Keith Hunt - Judaism and Atonement - Page One   Restitution of All Things
  Home Next Page

Judaism and the Feast of Atonement #1

The original carried forward with ...


From the book "Festivals of the Jewish Year" by Theodor H.
Gaster, written in 1952/53.

(Remember you are reading Judism, which have some things correct,
but many things wrong, and added traditions, that have no support
from the Scriptures - Keith Hunt)


The Day of Atonement

     Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, is at the
same time the most persistently misundertood of Jewish
institutions. To nine out of ten Jews, it is "the Day of
Atonement," and its purpose is to provide an opportunity year by
year, of obtaining divine forgiveness of sin by means of
appropriate penitence and prayer.

(In God's systematic festival year, this would be the Passover
feast and Days of Unleavened Bread feast - Keith Hunt)

     The traditional devotions of the day serve, indeed, to
encourage this impression, for they are couched throughout in
terms of entreaty to a celestial judge about to pass sentence on
wayward man. Favorite images are those of the suppliant hammering
on the doors of heaven, and of the prisoner pleading desperately
for his life.
     The fact is, however, that this conventional view represents
but a half-truth. The ultimate purpose of Yom Kippur, as the
Bible states expressly (Lev. 16:30), is not merely to cleanse men
of sin, but to cleanse them before the Lord - i.e., to wipe out,
year by year, "the world's slow stain," to restore them to that
state of wholeness and holiness which is a condition of their
fulfilling their function in the world and of serving as
effective co-workers of God. The whole process of introspection,
confession and atonement, the so-called "affliction of soul,"
with which the day has come to be identified, is, in the final
analysis, simply a means to an end - the removal of an initial

     Moreover, the regeneration which Yom Kippur is designed to
accomplish is effected from within, not from without - by man's
own effort, not by an external power. It is the inevitable result
of his strenuously fanning into flame that divine spark which is
always and innately within him but which usually lies smothered
beneath the dust of his mortality. To put it another way, God
works within man, not upon him; and the whole picture of the
heavenly tribunal, with God as the presiding magistrate and man
as the defendant craving His pardon, is nothing but a survival of
outmoded mythology, an unfortunate, if picturesque, relic of that
more primitive stage of thought wherein man was conceived as the
vassal rather than the partner of God, and wherein the triumphs
and defeats of his spiritual adventure were reduced to terms of
rewards and punishments. Taken as poetry, this traditional
imagery may be useful and convenient; taken literally, it is
dangerous distortion.

     For Israel, this annual process of regeneration possesses a
special significance. Israel is committed by the Covenant to
serve as the special steward of the Torah, the agent and exemplar
of the divine dispensation in the world of men. Wholeness and
holiness are conditions of that commitment: "Ye shall be holy
unto Me; for I the Lord am holy, and have set you apart from the
peoples, that ye should be Mine (Lev. 20:26). Any diminution of
them - any tarnishing of the divine by the corruption of the
human - is therefore not only an individual offense, a blot on
individual character, but also a breach of the Covenant, a
positive impediment to the discharge of its obligations.

     Conversely, any individual enhancement of them is at the
same time a contribution to the collective endeavor.
     For this reason, Yom Kippur is a public institution as well
as a private experience. The confessions which are recited on
this day are couched, significantly enough, in the first person
plural; and what is envisaged is a purification not only of
individual souls but also of the whole House of Israel.


