(Chapters 16:1–18:30)

                                                                     Judaism changed radically


Leviticus 16 deals with the elaborate Tabernacle rituals of atonement performed by the High Priest on Yom Hakippurim—a plural name, Day of Atonements. The priest brought sacrifices to atone for misdeeds that he, his family, and Israelites did; hence the plural form. As I point out in my recent book “Mysteries of Judaism,” all of the biblical holidays were changed by the rabbis, many of them because the primary or only service or practice of the holiday was sacrifices; once the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and sacrifices ceased, the holiday ceased. The rabbis made changes in the holidays because of the cessation of the sacrifices or substituted a new holiday for the one that no longer existed. An example of creating a substitute holiday is Yom Hakippurim which was replaced by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in the singular. It is a day that focuses on individuals not groups as Yom Hakippurim, when Jews, not a priest, should consider past deeds and resolve to correct improper deeds.

Why was the tenth day of the seventh month selected for considering correcting past bad behavior? We really do not know. However, the rabbis suggested a possible historical origin for Yom Hakippurim and Yom Kippur. They say that this tenth day of the seventh month (latter, in the sixth century BCE called Tishrei) is especially propitious for considering past misdeeds and for resolving to correct them. It is possible that it was on the tenth of the seventh month that God forgave the Israelites for their grievous behavior with the golden calf. This prompts us to think of the history of Judaism.

People have essentially four ideas how atonement and forgiveness can be achieved:

  • The spiritual power inherent in the day of Yom Hakippurim and Yom Kippur magically whitewashes misdeeds.
  • The rituals performed by someone else on a person’s behalf, such as the High Priest’s sacrifice or the cantor’s service in the synagogue effects people’s behavior.
  • Prayer removes past misdeeds.
  • People must realize what they did wrong, decide not to do it again, and develop habits of behavior to assure that if the temptation arises to act improperly again, they will not give in to it.

Rational thinkers, such as Maimonides, did not think that magic exists and there can be holiness in an object, practice, or day. Holiness is created by people when they perform an act. The Shabbat is only holy when a person observes it as it should be observed. Maimonides also felt that misdeeds are not corrected by prayer. It is ridiculous to imagine that a man is correct when he says to his wife: “I don’t know why you are still mad at me for slapping you! I went to the synagogue and said a prayer.” Thus, Maimonides rejected the first three notions. He felt that people can only correct their behavior by correcting their behavior, and he suggested the steps mentioned in the fourth option.

Why then should a person fast? Why is the shofar sounded many times on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of the Yom Kippur service? Why pray? Why mention the lists of possible wrongs during the Yom Kippur service?

These practices should not be understood as exculpatory. There are designed to remind people to act on their own to correct and improve their behavior.


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Why did the rabbis tell us to read Leviticus 16 during the Yom Kippur service, as well as to devote a section of the Yom Kippur synagogue prayers to a description of how Yom Hakippurim was celebrated in the Temple? Why is it important to think about Yom Hakippurim which no longer exists?

There is much we can learn from the way atonement was sought in biblical times. For example, the sequence of the High Priest’s service required him to atone first for himself, then his household, and finally, for the Israelites (Leviticus 16:16). This teaches us to act in a similar fashion: to first make certain that we and our family are acting properly before we try to encourage others to improve.

Furthermore, it teaches us that despite changes made in Judaism throughout the millennia, such as Yom Hakippurim becoming Yom Kippur, we still have a strong connection to our past history.