The Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16:29-31 (NASB)

29 "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;
30 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.
31 "It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishri (September/October in the secular calendar). Because this day is the most solemn day in the year, it is known as "The Day."

The Week Before

A week before the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would leave his own house, and took up his quarter in the side chambers in the Temple. A substitute was appointed for him, in case he should die or become Levitically unfit for his duties. During the whole of that week, he would perform all the temple duties, such as burning the incense, lighting the lamps, offering the daily sacrifice, etc. In addition, he would study two Torah portions and learn them by heart to make sure he didn't make any mistakes.

The Eve

On the eve of the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would stay up all night learning Torah and preparing himself spiritually. If he fell asleep, young priests woke him up by reciting psalms. Sometimes they would make the High Priest stand all night on the cold, stone floor.

The Morning Service

On the Day of Atonement, not ordinary priest, but the High Priest alone officiated. Throughout the day, he would wash his whole body five times, and his hands and feet ten times.

When the first dawn of morning came, the High Priest bathed and put on his usual priestly garments - the golden garments.

Exodus 28:4, 36, 42 (NASB)

4 "These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece and an ephod and a robe and a tunic of checkered work, a turban and a sash, and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that he may minister as priest to Me.
36 "You shall also make a plate of pure gold and shall engrave on it, like the engravings of a seal, 'Holy to the LORD.'
42 "You shall make for them linen breeches to cover their bare flesh; they shall reach from the loins even to the thighs.

The golden garments

The golden garments consisted of eight items: tunic, belt, turban, pants, breastplate, ephod, robe, and a golden head plate. Over the white tunic, he put on the sky-blue robe, hemmed with decorative pomegranates and bells which rang as he moved around. Then he put on the ephod, which looked like an apron and was fastened by a long belt. There were two shoulder-straps sewn onto the belt. These straps went behind, up and over the priest's shoulders. Two sardonyx stones were attached at the ends of these straps, on the shoulders. He also put on a breastplate, set with twelve precious stones, one stone representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel. His turban differed from those of the ordinary priests, and had in front a golden plate inscribed "Holy to the Lord".

These were called "golden garments," because gold, the symbol of splendor, appeared in them.    More about the priestly garments...

He then washed his hands and feet, and proceeded to perform the regular morning service, including the morning's sacrifice, the lighting of the lamps and the burning of incense.

This was one of the seven high days, which were to be treated like Sabbaths. Therefore two additional lambs were to be offered as burnt offering after the morning service.

The Yom Kippur Services

Before the High Priest began the peculiar part of the day's services, he washed his hands and feet, put off his "golden garments", took a bath and changed into a simple robe made of white linen, and again washed his hands and feet.

Leviticus 16:4 (NASB)

4

"He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and the linen undergarments shall be next to his body, and he shall be girded with the linen sash and attired with the linen turban (these are holy garments). Then he shall bathe his body in water and put them on.

The white garments

Only on the Day of Atonement would the High Priest wear the white garments: tunic, belt, turban and pants. This signifies that the High Priest came before God within the Most Holy Place humbly and simply. He did not come in the outward splendor of gold and rich colors, but in pure white. Furthermore, white is the color of forgiveness, and forgiveness is what the High Priest is seeking for himself and all Israel as he came before the Ark.

Part 1. Sin Offering

Leviticus 16:6 (NASB)

6 "Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household.

He walked over to a young bullock stood between the Temple-porch and the great bronze altar. Standing towards the east (that is, the worshipers), he turned the head of the bullock towards the west (that is, to face the sanctuary), laid both his hands on the head of the bullock, and prayed for himself and for his family a prayer of confession.

Part 2. Choosing the Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:7-10 (NASB)

7 "He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
8 "Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat.
9 "Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the LORD fell, and make it a sin offering.
10 "But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.

The High Priest then walked over to two identical goats. He cast a lot to choose which of the two goats was to be "for JEHOVAH" and the other, a scapegoat, bore the collective sins of the people.

