what is day of atonement

What is Day of Atonement: Yom Kippur

Looking at what is day of atonement reminds us of the days when the high priest offers a bull to atone for the sins of the people.

The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27-28), also known as Yom Kippur, was the most solemn holy day of all the Israelite feasts and festivals, occurring once a year on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.

On that day, the high priest was to perform elaborate rituals to atone for the sins of the people. As described in Leviticus 16:1-34, the atonement ritual began with Aaron, or subsequent high priests of Israel, coming into the holy of holies.

The solemnity of the day was underscored by God telling Moses to warn Aaron not to come into the Most Holy Place whenever he felt like it, only on this special day once a year, lest he die (v. 2). This was not a ceremony to be taken lightly, and the people were to understand that atonement for sin was to be done in God’s way.

Before entering the tabernacle, Aaron was to bathe and put on special garments (v. 4), then sacrifice a bull for a sin offering for himself and his family (v. 6, 11). The blood of the bull was to be sprinkled on the ark of the covenant.

Then Aaron was to bring two goats, one to be sacrificed “because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (v. 16), and its blood was sprinkled on the ark of the covenant. The other goat was used as a scapegoat.

Aaron placed his hands on its head, confessed over it the rebellion and wickedness of the Israelites, and sent the goat out with an appointed man who released it into the wilderness (v. 21). The goat carried on itself all the sins of the people, which were forgiven for another year (v. 30).

What is Day of Atonement?

To understand the day of atonement, we shall look at the meaning of the individual words and teshuvah.

Yom Kippur

Man was created for the sake of teshuvah. Teshuvah means repentance. Yom Kippur or the Day of atonement is considered the holiest day of the year, called “Yom ha-Kadosh”.

On the Hebrew calendar, Erev Yom Kippur begins at nightfall on Tishri (September or October) 9 and continues 25 hours through the next day until nightfall. It is a solemn day marked by complete fasting, prayer, and additional synagogue services.

According to the Jewish sages, on the 6th of Sivan, seven weeks after the Exodus (i.e., exactly 49 days), Moses first ascended Sinai to receive the Torah (Shavuot). Just forty days later, on the 17th of Tammuz, the tablets were broken.

Moses then interceded for Israel for another forty days until he was called back up to Sinai on Elul 1 and received the revelation of Name YHVH (Exod. 34:4-8). After this, he was given the Second Tablets and returned to the camp on Tishri 10, which later was called Yom Kippur. Moses’ face was shining with radiance in the wonder of the coming New Covenant which was prefigured in the rituals of the Day of Atonement (Exod. 34:10).

This explains why Orthodox Jews begin the “Season of Teshuvah” beginning with Elul 1 and continuing through to Tishri 10 — for the 40 days that Moses was upon the mountain receiving the second set of tablets.

Meaning of the Word Kippur

The “Day of Atonement” is the English phrase for Yom Kippur. The shoresh [root] for the word “Kippur” is kafar, which probably derives from the word kofer, meaning “ransom.” This word is parallel to the word “redeem” (Psalm 49:7) and means “to atone by offering a substitute.”

The great majority of usages in the Tanakh concern “making an atonement” by the priestly ritual of the sprinkling of sacrificial blood to remove sin or defilement (i.e., tahora). The lifeblood of the sacrificial animal was required in exchange for the lifeblood of the worshipper (the symbolic expression of innocent life given for guilty life).

This symbolism is further clarified by the action of the worshipper in placing his hands on the head of the sacrifice (semichah) and confessing his sins over the animal (Lev. 16:21; 1:4; 4:4, etc.) which was then killed or sent out as a scapegoat. The shoresh also appears in the term Kapporet [the so-called “Mercy Seat,” but better rendered as simply the place of atonement]. The Kapporet was the golden cover of the sacred chest in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle (or Temple) where the sacrificial blood was presented.

The Torah Observance

The Role of the High Priest

Every year on Tishri 10 the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] would perform a special ceremony to purge defilement from the Tabernacle (Mishkan) or Temple (Bet Ha-Mikdash) as well as from the people of Israel (see Leviticus 16 for the details).

In particular, in addition to the regular daily offerings, he would bring a bull and two goats as a special offering, and the bull would be sacrificed to purge the Mishkan/temple from the defilements caused by misdeeds of the priests and their households (Leviticus 16:6). He would sprinkle the blood of the bull inside the veil of the Holy of Holies upon the kapporet (i.e., the cover of the Ark of the Covenant).

Then he would draw lots and select one of the two goats to be a sin offering on behalf of the people (this goat was designated L’Adonai – “to the LORD”). He would likewise enter the Holy of Holies sprinkle the blood of the goat upon the kapporet (note that the idea that the Kohen Gadol had a rope tied around his ankle in case he died when performing these duties is likely a medieval legend). 

