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Judaism and Feasts of the Lord #4

The Feast of Atonement


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



     For the rest, the afternoon service represents a certain
easing of tension after the tremendous moment of the Abodah. It
is, as it were, a kind of interlude between that moment and the
impending urgency and intensity of the concluding devotions. But
it is not without its moments of poetry, and in this respect the
following quaint lines from Isaac ben Israel's "Prelude to the
Confession" in the Sephardic rite are perhaps worthy of
quotation: 18

Said I to head: Head, do thou plead for me. 
Said head: on many heads such plea were vain. 
How can I hope His mercy to obtain
Who am lightheaded, full of levity?
How can the head which shame and sin do bend 
Be raised to Him Who doth all heads transcend?

Said I to lips: Mine innocence relate. 
Said lips: that is a thing we cannot do. 
For how shall God regard our words as true, 
Who nothing know but to dissimulate?
Said I to mouth: Call thou upon His name.
Said mouth: I have no words but words of shame.

Said I to heart: O pour forth thy complaint 
To Him Who dwelleth in the world on high. 
Said heart: here in the slough of sin I lie 
And cannot move from evil's hard constraint. 
How can the heart which forgeth evil things 
Be turned in prayer unto the King of Kings?

Said I to hands: Hands, be your palms outspread 
To God in heaven, and His mercy seek.
Said hands: the hands that base corruption wreak 
Are unavailing, fruitless hands and dead.
Said I to feet: Feet, do ye plead for me. 
Said feet: it were a feat to find His grace.

18 Pool, Atonement, 290 ff. The rendering is free.

How can the feet which e'er to evil race 
Now tread the humble path to clemency?

     The concluding service of Yom Kippur is call Ne'ilah, which
is the Hebrew word for the "Closing of the Gate." Originally,
this appears to have referred to the closing of the Temple gates
at dusk, but by an inspired extension it is now taken to mean the
closing of the heavenly gates of prayer.

     The service commences at the moment when the setting sun
seems to be level with the treetops, and it must be timed to end
with the appearance of the first stars. For the latter reason, it
is customary to recite the prayers without an excessive amount of
cantillation, the precentor refraining from the protracted trills
and tremolos which characterize the other devotions of the day.
     Ne'ilah represents the last chance for repentance on the one
hand, and for divine forgiveness on the other. According to the
ancient fantasy, it is at this hour that the roster of the
living, which is compiled on New Year's Day is finally sealed.
Accordingly, in all those statutory prayers wherein, throughout
the day, God is besought to "inscribe us in the Book of Life," He
is now entreated to "seal us."

     The dominant mood of the service is one of urgent, nay
desperate, insistence. The worshiper feels that he has now all
but exhausted his own inner resources in order to achieve
atonement and regeneration; if these have not sufficed, nothing
remains but reliance on the clemency of God. This mood is caught
to perfection in the stirring poem by Moses ibn Ezra (ca.
1070-CA. 1139) which introduces the service in the Sephardic
ritual: 19

19 El Nora. Pool, Atonement, p. 294.

LORD, though every power be Thine 
And every deed tremendous, 
Now, when heaven's gates are closing, 
Let Thy grace defend us.

Few we be yet, trembling, cry: 
Lord, Thy mercy send us. 
Now, when heaven's gates are closing, 
Let Thy grace defend us.

Lord, we pour our hearts to Thee; 
Rend the sins that rend us. 
Now, when heaven's gates are closing, 
Let Thy grace defend us.

Be our shield, annul our doom; 
Joy and bliss attend us. 
Now, when heaven's gates are closing, 
Let Thy grace defend us.

Shew us pity; bring to end 
All our foes horrendous. 
Now, when heaven's gates are closing, 
Let Thy grace defend us.

Lord, renew the days of old;
Our fathers' deeds commend us. 
Now, when heaven's gates are closing, 
Let Thy grace defend us.

     In quieter vein, this spirit of resignation likewise finds
expression in the short poem, "Yahbienu," by a certain Isaac ben
Samuel, which is chanted to a haunting melody in the Ashkenazic
service  20

Now, folded in the shadow of Thy hand, 
Now, coverted beneath Thine outspread wings

20 Adler-Davis, "Atonement," p. 262.

O Lord Who probest hearts, now let us stand 
Made clean of all perverse and froward things!

Lord God, arise! In all Thy strength arise! 
Lord, bend Thine ear and hearken to our cries!

