Guest blog by David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur in Hebrew—is the most solemn and holy day of the Israelite calendar. It falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, and this year (2009) it will begin at sundown on September 27. Ancient Israelites prepared themselves by refraining from work as on the Sabbath, repenting of their sins, and fasting. The purpose of this day is described in Leviticus: “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). The high priest performed a series of rituals, including washing himself, offering sacrifices, and taking blood into the Holy of Holies of the temple, where he sprinkled it on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The power of the Lord to cleanse his people was dramatized when the high priest cast lots over two goats. One goat was designated as belonging to the Lord and was sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest took the other goat and transferred the sins of the people to this goat by laying his hands on its head. The second goat, called the “scapegoat” in English, was driven into the wilderness, symbolizing the cleansing of the people from the stain of ritual impurity and sin.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Atonement of Christ through the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. Christians believe that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to cleanse his people from their sins. Just as the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Jesus “by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12). Because Latter-day Saints understand the Day of Atonement was part of the law of Moses fulfilled in Christ, we do not formally celebrate this occasion, but we do regularly take of the tokens of the sacrament as symbols of the power of the redemption of Christ to cleanse us from our sins and transgressions.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 the Jews were no longer able to offer sacrifice, and the celebration of Yom Kippur moved from the temple to the synagogue. Today Jews celebrate Yom Kippur as the culmination of the process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month. For nine days Jews engage in personal retrospection and repentance, reaching out to those around them to confess their sins and ask forgiveness. On the tenth day, Yom Kippur, each individual solemnly presents him or herself before God in the synagogue in fasting and prayer seeking for divine forgiveness for their sins and shortcomings. In light of the absence of the temple, the Talmud prescribes the study and recitation of the biblical ritual described in Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur. The meaning of Yom Kippur is eloquently expressed in Song of Songs Rabbah 6.11: “Just as a nut falls into some dirt you can take it up and wipe it and rinse it and wash it and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating, so however much Israel may be defiled with iniquities all the rest of the year, when the Day of Atonement comes it makes atonement for them, as it is written, ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you.’”
One year my family and I experienced Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. There was complete silence in the streets throughout the day as all normal daily activities came to a complete stop. It was a vivid reminder of the need to take time, whether once a year, or once a week, to pause and inventory one’s standing with God and with each other, and to seek to find “at-one-ment” with the Lord through repentance and divine forgiveness.