What Yom Kippur Can Teach Christians about Atonement

By Tirzah Frank, Assistant Editor

As I mentioned in my post on Rosh-HaShanah, I’m in the midst of reading The Complete Jewish Study Bible’s topical articles on the three major Jewish fall holidays, approaching them from a position of complete ignorance. While reading about Rosh-HaShanah gave me confidence in the constancy of God, reading about Yom-Kippur made me think about necessary changes.

Ritual: What Do You Need?

I studied abroad in Greece last year, and one of my classes was about ritual. Many of my non-Christian professor’s ideas weren’t helpful to me, but our final assignment, which was to design and perform a class-wide ritual of our own, gave me pause. My professor kept saying: “Design a ritual that you need.” While that seemed like a wishy-washy directive, especially because I felt like Christianity was already meeting my needs, ritual-wise, I did find it helpful when constructing the ritual at the end of the semester. Reading about Yom-Kippur reminded me of that experience, because the way Yom-Kippur is practiced has changed a lot over time, shifting to reflect what different Jews needed at different times.

Alterations in Ancient Practice

When the Temple was intact, Yom-Kippur involved the sacrifice of two goats. One would be slain to cover Israel’s sins. Then the priest would place his hands on the head of the other, confessing the people’s sins and symbolically transferring them to the goat, which would then be freed and sent into the wilderness, carrying the sins of Israel away. Thus, the repentance begun on Rosh-HaShanah would culminate in this ritual of atonement on Yom-Kippur. But after the Temple was destroyed, it was no longer possible to practice Yom-Kippur like that, and the practices of charity, prayer, and repentance replaced the sacrifice of the goats. Difficult though it must have been, the Jews were able to preserve the holiday they needed by shifting the way that it was practiced.

Responding to New Needs

In the Middle Ages, the practice of Yom-Kippur changed again with the addition of a prayer requesting that participants be released from inappropriate vows, because many Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism. At first, I thought it was an odd transition—from literal sacrifice of goats to prayer and repentance to forgiveness of and freedom from forced conversions—but then I thought about the evolution of what people coming to celebrate Yom-Kippur needed most. If they had been forced to deny their true faith, then of course the atonement-based holiday would be the time to rededicate themselves and receive forgiveness.

It was difficult to read about the need for such a prayer, and it brought home for me how little I know about the historically troubled relationship between Christians and Jews. I was glad to learn, however, that the Jews of the Middle Ages were able to apply a day and a tradition that was already important to them to their circumstances, preserving the focus on atonement while adding what they needed in their historical moment to traditional practice.

Complete Jewish Study BibleFor more information about The Complete Jewish Study Bible, check out this video explaining what it is, this blog post about the CJSB’s beautiful cover design, or this review of the Bible! Visit our website for a full description as well.

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