     Like all the other services of the day, that of Ne'ilah
works up to the crescendo of the great public confession; but
even this is but a prelude to the tremendous final moments. When
the evening twilight is finally merging into night, and the
incessant devotions are nearing their end, a solemn hush falls
upon the congregation, and the cantor, covering his head with the
prayer-shawl, cries out in a loud voice, "Hear, O Israel, the
Lord is our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. 6:4), following this
immediately with a threefold repetition of the words, "Blessed be
the Name of Him whose glorious kingdom endures for ever," the
words which were anciently uttered by the attendant worshipers
when the high priest pronounced the name of God in the Temple.
     Then, beginning in a whisper and progressively increasing
the volume of his voice, he declares seven times, "The Lord, He
is God" the cry of the people when they beheld the miracle
wrought by Elijah on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:39). These are the
three declarations which every Jew is expected likewise to utter
at the moment of his death, and which have received a special
sanctity in Jewish tradition from the fact that they have so
often proceeded from the lips of those who have "gone through
fire and water for the hallowing of God's name."

     When the last notes of the chant have died away, a long
blast is sounded on the ram's horn (shoffar), and the Fast of
Kippur is at an end.
     But immediately, without a break, the normal evening
service begins, introducing the new day. For the devotion and
commitment of the Israelite are continuous.

     Modern scholars believe that the Day of Atonement on the
tenth of Tishri did not become a regular institution in Israel
until after the time of the Babylonian Exile, and that the
passages in the Pentateuch which refer to it 21  really date from
that relatively late epoch. 

(Judaism goes way off the track here, and into the ditch of
secular reasoning - Keith Hunt)

     The reasons for this view are the following:

(a) The Day of Atonement is not mentioned in the so-called
"ritual decalogue" of Exodus 34:14 ff. - generally regarded as
one of the oldest portions of the Pentateuch - whereas the
seasonal festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Booths are indeed

(It was given by the Lord in Lev.16 and 23 and was therefore
inspired instruction as well as inspired law within the framework
of the festival year as brought into being under Moses. The first
argument falls with a crsh - Keith Hunt)

(b) Neither is it mentioned in the ancient "Book of the Covenant"
embodied in Exodus 23-24, although there too the seasonal
festivals are duly prescribed (23 14-19).

(Second argument falls also with a crash. The Sabbath of Genesis
2 is not mentioned again until the days of Moses, but that does
not prove it was not being observed by the people of God, as I've
proved it did exist from Adam to Moses in other studies on this
Website - Keith Hunt)

(c) The law of Leviticus 25:9 enjoins that the year of jubilee is
to be reckoned from the tenth of Tishri. This, it is contended,
proves that the latter date was originally regarded as New Year's
Day rather than as a Day of Atonement.

(Proves nothing but that the Jubilee is reckoned from the day of
Atonement. God can tell us what He reckons from when He reckons
it, as He wills. He is the boss not us. The day of Atonement as
in Lev.16 and 23, was always there from the days of Moses. There
is nothing to suggest that it was any other way - Keith Hunt)

(d) The prophet Ezekiel, writing during the Babylonian Exile,
signalizes the tenth of Tishri as New Year's Day, but says
nothing about its being the Day of Atonement (40:1).

(Another weak, very weak argument. For Ezekiel to use the phrase
"in the begiining of the year, in the 10th of the month.." can be
taken as a "general statement" - it was the new year already and
in the 10th day of that beginning of the year, the hand of the
Lord came upon him. This verse does not prove Atonement feast was
the first day of the year per se, here in Ezekiel's captivity.
And it certainly does not abolish Lev.16 and 23, where the feast
of Atonement is given as the "feasts of the Lord" and hence the
commandments of the Lord to be observed by Israel from that time
forth - Keith Hunt)
(e) The same prophet, in sketching a new religious order for
Israel, designates the new moon of the first and seventh month 22
(i.e., Nisan and Tishri) as the

21   Lev. 16:29-34, 23:26-32; Num. 29:7-11.
22   There is an error in the traditional Hebrew text of Ezek.   

     45:20. In place of the words, "So also shalt thou do on the 

     seventh of the month" we should read (with the Greek        

     septuagint version): "So also shalt thou do on the first day

     of the seventh month."

two dates in the year when the sanctuary is to be purged
(kapper). This, it is contended, implies that a statutory Day of
Atonement was not yet in existence.