     From the historical point of view, it is the collective
character of the day that is at once its oldest and its most
important element.
     The earliest account of Yom Kippur that that we possess
in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus, where it is
said to have been instituted by Moses in connection with the
tabernacle erected in the wilderness. Although this account
seems in fact to have been written centuries later, the
ceremonies which it describes are all premised on primitive modes
of thought and therefore not improbably go back to a remote
     The ritual is performed by the high priest called "Aaron,"
and its purpose is to purify priests, laymen and sanctuary once a
year. The purification is conceived, however, in physical rather
than spiritual terms, and consists in the performance of
elaborate rites designed to remove taint and contagion. The
measure adopted include ablutions (vss. 4, 24, 26, 28); sacr-
fices (vss. S-6, 11, 15) ; fum     (vss. I2-13) ; aspersions of
sacrificial blood (vss. 14-15, 18-i 9) ; and chan ges of raiment,
(vss. 4, 23); and culminate in the dispatch into the desert of   
a scapegoat to whom the collective sins of the community
have een previously transferred (vss. 10, 20-22). 1  The Hebrew
term for such eliminatory procedures is "kippurim," and it is
this that the day derives its name. Although, to be sure, the
confession and shriving of sin bulks largely in the program, sin,
at this level of thought is considered primarily as miasma, and
"yom kippurim" is thus a day of purgation rather than of
     The general form and spirit of this ritual can be ready    
paralleled from other parts of the world. Perhaps the best
instances come from Babylon andJapan respectively. On the fifth
day of their ten-day New Year festival, the ancient Babylonians
performed a rite which they called "kuppuru," or "purgation." A
ram was beheaded, and its body was rubbed against the walls of
one of the main chapels of the temple, in order thereby to absorb
any latent impurity. Head and trunk were then tossed into the
river, the officiating priest and the slaughterer being sent into
the desert or outside the city, there to observe a quarantine
until the end of the celebrations.
     At the same time, the temple and its precincts were

1 The goat is said (vas. 8, 10) to be consigned to Azazel, but
the meaning of this term is unknown. According to some Jewish
authorities, it is the name of a rock off which the animal was
hurled; according to others, it is the name of a demon who was
believed to inhabit the wilderness. The ancient versions,
however, tried to explain the word from the Hebrew "ex ozel,"
"goat which departs," and from this interpretation comes the
conventional scapegoat, i.e., "escape-goat"

aspersed with holy water and fumigated; while on the following
day, the king - as the vessel and steward of the communal life -
was required to make confession of his sins, and a condemned
criminal was paraded through the streets and beaten about the  
head as a human scapegoat.
     The Japanese ceremony--called "Ohoharahi," or "Great
Purgation," takes place in every Shinto temple throughout the
land on June 30 and December 31, the last days respectively of
the two major seasons into which the year is divided. The
ceremony is performed, in the name of the Mikado, by a member of
the priestly clan of the nakatomi, and consists in a formal
confession of sins (especially those committed by officials) and
a symbolic banishment of them. The sins are reeled off in a
lengthy catalogue and are banished by being transferred to such
objects as rags, rice stalks or animal hides, which are
eventually thrown into the river. Alternatively, everyone
provides himself with a life-sized paper doll (kata-shiro) on
which he writes his name and the year and month of his birth.
These are rubbed against the body and breathed on, so that each
penitent's personal sins may be transferred to them. At the end
of the ceremony, the dolls are tied together in bundles and
thrown into the streams, while the deities of mountain torrents,
winds and tides, and - finally - of the nether regions are bidden
to carry them away.

(So, was it that God's Festivals were known from past ages or
even from the beginning, and hence various nations as they moved
from the cradle of civilization, still carried a form of some of
the Lord's festivals. It would seem from history that this is so
- Keith Hunt)

     Nor is it only in general spirit that the Hebrew ceremony
conforms to a fairly universal patter. Its several details
likewise possess abundant analogies elsewhere. Thus, the
prescription that the high priest must first bathe and put on
clean garments goes back to the primitive notion that moral
impurity takes a physical form and attaches both to the person
and to the clothing. In Peru, for example, penitents had, after
confession, once to don fresh raiment, and the same practice
still obtains in the Brahman ceremony of "avabhrta" which
concludes the annual expiatory rite known as "varunapraghasa."
Similarly, in the Orientalizing cults of the late Roman Empire,
penitents used to immerse themselves in the waters of the Tiber;
in Mexico, adulteresses are often obliged to change their clothes
after making confession.


     The use of fumigation as a means of purging impurity 
likewise reflects common primitive usage and likewise goes back
to the idea that moral defection implies physical uncleanness. In
India, newborn children are often fumigated from the impurities
of that other world whence they have come into this, and in the
Avesta--the scripture of the ancient Iranians--it is prescribed
that the house of a dead person must be similarly treated in
order to remove the miasma of death. In the same way, too, the
Greeks used to fumigate their dwellings as a means of keeping off
witches; and in the apocryphal Book of Tobit (8:3) the archdemon
Ashmedai is driven away by smoke.