Finally, the High Priest would lay both hands upon the head of the second goat (designated “for Azazel”) while confessing all of the transgressions of the people. This goat was then driven away into the wilderness, carrying on it “all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited” (Lev. 16:22).

According to the Talmud, a scarlet cord was tied around the neck of the scapegoat that was reported to have turned white as the goat was led away from the city. However, for the last forty years before the Temple was destroyed (in AD 70), the scarlet cord failed to change color.

Role of the people

While the High Priest performed these functions, the people would fast in eager anticipation of the outcome of the rituals. After completing his tasks, the garments of the High Priest were covered with blood (Lev. 6:27). Only after this did the LORD accept the sacrifice (according to one midrash, as the High Priest hung out his garments, a miracle took place and his garments turned from bloodstained crimson to white; see Isaiah 1:18).

In three separate passages in the Torah, the Jewish people are told “the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishri) is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall afflict your souls” (Lev. 16:29-34, Lev. 23:26-32, Num. 29:7-11). This is the only Holiday of the year where fasting is explicitly commanded by the LORD. It also was a “Shabbat Shabbaton,” or a day of complete abstention from any kind of mundane work.

It is enlightening to note the sequence of this holiday in relation to the time of preparation (Elul) and the activities surrounding Rosh Hashanah leading up to Yom Kippur. First God commands that we repent, or return to Him in the earnestness of heart, and then He provides the means for reconciliation or atonement with Him.

Day Of Atonement

Jesus and Yom Kippur

The Tabernacle and the Temple gave a clear picture of how sin separates us from the holiness of God. In Bible times, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies by passing through the heavy veil that hung from ceiling to floor, creating a barrier between the people and the presence of God.

Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter and offer a blood sacrifice to cover the sins of the people. However, at the very moment when Jesus died on the cross, Matthew 27:51 says, “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split.” (NKJV)

Hebrews chapters 8 and 9 beautifully explain how Jesus Christ became our High Priest and entered heaven (the Holy of Holies), once and for all, not by the blood of sacrificial animals, but by his precious blood on the cross. Christ himself was the atoning sacrifice for our sins; thus, he obtained for us eternal redemption. As believers, we accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, the final atonement for sin.


The symbolic significance of the ritual, particularly to Christians, is seen first in the washing and cleansing of the high priest, the man who released the goat, and the man who took the sacrificed animals outside the camp to burn the carcasses (v. 4, 24, 26, 28).

Israelite washing ceremonies were required often throughout the Old Testament and symbolized the need for mankind to be cleansed of sin. But it wasn’t until Jesus came to make the “once for all” sacrifice that the need for cleansing ceremonies ceased (Hebrews 7:27).

The blood of bulls and goats could only atone for sins if the ritual was continually done year after year, while Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all the sins of all who would ever believe in Him. When His sacrifice was made, He declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He then sat down at the right hand of God, and no further sacrifice was ever needed (Hebrews 10:1-12).

The sufficiency and completeness of the sacrifice of Christ are also seen in the two goats. The blood of the first goat was sprinkled on the ark, ritually appeasing the wrath of God for another year. The second goat removed the sins of the people into the wilderness where they were forgotten and no longer clung to the people. Sin is both propitiated and expiated God’s way—only by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Propitiation is the act of appeasing the wrath of God, while expiation is the act of atoning for sin and removing it from the sinner. Both together are achieved eternally by Christ.


 “Israeli tennis players fined for sitting out Yom Kippur”. The Times of Israel. 12 August 2013.

Abrams, Judith. Yom Kippur: A Family Service. Minneapolis: KAR-BEN, 1990.

Arnold Lustiger, Michael Taubes, Menachem Genack, and Hershel Schachter, Kasirer Edition Yom Kippur Machzor With Commentary Adapted from the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. New York: K’hal Publishing, 2006. pp. 588–589 (summary); 590–618.

Cohen, S.M., Eisen, A.M.: The Jew within self, family, and community in America, page 169. Indiana University Press, 2000.

Scherman, Nosson. “Yom Kippur- Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers” New York: Mesorah Publications, 1989.  Solomvits, Sandor. “Yom Kippur and Sandy Koufax.”JewishSports.net.

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Agomuo Kelechi

A graduate of Statistics/Economics, web designer, data analyst, and Business developer. I have a passion for education and training, hence started Kmacims | Education Annex. Where we are building a community of creative people through creative education and mind development, among others. I have over 7 years of experience coaching and educating micro medium & small businesses. I have attended seminars and training on startups and growing businesses, and have worked with NDE, and D&E international on World Bank projects. I am also a well-trained web designer and data analyst. I have also been training students on IT and IT-related courses including MS office, and web designing.

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