(Purging the sanctuary has nothing to do with observing the day
of Atonement. For Jews to claim the laws of any part of Lev.16
and 23 were not practiced till hundreds of years later is putting
their ideas and their theology above the inspired word and
instruction of the Lord. The "feasts of the Lord" are a complete
package which were to be proclaimed and observed from that moment
on as given to Moses to proclaim to Israel. There is nothing in
those festivals that could or would prevent them being observed in
the 40 years in the wilderness and on inheriting the promised
land, in their basic form, even if some particulars had to wait
until they were in the promised land. It is like the Jews
themselves still observe the "feastivals" even if there is no
Temple and Priesthood and animal sacrifices taking place in
Jerusalem. The basic festivals have to do with time and days, and
worship, regardless of any other physical commodity - Keith Hunt)

(f) Nehemiah, describing the events which took place in Jerusalem
in Tishri, 519 B.C.E., when the exiles returned from Babylon,
duly mentions the holy first day of the month and the Feast of
Booths, but says nothing whatsoever about a Day of Atonement on
the tenth. Nor this alone; he tells us expressly (9:1 ff.) that
the people convened especially "on the twenty-fourth day of the
said month, with fasting and with sackcloth and with earth upon
them." This, it is maintained, would have been well nigh absurd,
if there had indeed been a fullscale ceremony of penitence and
atonement only two weeks earlier!

(No, we should find no such absurd notion at all. It is clearly
stated in Neh.8 that they had the book of the law, the five books
of Moses, and it was read to them. They discover by reading that
the very day they were gathered together was holy to God. Common
sense would tell you that they would have discovered Lev.16 and
all of Lev.23. Common sense would tell you that the day of
Atonement would have been discovered and like the other fall
festivals, they discovered, would have been observed. Just
because only Trumpets and Tabernacles and eighth day are
mentioned in specifics, does not mean they did read read about
the feast of Atonement and observe it. The Gospels are an
example. Some gospel writers did not write about things that
other gospel writers wrote about. John's gospel is way different
that Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The fasting argument used here to
claim Atonement feast was unknown, is grasping at straws, for in
this history of the Jews, under the situation we read about in
Neh.8 and 9, I'm sure there were lots of fasting and crying, and
sackcloth upon the Jews, many more times than what is recorded or
specifically mentioned to us. Just because one writer states
certain events, gives emphisis, chooses to write about only
certain observances and events, does NOT mean other events and
observances were not held. Even if for some "strange reason" the
feast of Atonement was not observed at this time, that happening
here (if it was so) does not prove that feast day was unknown and
not observed in ancient Israel under Moses or any other "good and
God-fear" king of Israel. Silence is not always a proof of
"unknown" and "un-observed." The weekly Sabbath is not mentioned
after Genesis 2 until the days of Moses, but I've proved by other
parts of the Bible that it was a sin to break any of the Ten
Commandments before the time of Moses, including the weekly Sabbath 
- Keith Hunt)

     These arguments, however, are by no means so conclusive as
might appear at first sight; each can be readily answered.
First, the laws of Exodus 34:14 ff. and 23:14-19 are concerned
only with the seasonal festivals (Hebrew, hagim), so that their
silence on the subject of the Day of Atonement, which does not
fall into this category, is no proof that it did not exist at the
     Second, the law of Leviticus 25:9, far from proving that the
Day of Atonement did not exist at the time, in fact proves just
the opposite. The jubilee year, we are informed (Lev. 25:10,12),
was regarded as a holy period; accordingly it could not begin
until the annual ceremony of purgation and resanctification had
taken place; otherwise it would have been beset from the start
with all the unshriven impurity of the preceding year. The fact
that it is reckoned from the tenth of Tishri thus implies that on
that day the required purgation indeed took place, i.e., that
Tishri 10 was the Day of Atonement.
     Third, it is by no means certain that Ezekiel 40:1 has been
correctly interpreted. What the prophet says, in literal
translation, is that "in the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at
the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month . . .
the hand of Jehovah was upon me." Now, although the expression
"beginning of the year" (Hebrew, rosh hashanah) came to be
applied to New Year's Day, the prophet need not have been using
it in so precise a sense; the tenth day of a year can surely be
described, without abuse of language, as "at the beginning of the
     Fourth, Ezekiel's reference to the two days of purgation, on
the new moon of the first and seventh months respectively, is no
evidence of current practice, and does not prove that the Day of
Atonement on Tishri 10 did not exist in this time. For the fact
is that the prophet is deliberately suggesting a new and reformed
system somewhat like that of the Japanese Ohoharahi ceremonies -
whereby the purification of the sanctuary is to be undertaken not
only before the autumnal Feast of Ingathering but equally before
the vernal harvest festival of Passover. The point of the reform
is, in fact, to repeat in the spring what was already standard
practice in the fall; and (although the prophet shifted the date)
this implies, rather than denies, the existence of at least some
sort of Day of Purgation in Tishri.
     Fifth and last, it is difficult to see why the narrative in
the Book of Nehemiah should be taken to imply that there was at
the time no Day of Atonement on Tishri 10. The reason why it was
not celebrated on that particular occasion is easily explained. A
major feature of the day was, as we have seen, the purgation of
the sanctuary from the impurities of the past year. In this case,
however, the sanctuary had only just started functioning, so that
there was virtually nothing to purge, and the rite had perforce
to be abandoned or postponed. (Indeed, if any general conclusion
is to be drawn, the more logical one would surely be that the Day
of Purgation was necessarily suspended throughout the period of
the exile.) 