     Common is aLso the rite of sprinkling blood, though its
precise significance is disputed. According o some scholars, the
purpose was negative, viz., to remove "bad blood," and in support
of this view it is pointed out that "blood-letting" as a means of
releasing impurity is indeed common among many primitive peoples,
e.g., the Bechuana of Central Africa, the Yuchis of South
America, the Aztecs of Mexico, and various tribes in China, Peru,
Nicaragua and Guatemala. Other scholars contend, however, that
the purpose of the rite was positive, viz., symbolically to
infuse "new blood" into that which had become tainted and
impaired. Whichever of the two interpretations we adopt, it is
plain that this element of the ceremony reflects a primitive
usage which was indeed already little more than a survival at the
time when our account was written.

(AH,  again, looks like much of the physical rites of God's
people before Moses, and even before Abraham, was carried into
the nations as they moved from the craddle of civilization in the
Middle-East - Keith Hunt)

     As for public confession of sins a few examples will
     In ancient Peru, each of the major agricultural festivals
was preceded by a public recital of misdeeds committed by members
of the community; and the same procedure is still observed, once
a year, by the Kagaba of Sierra Nevada, the Orondanza (an
Iroquois tribe), the Bechuana, the Ojibwa of Lake Superior, and
by several other North American Indians. In most cases, the
confession is recited by the heaD man or chief priest on behalf
of the assembled people, transferring sin or evil to a
scapegoat and the discussion of it fills a bulky volume of Sir
Frazer's "The Golden Bough." We may therefore content ourselves
with but two representative examples, the one ancient and the
other modern. 
     At the ancient Greek festival of Thargelia, held in May, two
human scapegoats were ceremonially scourged out of the city--a
misshapen man or condemned felon for the male, and a deformed
woman for the female population; while among the Garos of Assam,
a goat and monkey (or bamboo rat) are sacrificed annually as
vicarious bearers of sin and evil, in order to insure prosperity
for the coming year
     Sometimes, too, this rite is performed not at a fixed season
of the year but at an occasional moment of crisis, when the
continuance of life or fortune seems to be threatened by some
conscious or unconscious infringement of the moral order. Thus,
it is customary among Malagasy whalers to observe an eight-day
period of purification and to confess their sins to one another
before embarking on a fishing expedition. Among the Caffres of
South Africa, whenever a man is critically ill, it is the
practice to take a goat, confess over it the sins of the entire
kraal and then turn it loose on the veldt. Similarly, when
calamity strikes the Dinkas of the White Nile, they load the evil
upon a sacred cow and drive it across the river.


     The essential thing about all these ceremonies is that they
are designed not for the benefit of individuals but of society
and, indeed of mankind in general. Their object is not to
regenerate the souls of transgressors but to repair the harm
which their transgressions inflict upon the commonweal. They are
orientated from the standpoint not of the sinner but of that
which is sinned against, not of the offender but of the offended;
and that is why they are public, communal procedures rather than
mere private personal experiences.
     The customary confession of sins, for example, is not an act
of individual atonement but an element in the process of
collective purgation; it is simply an inventory of the several
taints and impurities of which the community has to be
     It is in this way, too, that the rite of the scapegoat is
really to be understood. Unfortunately, the term has been greatly
abused in recent years - especially by publicists and political
propagandists - and the belief has grown up that a scapegoat is
simply someone whom you blame for your own mistakes and who is
made to bear the burden of them. This, however, distorts the
whole meaning of the institution. The essential point about the
scapegoat is that it removes from the community the taint and
impurity of sins which have first to be openly and fully
confessed. There is no question of transferring to it either
blame or responsibility; the sole issue is how to get rid of the
miasma of transgressions which one freely acknowledges. In the
case of private individuals, this can be accomplished by a
process of personal contrition, repentance and regeneration, but
in that of a community the problem is far more complex, for there
can be no assurance that every single person will indeed undergo
that process; latent impurity may therefore remain, and the taint
of one affects all.
     There is thus only one method of securing clearance, namely,
to pronounce a comprehensive, blanket confession of sins and to
saddle the comprehensive taint upon some person, animal or object
which will be forcibly expelled and thereby take away. This and
this alone is the real purpose of the rite. Nor is it only for
the benefit of man that these periodic rites are performed. In
primitive thought, the actions of men very largely determine the
course of nature. If, by their remissness or misconduct, they
impair the harmony or upset the equilibrium of the universe, the
sun will not recover its strength after the winter, the rains
will not fall in due season, there will be no increase of crops
or cattle, and eventually the whole of creation will go to rack
and ruin. Accordingly, the removal of impurity, the clearance of
sin, and what we may call the "rehabilitation of impaired
holiness" are regarded as necessary conditions for the
maintenance and continuance of the world order, and it is equally
in this spirit and conviction that they are periodically