Having designated each of the two goats, the High Priest tied a piece of red wool around the horns of the scapegoat, then a piece was cut off and tied to the temple door. Another piece of red wool was tied around the throat of the goat for Jehovah, which was to be slain.

According to Jewish tradition, each year when the scapegoat died, the red wool on the temple door turned white as if to signify the atonement of another Yom Kippur was acceptable to the Lord. But 40 years before the second Temple was destroyed the red wool stopped turning white.

The scapegoat, was now turned around towards the people, and stood facing them, waiting, as it were, till their sins should be laid on him. With this presentation of the scapegoat before the people commenced the third and most solemn part of the expiatory services of the day.

Part 3. The Confession and the Sacrifice

Leviticus 16:11-12 (NASB)

11 "Then Aaron shall offer the bull of the sin offering which is for himself and make atonement for himself and for his household, and he shall slaughter the bull of the sin offering which is for himself.
12 "He shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil.

The High Priest now once more returned towards the sanctuary, and once again laid his two hands on the same bullock, which still stood between the porch and the altar. Once again the High Priest made the confession, over the bullock, this time for himself, his family and also the priesthood.

The young bullock was then slaughtered and its blood collected in a basin for later use. An attendant received the basin and kept it stirring so that the blood would not coagulate.

Then came the most important part of the ceremony. The High Priest walked up the ramp to the altar, filled a gold censer with coals and a golden ladle with incense. Then, with everyone watching, he walked into the Most Holy Place, where no one but the High Priest entered except on Yom Kippur.

Part 4. Inside the Most Holy Place

Leviticus 16:13 (NASB)

13 "He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die.

The veil was folded back, and the High Priest stood alone and separated from the people outside. He placed the censer between the staves of the Ark. He now carefully put the incense into his hand, and threw it on the coals of the censer. He waited until the smoke filled the Most Holy Place, and if all went well, emerged unscathed from the inner sanctuary.

While the incense was being offered in the Most Holy Place, the people withdrew from proximity to it, and worshiped in silence. At last the people saw the High Priest emerging from the sanctuary, and they knew that the service had been accepted.

Part 5. The Sprinkling of the Blood

Leviticus 16:14-19 (NASB)

14 "Moreover, he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
15 "Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.
16 "He shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities.
17 "When he goes in to make atonement in the holy place, no one shall be in the tent of meeting until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel.
18 "Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat and put it on the horns of the altar on all sides.
19 "With his finger he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it seven times and cleanse it, and from the impurities of the sons of Israel consecrate it.

The High Priest took from the attendant, who kept it stirring, the blood of the bullock. Once more he entered into the Most Holy Place, and sprinkled with his finger once upwards, towards the Mercy Seat, and seven times downwards. Coming out from the Most Holy Place, the High Priest now placed the basin of blood before the veil.

Next, the remaining goat was slaughtered. The High Priest then entered the Most Holy Place the third time, and sprinkled as before, once upwards and seven times downwards. He then came out and again placed the basin with the blood of the goat before the veil.

Now he took the basin with the bullock's blood, he sprinkled once upwards and seven times downwards towards the veil, outside the Most Holy Place, and then did the same with the blood of the goat.

Finally, he poured the blood of the bullock into the basin containing the blood of the goat, then poured the mixed blood back into the basin which had held the blood of the bullock, so that the two were thoroughly mixed together. He then sprinkled each of the horns of the altar of incense, and then seven times on the top of the altar of incense.

He then took the remaining blood outside to the inner court and poured out on the west side of the base of the altar of burnt offering.

Now the High Priest had cleansed the sanctuary in all its parts: the Most Holy Place, the veil, the Holy Place, the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering. The continuation of typical sacrificial communion with God was once again restored.

Part 6. The Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:20-22 (NASB)

20 "When he finishes atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat.
21 "Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness.
22 "The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.

All this while the scapegoat was standing looking eastwards, facing the people, and waiting to bear the sins of all the people to a solitary land. Laying both his hands on the head of this goat, the High Priest now confessed and pleaded for all the people.