(And as I've stated the main part of any of God's festivals is
the "spirit" of the law and the day. You can still observe a fast
day without all the fancy physical laws of a sanctuary. The Jews
have no problem today in observing the fast of Atonement, even
though they have no Temple or "official" Priesthood in Jerusalem
- Keith Hunt)

     As for the fast on the twenty-fourth of the month, this was
in no sense a day of atonement. The sanctuary was not purged, and
the crucial word "kapper" is nowhere employed. The purpose of the
fast was simply and solely to express the remorse of the
returning exiles over the religious laxity and defection which
had characterized their lives in Babylonia. Ezra, we are informed
(Ezra 9:1 ff.) likewise fasted when he heard of the extensive
assimilation and intermarriage that had taken place. Moreover,
the reason why the fast was held on the twenty-fourth of the
month was that this was the earliest opportunity of doing so
after the close of the festal season on the twenty-second. One
day had to intervene because the twenty-second was a festival
(the Day of Solemn Assembly), and preparations for a fast could
not be made on a holy day.

     Thus, all the arguments for the relative "modernity" of the
Day of Atonement prove vulnerable. (I guess so - Keith Hunt)

     On the other hand, there are at least two good reasons for
believing that it was really ancient. The first is that the
scheme of seasonal festivals all over the world provides that the
moment of joy be preceded by one of mortification and austerity,
expressing the decline of vitality - the state of "suspended
animation" - before the commencement of a new lease of life. On
general grounds, therefore, the existence of a solemn day of
purgation and abstinence before the autumnal feast or Ingathering
is extremely likely.

     The second reason is that the scheme of the Hebrew festal
cycle in autumn corresponds in general with that of the festal
cycle in spring. In both cases, the first new moon is regarded as
New Year's Day and in both cases the first full moon introduces
the harvest festival (Ingathering and Passover respectively). It
is therefore logical to suppose that there was something on the
tenth of Tishri corresponding to the selection of the expiatory
paschal victim on the tenth of Nisan. The dispatch of the
scapegoat and the ceremony of purgation would readily have
constituted such a counterpart.

(Yes indeed, the lamb was to be set apart on the 10th day for
sacrifice on the 14th day. The 10th of the 1st month had an equal
typology on the 10th of the 7th month. Then as they were part of
the overall laws of the Lord, Lev.16 and 23, given by God to
Moses, to instruct the Israelites how to worship the Lord on
weekly, monthy, and annual days, so it would have all been a part
of the worship year in Israel, to observe all the festivals as
given in Lev.23 - Keith Hunt) 

     In short, the Day of Atonement would have been originally
but one element in a continuous festal program extending from the
new moon of Tishri until the close of the Feast of Ingathering.

     For the modern Jew, the real difficulty about Yom Kippur
lies in the fact that what we now regard as an internal process
is traditionally presented as an external one. God is portrayed
as working upon us rather than in us, and this leads to an
overemphasis upon atonement and forgiveness at the expense of the
more advanced conceptions of self-purgation and regeneration.

     Once it is realized, however, that the difference is in the
final analysis, simply one of idiom and expression, it becomes
evident that the process involved is indeed the supreme spiritual
experience of which man is capable, and that it is by virtue of
this fact, and not of the mere solemnity of its ritual, that Yom
Kippur justly ranks as the holiest day of the Jewish year.

(What is holy is holy. Man cannot make a day holy, or holy-er. It
is a travacy for the Jews to claim Yom Kippur ranks as the
holiest day of the year. I guess as man, in this case the Jew,
worships God in the manner of what man esteems as holy or un-
holy, you can therefore claim one day is holy-er than another
holy day. In the sight and mind of the Lord, His holy days of the
Festival year, are as holy as He is holy - Keith Hunt)


September 2009

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