     On a purely literal level of interpretation, one might say
that these rites are simply a form of communal "spring cleaning"
or, at best, a means of removing the consequences of breaking
     But such interpretations, though all too common, merely
scratch the surface; they describe rather than explain. What is
really involved, what conditions the taboos in the first place,
is the deeper sense that where holiness is sullied, there, too,
is life itself impaired, and that no continuance can be expected
unless and until the taint is removed. 

(Again, did the various nations leave the cradle of civilization
with the rites that God had instituted for His people, and
through time they saw changes and adaptions, as they lost the
knowledge of truth and purity and began to be influenced by the
demonic world. It would very much seem so - Keith Hunt)

     Behind these periodic ceremonies of purgation and
elimination there lies a consciousness - as Gilbert Murray has
expressed it - that "man, though he desperately needs bread, does
not live by bread alone, but longs for a new life, a new age ...
not stained by the deaths and impurities of the past."


     Into the ancient, time-honored ceremony Israel read a new
meaning. (Really the old original meaning with God - Keith Hunt).
The essential thing about it became the fact that it had
to be performed "in the presence of the Lord." This means that it
was no longer a mere mechanical act of purgation, a mere riddance
and dispatch of impurity. The people had now to be cleansed not
for themselves but for their God: before Jehovah shall ye be
clean (Lev. 16:30). Sin and corruption were now regarded as
impediments not merely to their material welfare and prosperity
but to the fulfillment of their duty to God and of their
obligations under the Covenant. If the dispatch of the scapegoat
could serve to expel the actual contagion, it had still to be
supplemented by an act of expiation before Jehovah; a
sin-offering, too, had to be presented.
     Moreover, the waving of frankincense, which had originally
been but a means of fumigation, was now interpreted as designed
to interpose a smoke screen between the glory of God, hidden
behind the Veil, and the mortality of the high priest: "He shall
place the incense, in addition to the fire, before Jehovah, that
the cloud of the incense may cover the veil which is upon the
(ark of) the testimony, and that he may not die" (Lev. 16:13).
     Translated into broad terms, what the Israelite
transformation affirmed was that impairment of holiness not
only impeded the prosperity of men but also inflicted injury upon
God. For to the extent that a man was tainted and sullied, he
lost his effectiveness as an instrument of, and partner in, the
divine plan. Accordingly, when once impurity had been introduced
either into a human being or into anything dedicated to the
service of God, more was necessary than a mere removal of it;
something had also to be done to make restitution to God, or, at
least, to repair the damaged relationship with Him. Not only
expiation but also propitiation was now required; not only the
scapegoat but also the sin-offering.

     This conception revolutionized the entire approach to evil.
For loss of holiness, or moral turpitude, was now no longer a
matter of mere personal and communal degeneration nor was its
consequence mere personal misfortune; it was a crime against the
Kingdom of God, and the expiation of it therefore involved
atonement as well as purgation. The dominant motif now changed
perceptibly from mere disinfection and decontamination to
reconciliation and truce with God. The entire frame of reference
was enlarged. What was now sought through the traditional rite
was not only clearance but also forgiveness; evil was something
which had to be shriven as well as repaired, and repentance
became not only a process of inner rehabilitation but also a
positive "return" to the service of God.