The scapegoat was then led through the temple's east gate to a waiting priest whose job was to take it to a predetermined spot about ten to twelve miles away. Along the way, there were ten stations with food or drink in case the tired priest needed to break his fast. When the priest came to the final station, he pushed the goat off a cliff. Using a system of signal flags, the priest leading the animal would message back to the Temple that the sins of the people were forgiven.

And, tradition has it that when the sacrifice was fully accepted the piece of red wool on the temple door would turn miraculously white, to symbolize the gracious promise in Isaiah 1:18; but it adds that this miracle did not take place for 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple, that is, after Christ Himself completed the final sacrifice.

Part 7. The Carcasses Burnt "Outside the City"

Leviticus 16:27 (NASB)

27 "But the bull of the sin offering and the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp, and they shall burn their hides, their flesh, and their refuse in the fire.

While the scapegoat was being led into the wilderness, the High Priest proceeded to cut up the bullock and the goat, put the "inwards" (internal organs) in a vessel, and sent their carcasses to be burnt outside the city, in the place where the Temple ashes were usually deposited.

Then the High Priest, still wearing the linen garments, offered with a series of prayers and read the passages concerning the Day of Atonement, i.e. Leviticus 16; 23:27-32; also repeating by heart Numbers 29:7-11.

Conclusion of the Yom Kippur Services

Leviticus 16:23-25 (NASB)

23 "Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there.
24 "He shall bathe his body with water in a holy place and put on his clothes, and come forth and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people.
25 "Then he shall offer up in smoke the fat of the sin offering on the altar.

The High Priest again washed his hands and feet, put off his linen garments, bathed, put on his "golden garments," and once more washed hands and feet.

He now appeared again before the people as the Lord's annointed. Before he offered the burnt offerings for the afternoon service, he sacrificed a male goat as a sin offering. The flesh of this sin offering was eaten at night by the priests within the sanctuary.

Next, he sacrificed the burnt offerings for the people and that for himself, and finally burned the "inwards" of the special offerings. This, properly speaking, finished the services of the day.

Evening Service

Although the special Yom Kippur service was concluded, the regular evening temple service still had to be completed.

He offered the ordinary evening sacrifice, then washed his hands and his feet, once more put off his "golden garments," bathed, and put on his "linen garments," and again washed his hands and feet. Then he entered the Most Holy Place a fourth time, to fetch from it the censer and incense dish which he had left there.

On his return he washed once more hands and feet, put off his "linen garments", which were never to be used again, bathed, put on his "golden garments," washed hands and feet, burnt the evening incense on the golden altar and lit the lamps.

Finally, he washed his hands and feet, put off his "golden garments," and put on his ordinary layman's dress.

When he finally went home, he was accompanied by well wishers, who after praying and fasting all day, wanted to thank the High Priest for a successful Yom Kippur. At home, however, he could still not relax. As High Priest, it was his duty to invite fellow priests and dignitaries to a feast.

Dance Following Yom Kippur

It was also the custom following Yom Kippur, for unmarried young men and women to go dancing in the vineyards to find mates. All the young women wore white so the rich would not have an advantage over the poor who could not afford finer clothes.

Yom Kippur of Today

During the times of the Temple, the Yom Kippur service was focused on the High Priest. Today each individual focuses on himself and his personal service to God. Emphasis had shifted from sacrifices and priestly rituals to prayer, repentance and giving of charity. For more information, visit the web at http://www.everythingjewish.com/YomK/YK_origins.htm.

Related Topics

The Jewish Calendar - Presents an overview of the Jewish Calendar and Festivals. Also provides links to online tools.

The Five Offerings - Presents an overview of the sacrificial system.

Talmudic Evidence for the Messiah at 30 C.E. - From the year 30 C.E. until the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., for 40 years strange things happening on the Day of Atonement. Read more about this and other miracles that happened in 30 C.E.

References

Edersheim, Alfred. "The Temple - Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ." http://www.ccel.org/e/edersheim/temple/temple.htm [Originally published: 1874]

Kramer, Amy J. "Yom Kippur." http://www.everythingjewish.com/YomK/YK_origins.htm [1999]