Yom Kippur: is it really the day of “atonement?”

Yom Kippur: is it really the day of “atonement?” September 16, 2018


That’s how most people translate it. But maybe they’re missing the mark. In a lecture I attended on this subject, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag pointed out that the Hebrew word “kippurim” (the plural of “kippur)—which is translated here as “atonement”—does not actually refer to atonement for sin when it’s used in the Bible.

The most relevant context where the word “kippurim” appears is in the Book of Exodus, in which the Children of Israel are commanded to observe a seven day dedication ceremony to inaugurate the Tabernacle (the portable Temple used during their desert journey) that had just been built. During that week of dedication, a sin offering was brought:

“Sacrifice a bull each day as a sin offering to make atonement. Purify the altar by making atonement for it, and anoint it to consecrate it.”
(Exodus 29:36)

That word I highlighted—“atonement”—is actually “kippurim” in the original Hebrew. Similarly, the priests who are about to serve in the Tabernacle undergo a ceremony whose purpose is “kaparah,” the same root word as kippurim. Everyone translates that word as atonement as well (see Exodus 29:33).

But does that translation make sense, given the context? Why would the central goal of the seven day dedication of the Tabernacle be “atonement?” There is absolutely no mention of any specific sins being stoned for here!

Instead, Rabbi Leibtag suggested that based on other contexts where this root word of K.P.R. appears, it’s actually best translated as “protection” or “covering,” either in a physical sense (see Genesis 6:14) or a more abstract one (see Exodus 21:30). For example, in that latter case, a monetary fine is described as a “kofer” (same root as kippurim), or in other words, a protection from getting a more severe punishment.

But all that just raises another question: why would the priests and the Tabernacle itself be in need of “protection” as they are being inaugurated for service? Well, God commands the Israelites:

“And they shall make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
(Exodus 25:8)

God’s presence in the Israelite camp is no small thing. His presence and His intimacy cannot be taken for granted and cannot be taken lightly. While one would think that it’d be impossible to just “get used” to having the presence of God be felt in the Tabernacle at all times, apparently that was a serious concern.

When the Tabernacle was constructed, a ritual had to be performed in order to prepare the space for God’a presence to dwell therein. This is our way of dedicating the space to one thing only, and reminding ourselves of the significant place that it will play in our lives.

To be in an intimate relationship with God, we need to always be aware of the specialness of this encounter, and not misuse or abuse the places set aside for worshipping Him. If we truly feel His presence in those places, then we need to treat them with respect and adequately prepare ourselves for that encounter.

In closing, the day of atonement is absolutely about stoning for specific sins. That much is clear from Leviticus 16 and the words of the Prophets that we read on this day, which urge us to repent. But it’s also about protection. Protecting both ourselves and our spaces set aside for worshipping God from the judgment that flows from that encounter. If we haven’t made our temples and our lives into a home that God feels comfortable dwelling in, then He’ll just leave. And that’s the worst punishment. As Isaiah says, “your iniquities have separated you from your God (59:2).”

So maybe atonement doesn’t truly capture what we’re doing on Yom Kippur. I like to think of it as remodeling—both of our selves and of our sacred spaces. Home improvement, if you will.

Comment below and let me know what language you think best captures the spirit of the day.

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  • Christine

    “If we haven’t made our temples and our lives into a home that God feels comfortable dwelling in, then He’ll just leave.”

    How does that square with the concept of unconditional love? Is God leaving us, or are we leaving God, when we don’t adequately prepare and show respect?

    On a lighter note- a rabbi, a priest, and an imam get together and talk about atonement:

  • Michael Weiner

    Indeed, as you put it so well, when we leave God, God leaves us. And so too, the corollary, as Malachi 7:3 says: “Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.” In the OT, when Israelites break their covenant with God, then He stops showing them grace and favor. God still loves us, but there’s no sense in just waving away bad behavior. The love is that if we repent, He’ll forgive us. I suspect some Christians would disagree with much of what I wrote. What’s your take?

  • Christine

    Yes, the idea of God “leaving” us is probably troubling for some Christians, and might foster the distinction that Christians often make between the “vengeful” God of the OT and the kind, merciful, BFF of the NT.

    But I think what you mean is not so much that God is affirmatively abandoning us, or “breaking up” with us, when we sin, but that because we have sinned, there is now distance between us and God (?). If so, this view would seem consistent with the (usccb) footnote to Malachi 3:7 in the catholic bible, which reads, “* [3:6–7] Not change: God remains faithful to the covenant even when the human partners break it.”

    So like a parent who unconditionally loves a child, but sometimes does not love the child’s behavior – when that happens, the parent and child are not ‘on the same page.’ But reconciliation occurs when the child ‘returns’ to the parent’s teaching and they once again have a common understanding of right and wrong.

    One thing that I find interesting (according to my unsophisticated understandings) are the differences between faiths and denominations as to how repentance is achieved.

    According to the catholic catechism, the priest is empowered to forgive sins (through the concept of apostolic succession).

    Largely because of abuses of this practice (selling of indulgences, etc), protestants do not require an intermediary and instead, the protestant appeals directly to God for forgiveness (my understanding, as a non-protestant).

