Yom Kippur is not a biblical holiday


Like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur does not exist in the Bible. It replaces another day known as Yom Hakippurim. Yom Kippur is singular, “day of atonement,” while Yom Hakippurim is plural, “day of atonements.” The biblical Yom Hakippurim is mentioned in Leviticus 16:29–31, 23:27–32, and Numbers 29:7–11. No work was permitted on this day, special sacrifices were offered, and the Israelites were obliged to te’anu et nafshoteikhem. This is improperly translated as “you must afflict your souls.”[1]

Yom Hakippurim was primarily a day when priests offered sacrifices for a number of misdeeds or possible misdeeds, while the average Israelites were essentially passive; they only te’anu et nafshoteikhem. Priests atoned for their own misdeeds, those of Israelites, the Tabernacle, and the altar. Hence the day had the plural “atonements,” referring to the many sacrifices.

What was the obligation of regular Israelites on Yom Hakippurim? The first te’anu does not mean “fast.” It is the same word as ye’anu in Exodus 1:12, which describes the “afflictions” Israelites suffered under Egyptian slavery. It could, perhaps, imply that the Israelites should think of themselves as they watch the sacrifices, that they are servants to God. The word also means “humble,” which could imply that while the Israelites watch or hear about the sacrifices, they should humble themselves before God.

The second word in the requirement, whose root is nefesh, is a word used today for “soul,” but it didn’t have this intent in the Torah. The Torah’s nefesh indicates a person.[2] Israelites were required to humble themselves and see themselves as servants of God.

It is significant is that the Torah does not explain how people do this. Perhaps everyone was expected to do so in their own way. It was only later when Yom Kippur was invented, that the rabbis defined the term as the avoidance of six things: eating, drinking, washing, anointing one’s body, wearing leather shoes and having sex.

When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and sacrifices were discontinued, Yom Hakippurim ceased and was replaced by Yom Kippur when individuals, not priests atone for their misdeeds.

As far as we can tell, Yom Kippur is radically different than Yom Hakippurim. The Jew is not passive on Yom Kippur. The holiday focuses on the individual not the priest’s family and the community. Yom Hakkipurim was probably a happy day. True, Jews had to ye’anu, but, although we no longer know what this required, it probably meant they should pay attention, think about what the priest’s sacrifices mean, and change their behavior. In fact, in ancient time, in the afternoon, after the sacrifices were offered, the day was celebrated with dances when girls would dress in white clothing, each girl wearing the same outfit, and many marriages resulted from meetings during the Yom Hakippurim festivities.


                                                                           Unetaneh Tokef

One of the most important prayers of the High Holiday services is Unetaneh Tokef. Rabbis and Jews generally invented stories to explain the origin of some prayers. Rather than analyzing the depth of prayers, which could alienate people who do not want to undertake this exercise and frustrate others who would not be able to understand the raison d’être of the prayer, the story teaches a simple moral lesson that could be easily understood.

One of the most moving poem/prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef, is a good example. The name can be defined as “And let us recognize the power (of this day’s holiness).” The legend states that the poem was composed by a rabbi who suffered martyrdom. The legend teaches that during this holy day, Jews should devote themselves to the important lessons of Judaism even to the extent of willing to martyr themselves for the sake of Judaism.

The problem with this teaching is that it doesn’t always make sense to give up one’s life for Judaism. Some scholars say that when Maimonides and his family lived in Morocco and were told to either become Muslims or die, he adopted Muslim manners outside his home while being a Jew at home.[3] He did so until he and his family were able to escape to Israel and then to Egypt where he finally settled.

There are also difficulties in the theology of the poem. There is a seeming contradiction between the poem saying that a person’s fate is sealed on Yom Kippur, while it later says that “repentance, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree,” meaning it is not sealed.

Additionally, the primary image of the prayer/poem is God possessing tablets or scrolls in which he inscribes the deeds and destinies of human beings. This notion predates Israel. The people of ancient Mesopotamia held the identical idea.

This image of God is somewhat disturbing. Do we want to portray God anthropomorphically, like a forgetful king who needs to write himself notes to prompt him to remember to act?

Another central idea of the poem is that God is involved in producing evil. Is God responsible for the holocaust? Did God cause men and women to have cancer?

Another difficult idea is that “penitence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree.” Experience has shown that this is simply untrue.

Still another disturbing picture in the poem is that of people going passively before God like ignorant, unthinking sheep, a view that is antithetical to the heroism of Abraham who argued with God about saving Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, these images can and should be understood metaphorically. The poem is telling its readers that this is a time to wake up, to take notice, to see the fragility of life, to consider how judgments are formed and sealed naturally, to change, to abandon despair and apathy, to set goals, to reshape our character, to challenge and take control of our fate and our destiny, to reject the notion that we are helpless before nature and God, decide to control our reactions to events that we cannot control. In essence, the message of the poem is just the opposite of what it states literally.

Victor Frankl, who survived years in a Nazi concentration camp, understood this when he wrote: “Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the condition.”[4]



[1] The Holy Scriptures by The Jewish Publication Society of America.

[2] While Leviticus 2:1 speaks about a nefesh offering a sacrifice, it does not mean that a disembodied spirit does so, but rather a man doing it.

[3] Maimonides by Yellin, Abrahams, and Dienstag, especially page 34.

[4] He also taught that the duty of humans is to be all that they can be.