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 misdeeds, those of Israelites, the Tabernacle, and the altar. Hence the day had the plural “atonements.”

What do the Hebrew words imply? What was the obligation of regular Israelites on Yom Hakippurim? The first te’anu is the same word ye’anu in Exodus 1:12, which describes the “afflictions” Israelites suffered under Egyptian slavery. The second, 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 or life.[2] Israelites were required to inflict themselves as their ancestors were inflicted in Egypt.

It is significant is that the Torah does not explain how people should afflict themselves. Perhaps everyone was expected to do so in their own way. It was only later, 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 in 70 CE and sacrifices were discontinued, Yom Hakippurim could no longer be observed because the only ceremony of this biblical holiday was sacrifices. It ceased and was replaced by Yom Kippur when individuals, not priests atone for their misdeeds. Before the temple was destroyed, before Yom Kippur existed, Yom Hakippurim was not a sad day. In fact, during the afternoons of Yom Hakippurim, people went out to the fields to celebrate and dance. Many men watching the girls dance took the opportunity to introduce themselves to the girl who fascinated them and many marriages resulted from the joy of Yom Hakippurim.

Unetaneh Tokef

Let’s examine one High Holiday prayer.

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 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.

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 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 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 idea is that “penitence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree.” Yet, experience has shown that this is simply untrue. 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 images can 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, 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.

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.”

Yes, Yom Kippur is not a biblical holiday. It replaced Yom Hakippurim which the Romans destroyed in 70 CE when they destroyed the temple and caused sacrifices to cease. Yes, in contrast to the joy of Yom Hakippurim, Yom Kippur is a sad day, a day of reflection, a day that prompts us to improve. But Yom Kippur is an important day, a day that shows that Rome was unable to destroy Judaism as it intended. It is also a day that prompts us “to take a stand” and to be all that we can and should be.

[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.