Yom Kippur and Jewish forgiveness of sins

JOSEPH ASKS:

How do Jews receive forgiveness from God for their sins?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

A timely topic, since Judaism’s Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) occurs September 13-14. Religious Jews are of course admonished to regularly confess and purify themselves from sin but (unlike Christians) once each year they concentrate on this need with special observances. The period from Rosh Hashana (New Year) to Yom Kippur constitutes “10 days of penitence,” a time to make restitution and seek forgiveness from people the believer has wronged during the year past, while Yom Kippur itself seeks forgiveness for the wrongs committed against God. This spiritual process thus atones for all sins of all types and involves the confession of sins, remorse at having sinned, and a renewed commitment to shun sinning.

The ritual’s biblical origin is found in Leviticus 16, which is recited in synagogues on Yom Kippur. The day’s ceremonies “represented the holiest and most sacred rite of Old Testament religion,” according to Protestant exegete Oswald Allis. The biblical procedure begins with purification of the sanctuary, the priest, and then the people, through “sin offerings” that sacrifice a bull and a goat. Then a ceremony drives a living goat into the wilderness as the “scapegoat” for sin (which was to become prominent in Christian interpretations of Jesus’ death).

According to the Leviticus commentary by Baruch Levine for the Jewish Publication Society, a dramatic turn occurs at verse 29 when God institutes the Yom Kippur observance as an annual requirement. Why this particular date? According to rabbinical tradition, this marked the anniversary of the date on which Moses brought the second set of commandments down from Mount Sinai, signifying that God granted atonement even for the Israelites’ idolatrous worship of the golden calf.

The scriptural definition for the day involves abstinence from work and “self-denial” — the Hebrew literally reads “deprive your throats — which means fasting from food and drink. Later rabbis added the abstinence from sexual relations. God declares, “On this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.” At the conclusion a priest “shall make expiation for the priests and for all the people of the congregation. This shall be to you a law for all time: to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.”

From ancient times through today, then, the synagogue ritual has involved purification of the people both individually and collectively. The full question posted by Joseph noted that the animal sactifices have long since been removed from Yom Kippur worship. The reason is straightforward. Since the year 70, when Roman troops destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, there has been no sanctuary within which to perform that aspect of the biblical procedure.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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