    I’m not exactly clear of the role of the priest in Jewish atonement. The verses of Leviticus seem to say that the priest does all the preparations so that atonement can occur. But then Lv 16:32 says, “This atonement is to be made by the priest who has been anointed and ordained to the priesthood in succession to his father. He shall wear the linen garments, the sacred vestments,”

    And the usccb footnote to that says (you may disagree with the interpretation of the Hebrew):

    * [16:6] Make atonement: the Hebrew verb kipper refers specifically to the removal of sin and impurity (cf. Ex 30:10; Lv 6:23; 8:15; 16:16, 18, 20, 27, 33; Ez 43:20, 26; 45:20), thus “to purge” in vv. 16, 18, 20, and 33, and more generally to the consequence of the sacrificial procedure, which is atonement (cf. Lv 17:11). “Atonement” is preeminently a function of the purification sacrifice, but other sacrifices, except apparently for the communion sacrifice, achieve this as well.

    In other words, the act of penance/sacrifice, and the results that flow from that act, are 2 different things.
    So I’m not clear whether in Judaism the priest is actually empowered to forgive sins or only to prepare the place so that removal of sin can occur (as a matter between the individual and God).

    In some ways, having some kind of priestly involvement in the process seems helpful, for example to objectively observe the sincerity of the one who is repenting.

    but here, in Ex 32:30-32, it seems as though Moses is offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people:

    On the next day Moses said to the people,m “You have committed a grave sin. Now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I may be able to make atonement for your sin.”

    31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Ah, this people has committed a grave sin in making a god of gold for themselves!

    32 Now if you would only forgive their sin! But if you will not, then blot me out of the book that you have written.

    33 The LORD answered Moses: Only the one who has sinned against me will I blot out of my book.”

    So, shifting gears, I have to say that your phrasing “He’ll just leave” quickly brought to mind the imagery of Jesus’s last words — my god, my god, why have you forsaken me? Especially given the backdrop of the OT, it appears that Jesus would have seriously disrespected God by whatever happened in the temple. And he would have done so intentionally — unless one could argue that it was unintentional because he truly believed his teachings to be the word of God. But what if he went willingly to his death so that God would forgive the people who had followed him (some would say led astray)…

    And so then, I wonder, how do Jews read Isaiah’s servant of the Lord oracles? (which Christians apply to Jesus).

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  • Michael Weiner

    There’s a lot in what you wrote to unpack. In regards to atonement, while the priest is the one who offers the sacrifice, the sinner bringing it has to sincerely confess his sin. When that sin was done against another person, you also have to make things right with them, and the sacrifice alone isn’t enough: “Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged (Numbers 5:7).”

    The priest is our agent, essentially in a legal sense. But a sinner seeking penitence also has some work to do himself that can’t be “handed off” to another. The ritual must be accompanied by intention, sincere feelings, and doing all you can to restore the wrong done.

  • Christine

    Thank you so much for your patience. I appreciate you taking the time to put forward a clear and careful response to my stream of consciousness ramblings!

  • cipher

    Michael, I’ve looked through a number of your posts and their accompanying comments. You seem to spend a lot of time trying to make the text say something it doesn’t (e.g., God isn’t *really* commanding genocide when he clearly is), but I wasn’t going to comment until I saw these: “If we haven’t made our temples and our lives into a home that God feels comfortable dwelling in, then He’ll just leave”, and “when we leave God, God leaves us”. Seriously? So, God takes his ball and goes home? This is a childish and anthropomorphic view of God to which Maimonides, among others, would have taken exception, and is the sort of thing I’d expect to hear from a Haredi or evangelical apologist.

    You say in one of the earlier comments, “I suspect some Christians would disagree with much of what I wrote.” I’m a secular person of Jewish background, but if I were a practicing or believing Jew, *I’d* disagree with much of what you write.

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for the comment. As far as I can tell, you have two separate criticisms:
    1. I make the text say things it doesn’t
    2. I describe God anthropomorphically.

    In regards to 1, I’ll stand my ground and insist that the Bible is employing the exaggerated warfare rhetoric that was so common in Ancient Near Eastern texts of the time. The simple meaning of the words is deduced here by looking at comparative literature. There’s nothing far fetched about that. The Bible speaks in the language of man.

    In regards to 2, I did consider whether to speak about God anthropomorphically. I decided to do so, following the lead of the Bible. If I were a strict Maimonidean, I couldn’t say anything about God—לך דומיה תהילה!
    The Bible itself, especially in Ezekiel Chapters 1 and 10, employs the language of God’s presence ‘leaving’ the Temple in response to the injustice, bloodshed, and idolatry of Israel. See the article for more on that: https://www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-02-chariot-and-journeys-gods-glory-chapter-1

    God’s presence is a gift and when we take it for granted and behave horribly while expecting the temple to save us (see Jeremiah ch. 7:3-4), that totally thwarts God’s plan for Israel’s role in redeeming the world. So we lose that gift of His presence and go into exile. Sometimes you only appreciate what you have once it’s gone. Nothing childish about that.

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