     Nor this alone. The Israelite development of the ancient
ritual also brought home another important and universal truth.
Even the high priest, for all his elaborate purifications and for
all his entry, this once in the year, into the very holy of
holies itself, could not behold the full glory of God, which
remained hidden behind a cloud of smoke. What is here affirmed,
albeit in primitive terms, is that the attainment of holiness can
be, at best, but partial, and that, given the limitations of
human existence, the religious quest can never actually reach its
goal, its value and validity lying in the search itself. The
religious adventure consists essentially in a continuous effort
to reach beyond, but the making of this effort, far from being
futile, itself expands the nature of man to its maximum extent.

     Moreover - and this is supremely significant - the cloud
which is finally interposed between the glory of God and the
mortality of man is not the dense, black smoke of the mundane but
the thin vapor which issues from two handfuls of incense and from
a few coals taken off the altar itself. So long as the Temple
stood in Jerusalem, the Day of Atonement was mainly a temple
celebration. The manner of its observance during the time of the
Second Temple is described in detail in a special treatise of the
Mishnah, entitled Yoma, or "The Day."
     Particular care was taken to insure that the high priest
would not incur impurity during the preceding night, thus
rendering himself unfit to perform the ceremony. He was kept
awake by Scriptural readings and expositions, and whenever he
seemed inclined to doze, younger members of the priesthood would
crack their finger joints beside him or force him to pace up and
down on the cold stone.


     The ceremony of dispatching the scapgoat was carried out in
particularly picturesque fashion. As soon as the lots had been
cast, the goat which felL to Azazel was marked by a crimson
thread tied around its head.
     The task of leading it away was assigned to a member of the
priesthood on the grounds that, however disagreeable it might be,
this was still a sacred office and should therefore not be
delegated to a layman. A special causeway was constructed for the
purpose, in order to prevent the heathen from laying hold on the
animal and trying to use it for the expiation of their sins. The
goat was taken to a ravine some twelve miles outside of
Jerusalem, the journey being divided into ten stages, each but
the last marked by a booth. For the first nine stages
the officiant was accompanied by dignitaries of the city, but
from that point on he had to travel alone. When he reached the
edge of the ravine, he divided the crimson thread, tying one part
of it to the rock and the other between the horns of the goat.
Then he pushed the animal from behind till it went rolling down,
"and," says the Mishnah, "ere it reached half-way, it was broken
to pieces." The officiant then returned to the last booth and
remained there in quarantine until nightfall, the successful
conclusion of the ceremony being indicated to the high priest in
the Temple by the waving of towels from easily visible lookout


     An equally important feature of th ceremonies was the
recital of the Confession. A prescribed formula was used. When he
offered the sin-offering for the priestly household, the high
priest pressed his hands upon it and proclaimed:  O God, I have
committed iniquity, transgressed and sinned before Thee, I and my
household. O God, forgive the iniquities and transgressions and
sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before
Thee, I and my household, even as it is written in the Law of Thy
servant Moses: 'For on this day shall he make atonement for you,
to cleanse of all your sins; ye shall be clean before Jehovah'" 
(Lev. 16:30). The same formula was likewise repeated over the
scapegoat except, of course, that the guilty persons were then
identified as the entire House of Israel. In each case, when he
came to the final word of the Scriptural quotation, the high
priest pronounced it as it was written, instead of substituting
for it the usual reverential paraphrase "the Lord" (Adonai). This
utterance of the otherwise ineffable name was, in a sense, the
high point of the entire service. "When," says the Mishnah, "the
priests and the people who were standing in the courtyard heard
the Ineffable Name issuing from the mouth of the high priest in
purity and holiness, they bowed and prostrated themselves and
fell upon their faces and said: Blessed be the name of Him whose
glorious majesty endures for ever!"


