not seem to be a direct Biblical Greek equivalent to the Hebrew hakippurim. The Apostolic Bible Polyglot, which keys the Septuagint to Strong’s reference numbers, indicates the Septuagint uses a word not found in the New Testament that means “to appease, reconcile, expiate, atone, propitiate.”
The concept is found in the New Testament among several words related to the Greek word hileos (#G2436) meaning “gracious:”
hilaskomai (#G2433) a verb translated “make propitiation for” in Hebrews 2:17
hilasmos (#G2434) a noun translated “the propitiation” in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10
hilasterion (#G2435) a noun translated “a propitiation” in Romans 3:25
Literally, “propitiation” it the act of appeasing the gods – check any dictionary. Many will also mention something about the atoning work of Jesus Christ, indicating a specific use within Christianity. The depth of meaning in these words or symbolism of the two goats described in Leviticus 16 is beyond the scope of this article.
How should followers of Yeshua observe Yom Kippur? What should we do? In a word – nothing. For more on this, see my post What to Do on Yom Kippur. Here are the only instructions given for those of us who are not the High Priest (note that the “offering by fire” would require the priest):
This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute.
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.
There are no additional instructions provided in the New Testament; nothing ending the Torah instructions and nothing replacing them. And we are provided no examples of anyone observing this day in the whole of scripture. This is all we have.
So while you humble yourself, which typically includes fasting, and while you are doing no work at all, you may wish to contemplate the redemptive work of Yeshua. Some have suggested that the book of Hebrews portrays Yeshua in light of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is also the beginning of the Year of Jubilee.
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. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants.
Yom Kippur is a great time for a new start – a release. Let go of the past. The day of rest and humbling our souls can be a time of repentance, of putting past wrongs behind us, and of looking forward to the year ahead.
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him [Yeshua]. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:17-21 ESV)
Unless marked otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation
Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The English Standard Version © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.