Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, begins this weekend, Joseph Steinberg explains what the celebration means for followers of Jesus


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Yom Kippur - also known as the Biblical Day of Atonement - is the holiest and most sacred day of the Jewish year. Jewish people fast and pray all day long, repenting of their sin and asking God for forgiveness. This is because they believe that on this day, in heaven, God opens The Book of Life. If their sins are forgiven, their name will be inscribed in the book, but if their sins have not been forgiven, their name will be blotted out.

Yom Kippur is observed on 10 Tishri – 24 to 25 September 2023 – and it is the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Jewish people devote themselves to fasting, repentance and confession of sins in an endeavour to obtain forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Yoma, literally translated as “the day”, is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance, which begin at the start of Rosh Hashanah.

This is the problem: without a sacrifice, there is no certainty

The biblical instructions for Yom Kippur are given in Leviticus 16:29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work - whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you - because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins”.

Atoning for our sins

Teshuvah (repentance) is at the heart of Yom Kippur. Jewish people show remorse for their sins and resolve to reform their heart and mind. For 24 hours, they fast and do penance to focus their minds on the spiritual, to earn God’s compassion and forgiveness.

In the Old Testament, priests repeatedly entered the Tabernacle to present sacrifices in atonement for the sins of the children of Israel.

In Jesus, the imperfect became perfect and the temporary became permanent, as he offered the perfect sacrifice once and for all. Jesus also came as High Priest, offering himself as the sacrifice that God had prepared for his people. He was the greater and more perfect tabernacle - not made with hands or sprinkled with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood. He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption on behalf of all those who trust and follow him.

Jesus came as High Priest, offering himself as the sacrifice for his people

The great rabbinic teacher, Yochanan ben Zakkai, taught that without a temple, there isn’t the need for a blood sacrifice for atonement; instead all we need is what he called: “the calves of our lips” or words of repentance. The Jewish rabbis are, of course, right to teach that God no longer requires the shedding of animal blood to forgive sin. Unfortunately, ben Zakkai’s teaching leaves no certainty of salvation and, on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples, they asked why the great rabbi wept: “I have before me two roads, one to paradise and one to hell, and I know not whether he will sentence me to hell or admit me into paradise. Shall I not weep?” he said.

A certian hope

On Yom Kippur, Jewish people greet each other in fearful awe, with the words: “May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life,” because they are never sure if their sins have been forgiven or if they are acceptable to God.

This is the problem: without a sacrifice, there is no certainty. As Christians, we can be sure of God’s salvation through the sacrifice of the Messiah, Jesus. So, in gratitude for our salvation, let us pray and ask God to use us to reveal Jesus to Jewish people as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

In Romans 10:12-14, the Apostle Paul writes: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile - the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him…How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”