     But there was also, curiously enough, a gayer dise to the
Day of Atonement. On that day, the Mishnah tells us, 2  it was
customary for the girls of Jerusalem to dress up in spotless
white finery and to go out and dance in the vineyards in order to
attract suitors. As the young men gathered around them, they
would raise their voices and chant: "Lift your eyes, pick your
prize;/ Care for race, and not for face!" and they would quote
the Scriptures (Prov. 31:30) to prove that, since "charm is
deceitful and beauty vain," it is inner virtue, and not outward
grace, that should count in choosing a bride! This ceremony, so
utterly incongruous with the general spirit of penitence and
austerity, is probably to be explained as a survival in popular
usage of the common primitive practice of mass-mating around the
time of harvest. The idea behind this practice is that such
mating promotes the fertility of mankind and even the fecundity
of the earth at that annual moment of crisis when the collective
life of the community and of the

2 Ta'anith IV, 8.

world seems to hang in the balance. Thus - to cite but a few
instances - among the Hereros of German Southwest Africa and
among various Bantu tribes, mass-mating and sexual promiscuity
are obligatory at specific seasons of the year; and the Garos of
Assam encourage men and women to consort together at certain
major agricultural festivals. Similarly, in some parts of the
Ukraine, couples copulate openly in the fields on St. George's
Day (April 23) in order to promote the growth of the crops; and
at Arcal and Santo Tirso in Portugal they perform the rite of
rebolada or "rolling together" before the reaping of the flax in
May. The familiar Classical legend of the rape of the Sabine
women probably reflects this usage, for the incident is said to
have taken place at a festival (possibly the Consualia) in
August; and such may also be the basis of the Biblical tale
(Judg. 21:16-23) relating how the men of Benjamin carried off the
women of Shiloh on the occasion of a seasonal celebration.
     There are many attenuated survivals of this custom in
European and Oriental folklore. In certain parts of England, for
instance, girls may be lifted up and kissed with impunity on May
15; and at Hungerford, in Berkshire, the second Thursday after
Easter is "hocking day" when the "tutti-men" go about the streets
lifting up or "hocking" (cf. German hoch, "high") the women and
exacting a kiss from each. A more usual form of attenuation,
however, is the belief that certain days are auspicious for
selecting husbands or wives. Thus, in some parts of England, St.
Roch's Day (August 16) is especially favored for this purpose,
while elsewhere St. Luke's Day (October 18 ) is similarly
regarded. In the same way, too, it is the custom in Spanish
Galicia for girls to repair at harvest time to a duly selected
barn, where their ardent swains attend upon them; while among the
Thompson River Indians of British Columbia, husbands and wives
are chosen at a seasonal festival held in the socalled "spring
house." It is such an attenuated form of the primitive
institution that is to be recognized, in all likelihood, in the
usage mentioned in the Mishnah.

(The Feast of Atonement surely does have a LIGHT HAPPY side to
it. It pictures the time when the world will be at-one with God,
when sin and Satan will be banished, so to speak, for 1,000
years. It will be a time of holy correct romance, in a figure,
the man being God, and woman, being romanced, the nations of the
world, as they come to love the Eternal God. It is written, the
knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover
the sea beds. There is truly a joy and wonderful emotion of a man
with a woman. In type then, God with the world at-one with Him.
Like all things good and holy, this idea no doubt got sulified
and abused with carnal lust in nations as they retained the
original, though in time perverted, and moved away from the
cradle of civilization. Possibly indeed, the Jews were able to
retain the purity of it all. Certainly there is a joyous side to
the Feast of ATONEMENT, and a side of sorrow and what must
translate for the nations before they can be at-one with God;
that I have spoken about in other studies for this feast day -
Keith Hunt)


     When the Temple was destroyed in o C.E., and sacrifices came
to an end, the traditional Day of Purgation necessarily underwent
a profound change. The taint and corruption which were anciently
removed, from year to year, by the almost mechanical ritual of
the scapegoat and the sin-offering, had now to be purged by a
process of personal catharsis, involving the successive stages of
contrition, confession, reform and absolution. At the same time,
the collective character of the institution remained paramount.


To be continued

  Home Top of Page Next Page

Navigation List:

Word Search: