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Feast of Atonement in Olden Days

Second Temple Period


From the book "The Jewish Festivals" by Hayyim Schauss" published
in 1938.


The Great Day 

     During the latter period of the second Temple Yom Kippur was
already the holiest day of the year for all Jews. It was called
"The Great Day" or, more simply, "The Day." Jews in all lands
fasted on that day and spent it entirely in the synagogue,
earnestly praying. Even those Jews who were comparatively
unobservant the rest of the year became very pious on that day,
according to Philo, the Jewish philosopher who lived in
Alexandria a generation before the destruction of the second
     But, while praying in their synagogues, Jews everywhere
turned their eyes and their hearts to one spot, to the Temple,
where the High Priest conducted the sacred and mystic ceremonies
of the day. For that was the only day of the year on which the
High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. Not in the golden
ceremonial robes of the High Priest did he present himself before
God, but in the linen robes of an ordinary priest.
     The High Priest did not ordinarily perform the rites of the
Temple. He showed himself to the people, dressed in his gold
robes, only on Sabbaths, festivals, and New Moons. On Yom Kippur,
however, he became the priest of the sanctuary, and he, himself,
conducted the entire service and confessed to God for his own
sins, for the sins of the other priests, and for the sins of the
entire people of Israel.
     Seven days before Yom Kippur the High Priest moved from his
home to his chamber in the Temple. During this week he alone
conducted the service, offered the daily sacrifices, sprinkled
the blood, burned the incense, and tended the lighting of the
Menorah. He did this for seven successive days in order to become
well versed in the details, so that he would make no mistake on
Yom Kippur. In addition, he had to study to read the Torah before
the public; he had to read two portions of the Pentateuch from
the Torah-scroll on Yom Kippur, and recite one portion by heart.
     In the last century before the destruction of the Temple the
High Priest was more often a noted politician than a learned man.
Therefore, learned members of the Sanhedrin would tutor him
during the week before Yom Kippur, teaching him what was

     But before continuing with the proceedings of the Yom Kippur
service, let us spend some time on a tour of the Temple.

A Tour of the Temple

     A new, a third Temple, was constructed during the time of
which we speak. The second Temple, the one that was erected under
the leadership of Zerubbabel in the beginning of the Persian
world dominion, was small and poorly constructed of ordinary wood
and stone. It stood for about five hundred years, until Herod
demolished it and erected a larger and grander structure on the
site. Due to the fact that no enemy destroyed Zerubbabel's
Temple, that it was removed only to make way for a much more
beautiful building, the new Temple was also referred to as the
second Temple.
     Decades after Herod's Temple was finished the work of
beautifying it went on. More than eighty years passed before it
was entirely completed, with all its adornments, a comparatively
few years before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The
completed Temple, therefore, stood only a little while before it
was burned down by the Roman army under Titus. This Temple of
Herod is the one we are to observe.

     The Temple glistens in the distance and makes a clear
impression, for it is built of the finest of white marble,
snowlike in its purity. It is covered with thick golden plates.
When the sun shines on these a fiery glow comes forth, and the
Temple looks like a mountain of snow, from which issue golden
     We approach the Mount of the Temple now. This holy mount
rises on a series of broad terraces, flat mounds that rise
regularly above each other. On the topmost terrace stands the
altar, and above it rises the House of God. Only priests are
allowed in the front room of the House of God, and then only in
the performance of the services; beyond is the rear room, the
"Holy of Holies," where only the High Priest may enter, and only
one day of the year, Yom Kippur.
     The entire structure is encircled by a very broad wall and
is quite similar to a fortress. The wall is studded with high
points and staunch towers. On all four sides of the wall there
are gates leading into the Temple. We enter one of these gates
and approach a colonnade, four rows of marble pillars, surmounted
with cedar. There are many colonnades in the Temple but the one
under which we now stand is the largest and loveliest. It is
called the Regal Colonnade and has one hundred and sixty-two
marble pillars.
     We enter a second colonnade and see souvenirs of victories:
swords, armor, and flags that Jewish armies once brought back
from battlefields as mementoes of victory. We lift our eyes,
however, and are deterred from all thoughts of war and victory;
over the main gate hangs a golden Roman eagle as a symbol of the
sovereignty of Rome over Jerusalem. No matter where we look, the
reflection of that eagle shines from the white marble of the
walls and from the polished stones of the floor. Amongst these
colonnades are rooms for the Levites and rooms for the sages,
where those with great knowledge of God's Torah sit and study
with their pupils.
     From the covered colonnades we step into the great, open
outer court, plastered with vari-colored stones. All may enter
this court, even non-Jews. It is immense in size, larger than any
of the other courts.
     We pass through the outer court and come to a stone fence.
This is the boundary line beyond which non-Jews may not pass.
Stone tablets surmount this fence, telling us, in Latin and in
Greek, that no outsider may go further, under penalty of death.
Beyond this fence we climb fourteen stairs and come to a flat
terrace, about ten yards wide. We then mount more steps and come
to the gate leading to the inner court. There are many gates to
this inner court on the north and south; but we enter through the
great double gate in the east. The other gates are covered with
gold plates, but the great eastern gate has no covering, for it
is made of costly bronze, that shines even brighter than gold. It
is called "Nicanor's Gate," after a rich Egyptian Jew who
presented it to the Temple as a gift. The golden plates on the
other gates are also a gift, from a rich Alexandrian Jew.
Nicanor's Gate is so large that when it is shut every evening
twenty men are needed to push together the heavy doors and to
shove the bolts and bars into the stone threshold. In all, two
hundred men are employed in the daily opening and shutting of the
gates of the Temple.
     We pass through Nicanor's Gate into the inner court, the
Court of the Women, which is a square area of over two
hundred feet square. Men may enter the Court of the Women, but
women may not enter the Court of the Men, which is further on in
the Temple. High balconies, however, are provided for the women,
and from these they can observe the ceremonies in the inner
courts. There are four rooms in the corners of the Court of the
Women, open to the skies. One is for the use of Nazarites, men
under oath not to touch wine, nor cut their hair. The second room
is a storehouse for wood. Here sit those priests who are
disqualified, because of physical defects, from service at the
altar of the Temple. But they may do other work, and they sit
examining the pieces of wood designed for the altar, discarding
those with even the tiniest worm-hole, for only perfect wood may
be used in the fire of the altar. The third room is reserved for
lepers who have come to the Temple to become cleansed. In the
fourth room wine and oil are stored.
     We pass through the Court of the Women and come to a flight
of fifteen steps, built in the form of an amphitheatre. Above
these stairs is the wall that separates the women from the Court
of the Men. We go through another gate and enter the Court of the
Men, which encircles the Temple on three sides. The greatest and
loveliest sight that a Jew can behold now appears before us: the
great altar of uncut stones and behind it the House of God
itself. The altar is quite large, and has four points that are
like horns. An eternal fire burns there, a fire that must never
be extinguished.
     Only half of the Court of the Men is available for the use
of laymen. A low fence runs through the center of the court and
only the priests may venture beyond it. This area is known as the
Court of the Priests.
     On both sides of the Court of the Priests are the treasuries
of the Temple. To the right of the altar is the slaughter area,
with twenty-four rings to tether the sacrificial animals. Behind
are eight small posts, with three rows of hooks on each one, to
hang the slain animals, and eight marble tables on which the
inners of the sacrifices are washed. In addition there are tables
for the altar utensils and for the dismembered bodies of the
animals. There is also a bronze wash-basin in which the priests
bathe their hands and feet.
     Along the walls of the Court of the Priests are built
several halls: the hall in which the Sanhedrin meets; the hall in
which the High Priest lives the week before Yom Kippur; the rooms
in which the priests dress and bathe, and various other halls and
     Through a very high opening, without doors, the priests go
from their court to the Ulam, the porch of the House of God.
Another door leads from the porch, which is beautifully decorated
in gold, into the front room of the House of God. The door is
open, but a heavy, colored curtain hangs over it. Over this door
hangs a gigantic, golden grape-vine. It is supported by cedar
balconies and spreads its branches under the cornices of the
porch. Rich Jews coming from distant lands make contributions to
this vine, a gold grape or a gold leaf or such, till it seems as
if the vine will break beneath the mass of the golden fruit
hanging from it.
     Twice a day priests pass through the porch and into the
sanctuary for the daily services. They pass into a long room, the
walls of which are decked in gold, but which is dark and
window-less. The only light comes from the golden Menorah, in
which seven oil wicks burn. Opposite the Menorah stands the
golden table bearing the twelve loaves of showbread. Between
these two objects stands the golden altar on which incense is
burned twice a day.
     Beyond the Anteroom is the Holy of Holies, the greatest
sanctuary of all, separated from the rest of the Temple by two
drapes. Only one day a year, on Yom Kippur, are these hangings
removed for the entry of the High Priest. It is a pitch-black,
empty room. The only object in the room is a stone, three fingers
high, which is called the "Foundationstone." 
     The entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies was
the main event in the ceremonies and ritual of "the Great Day.

The High Priests

     During the first three hundred and fifty years of the second
Temple the high priesthood belonged to one family and descended
by succession. This family based its superiority on the fact that
it descended from Zadok, the first priest in the Temple of
Jerusalem when it was built by Solomon. The line extended thus
until the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.
     When the Hasmoneans won over the Greek forces they became
the rulers of the Jewish country. But it was not possible, in
those days, to just set one's self up as ruler over the Jews.
Rulership was vested in the High Priest. But since the Hasmoneans
were of the priestly caste, they had no trouble on that score.
They founded a new dynasty of High Priests and set on their own
heads a double crown, that of the High Priest and that of the
     After the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom, when Palestine
became a province of Rome, the high priesthood became more of a
political than a religious position. The Romans refused to permit
the descent of the high priesthood from father to son, for they
were unwilling to set up a dynasty of High Priests. For this
reason a new High Priest was appointed at intervals. Not every
priest could attain to this high position. There were, in
Jerusalem, a few aristocratic priestly families, and members of
these families were the regular candidates, securing the position
through political influence or through bribery. It obviously was
worthwhile to become High Priest, for it was a position that
brought power and riches. The High Priest of those days was
officially the religious head of the Jewish people, the master of
the Temple, and the leader of the Sanhedrin. As such he was the
ruler of Jerusalem and of all Palestine, insofar as the Jews had
autonomy under the Roman rule.

     But despite the fact that the High Priests of those days
were not spiritually great and the real spiritual leaders of the
people were the scribes, the heads of the Pharisees, the
observance of the service in the Temple was not weakened. On the
contrary, the services were never carried out more precisely or
with greater grandeur and impressiveness than in the period
before the destruction of the Temple. And of all the services of
the year there was none as richly mystical and impressive as the
Yom Kippur service.

The Day before Yom Kippur 

     The High Priest stands at the eastern gate of the Temple in
the morning. The various animals that he will offer are led
before him for final examination before the service of sacrifice.
Jews prepare themselves for the Great Day. They beg forgiveness
of each other and remind themselves of sins they committed in the
course of the year; they are regretful and penitent. But one, the
High Priest, makes greater preparations than all others.
     Religious awe fills his heart as he thinks of entering the
Holy of Holies. He also fears that through some accident he may
be disqualified. Should that happen, his understudy would have to
conduct the services of "the Great Day." The understudy is
therefore also prepared and ready for the occasion.

Yom Kippur Eve

     The sun is about to set. The daily Temple service is
finished. A sanctified peace rests over the Mount of the Temple.
Jews feast hugely in preparation for the coming fast. The High
Priest, however, is not allowed much food, lest it make him
sleepy. On this night he must not sleep. The learned sages of the
Sanhedrin, who have been tutoring him all week in the order of
the service, make him vow not to depart from it in any detail.
They turn him over to the elders of the priesthood and leave.
These priests lead him to the room of the incense-makers, where
he practices gathering incense into his palms, so that they be
full, and yet not overflow.

Yom Kippur Night

     Various means are used to keep the High Priest from falling
asleep. Portions of the latter books of the Bible are read to
him, or, if he can, he reads and gives interpretations. These
books of the Bible are less known than others and are therefore
calculated to arouse more interest and drive away the desire for
sleep. Should the High Priest still drowse, a group of young
priests stand about him, snapping their fingers, and he is made
to stand with his bare feet on the cold stone. They also sing
Psalms to him. In one way or another he is kept awake.
     The respectable and pious Jews of Jerusalem also stay awake
that night, as do many in the provinces outside of Jerusalem
Ordinarily, preparations for the Temple service begin at dawn,
but for this occasion the preparations are started in the middle
of the night. Long before the cock has crowed, the court of the
Temple is filled with people. In the meantime priests, stationed
on the roof of the Temple, look for the first light of dawn. When
the light is sufficient for them to see Hebron between the hills
to the southeast they call out, "The light of morning has reached
Hebron." And the service begins.

Attiring the High Priest

     First the High Priest is conducted to the bath house. The
High Priest bathes himself five times on this day; in addition,
he washes his hands and feet ten times. These bathings and
washings are performed in a special room in the Temple, near the
Court of the Priests. The first bath, however, the one in the
morning, takes place outside of the innermost court, beyond the
water tower.
     Each time he bathes a curtain of byssus (costly linen) is
spread between him and the people. He doffs his ordinary raiment,
bathes, dons the golden vestments, washes his hands and feet in a
golden basin, and starts the daily sacrifice. He performs it in
his golden robes, and the congregation stands enthralled at the
sight. From their point of observation, the High Priest is a
glowing spectacle, with his golden diadem, the precious gems on
his breast, and the golden bells which hang on the hem of his
purple robe and which tinkle with every movement that he makes.
He then goes into the anteroom in order to burn the incense on
the golden altar, and to put the lamps of the Menorah in order.
This ends the regular daily service; now comes the special Yom
Kippur service, for which the High Priest dons garments of white
     He is led to the bathhouse near the Court of the Priests. He
washes his hands and feet, divests himself of his ceremonial
golden robes, bathes himself, puts on the garments of white
linen, and again washes his hands and feet.

The Temple Service

     And now, when the High Priest enters the court in simple
white, he makes an even stronger impression on the assemblage
than when he appeared in gold. The young bull that is destined
for the sacrifice stands ready between the porch and the altar.
The High Priest lays his hands on the bull's head and recites the
first confessional:

"I beseech Thee, O Lord! I have sinned, I have been iniquitous, I
have transgressed against Thee, I and my household. I beseech
Thee, O Lord, pardon the sins, iniquities and transgressions
which I have committed against Thee, I and my household, as it is
said: 'On this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse
you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord.'"

     Three times in this prayer does the High Priest expressly
pronounce the mystic and ineffable name of God, Yhwh. In all, he
pronounces God's explicit name ten times during the Yom Kippur
service. And as the ineffable name of God is pronounced by the
High Priest the assembled priests and worshipers prostrate
themselves and call out, "Blessed be the Name, the glory of His
kingdom forever and ever."

     The first part of the special Yom Kippur service is held in
the area between the porch of the Temple and the altar. The
second part, which starts now, is performed on the eastern side
of the altar, nearer to the assembled congregation.

The Sacrificial Goats

     East of the altar two goats stand ready, with their heads
toward the sanctuary. Both are of equal size, the same
appearance, and cost an equal sum of money. In an urn next to
them are two golden tablets, identical in every detail, except
that one is inscribed, "For Yhwh," and the other is inscribed,
"For Azazel."
     The white-robed High Priest proceeds to the eastern side


To be continued


Are you noticing all the "religious" pomp - the movements, the
preparations, the mind-set even, of the Priests and the religious
people of Judah, as they prepare for and anticipate this very
important day in their calendar of Festivals. Try to put yourself
into their sandals as you read through this discription by the
author. Very pious, very godly ..... well you would think so ....
Then read Matthew 23; Mark 7; the gospel of John, and also think
of other times when Jesus denounced the scribes, Pharisees and
Sadducees, in no uncertain manner. Ah, do you get the picture
now? When put in this context of the ministry of Christ, weeelll,
you should see that "outward" signs of "godly religion" can be
one of the greatest deceptions that Satan uses to deceive people
into thinking they are "spiritually pure" - right will God, part
of His children. The plain truth is that religious form,
expresion, sanctimonious words, hymn singing, putting on
religious air, having a fancy physical place to worship in,
having hundreds attend the service .... when the rubber hits the
road with God, all of it is useless. It is all DUNG to God if you
are not worshipping Him in "spirit and in truth" as Jesus said
the Father seeks such people who come to worship Him. 

Outward form and words mean nothing if you do not seek to know
the true God in "spirit and in truth." Spirit is the contrite
humble mind, willing to be taught and corrected, loving truth
above everything else. Bible studies can be done on the words
"humble" "correction" "instruction" "love" "truth." And truth
.... that is the Word of God (John 17:17), searching it, reading
it from cover to cover, living by it, conducting your life around
and within the teachings of the Bible.

As you continue to read through this outward form of the Jews on
the Feast day of Atonement, remember, all they did scored NO
points with God, their false self-righteous mind-set only made
their deception more deceptive, and it all ended with Jesus
finally blasting them with the words recorded in Matthew 23.

Keith Hunt

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