Yom Kippur:

                                     About a Holiday the Romans Destroyed[1]


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.

Yom Hakippurim was a day when the high priest offered sacrifices for a number of misdeeds or possible misdeeds, while the average Israelites watched and were essentially passive; they only te’anu et nafshoteikhem. The priest atoned for their misdeeds, those of his family, Israelites, the Tabernacle, and the altar. Hence the day had the plural “atonements.”

This holiday, whose primary service was these offerings, ceased when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE when sacrifices ceased. Yom Hakippurim disappeared and the rabbis replaced it with a new holiday, Yom Kippur, when individuals, not a priest, atone for their misdeeds.

What did the Hebrew words te’anu et nafshoteikhem imply when applied to Yom Hakippurim and when they are used for Yom Kippur? The first term te’anu is the same as ye’anu used in Exodus 1:12, which describes the “afflictions” Israelites suffered under Egyptian slavery. But this, as we will see, is not its only meaning. The second word, whose root is nefesh, is a word used today for “soul,” but it didn’t have this meaning in the Torah. The Torah’s nefesh indicates a person.[2]

It is significant that the Torah does not explain how people should afflict themselves. The probable reason for this is that te’anu also means “mourn,” to think about the past losses, as the word is used in Isaiah 29:2. On the biblical holiday Yom Hakippurim, when the High Priest brought sacrifices and the people watched, the Bible instructs the Israelites to “mourn,” to think about the wrongs they did in the past and to find ways to avoid repeating them. The High Priest’s sacrifices were not magical. They were designed to prompt the people to think how they – not God – will correct their behavior.

It was only later, when Yom Hakippurim disappeared and was replaced by Yom Kippur, that the rabbis defined the term as “afflict themselves” by avoiding six things: eating, drinking, washing, anointing one’s body, wearing leather shoes, and having sex. These “afflictions” of Yom Kippur, like watching the High Priest’s sacrifices on Yom Hakippurim, are designed to prompt Jews to think and correct their behavior.


Let’s examine one High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Tokef.

Rabbis and Jews generally invented stories to explain the origin of some prayers. Rather than analyzing the depth of prayers, which could confuse and even alienate people who do not want to undertake this intellectual 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 easily be 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.

There are a number of problems with this poem if it is taken literally. The problem with the teaching about martyrdom 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 undisturbed.

There are also difficulties in the ideology and 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 help the hardship pass.”

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 notes to himself 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? Still another idea is that “penitence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree.” Yet, 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 Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, these poetic images can and should be understood metaphorically. The poem is telling its readers that they have the ability to change and improve their lives – the original meaning of te’anu. This is a time to wake up, to take notice, to see the fragility of life, to consider how judgments are formed and sealed, 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.

The psychologist 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 conditions.”


[1] This is a version of part of a chapter from my recent book “Mysteries of Judaism.”

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

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