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SBL e-journal

David Frankel





Recasting the Temple Purification Ritual as the Yom Kippur Service





APA e-journal

David Frankel





Recasting the Temple Purification Ritual as the Yom Kippur Service








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Recasting the Temple Purification Ritual as the Yom Kippur Service

Leviticus 16 – ויקרא טז


Recasting the Temple Purification Ritual as the Yom Kippur Service

The Textual Development of Leviticus 16

Leviticus 16 presents us with a detailed description of the activities that are to be performed on Yom Hakippurim. This text has two focal points: the sanctuary, and outside the sanctuary.

Its main section deals with the ritual activities of the high priest at the sanctuary. These include the offering of sacrifices for the kappara of the priest and his family (verses 6, 11, 17, 24) as well as of Israel (verses 5, 17, 24); the sprinkling of sacrificial blood in order to purify the sacred areas and vessels from the contaminating effects of Israel’s ritual impurities and her sins (verses 14—19); and the confession of Israel’s sins over the scapegoat, which is then sent off to the desert, to Azazel (verses 20—22). Except for the sending off of the scapegoat, all these activities are performed by the priest in the sanctuary.

The second focal point relates to the activities of the people as a whole outside the precincts of the sanctuary in verses 29—31. These relate that the people of Israel must absolutely refrain from all work on this day, the tenth day of the seventh month, since this day is a שבת שבתון. They must also afflict themselves on this day, fasting and practicing self-denial, since it is on this day that they will win atonement and be purified of all their sins.

The final words of verse 30, לפני ה’ תטהרו, are somewhat ambiguous. They could be taken as a promise that Israel will be purified no matter what, thanks to the atoning activities of the priest (“they will be purified before YHWH”) or may be a call to the people to perform their own inner, spiritual self-purification (“they shall purify themselves before YHWH”; see Jer. 13:27; Isa. 1:16), so that the priestly rituals can have their effect.[1]

Decontaminating the Sanctuary, Decontaminating Ourselves

The rituals of the priest treat the sins and impurities as invisible yet concrete realities that contaminate the sanctuary and undermine its sanctity. The sancta must be decontaminated through the sprinkling of sacrificial blood so that the divine presence may continue to abide in the sanctuary (verses 16, 19, 33). The loading of Israel’s sins on the scapegoat and its expulsion to the desert also reflects a view of sin as a concrete reality that must be removed in a physical manner.

The activities of the people, on the other hand, attend to the more inward and volitional aspects of sin. The desistance from mundane work and the practice of fasting and self-denial give expression to the personal remorse and regret of each individual. The emphasis in verse 30 is placed on “kappara” as purification of the people (לטהר אתכם), not the sancta. Sin thus tarnishes the inner being of each “profane” individual and not just the people and objects that have special sanctity. And purification of this sort requires effort on the part of the individual beyond the efforts of the priest.

It would be a serious mistake to see these two foci as contradicting one another. On the contrary, the two aspects of purification seem to be thought of as overlapping and even reinforcing one another. The more concrete-like purification of the sanctuary and its vessels may well be seen as contributing to the inner, spiritual purification of the people. Conversely, the inner spiritual process that the people undertake may contribute not only to their own purification but also to the purification of the sanctuary itself. The efforts of the priests inside the sanctuary and the efforts of the people outside join forces to contribute to the total purification of one and all.

Textual Peculiarities

In spite of the basic coherence of this integration of elements, various peculiarities within the text point to the conclusion that it is not the product of a single author, but is the product of the reworking of an editor (or editors). The following comments will focus on verses 29—34a. I will argue, following others,[2] that much of the first part of Leviticus 16 (though not necessarily all of it), at one time existed without this final section. This final section was written by a late editor who supplemented the earlier material and gave it a fresh and original direction. Here, then, are several indications of this.

A. The Change in Addressee

Leviticus 16 is presented as God’s direct address to Moses concerning Aaron’s responsibilities when entering the most sacred area. Aaron is continually referred to in Leviticus 16 in the third person, and Moses is called upon to relate the information that he is being given to Aaron, so that he may carry it out. Suddenly, in verses 29—34a, God addresses the people directly in the second person plural!

Of course, there is a certain logic to this, insofar as the new instructions in these verses relate to the people rather than Aaron. Still, if reflecting the work of a single author, we would have expected the new material to be prefaced by something like, “And say to the people (ואל העם תאמר)…” (cf. Num. 11:18). The transition from verses 28 to 29 is so abrupt that it is difficult to imagine that it reflects the work of a single writer.

B. The Unusual Placement of Key Information

In terms of content as well, verses 29—34a abruptly present readers with information that they would have expected earlier. This applies, first and foremost, to the fact that the ritual of Leviticus 16 is to be performed on a yearly basis, on the tenth day of the seventh month.

ויקרא טז:כט וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם...
Lev 16:29 And this shall be to you a law for all time. In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial…

If this is a fixed ritual that is to be performed on a fixed date, once a year, why were we not told of this from the start? In particular, the formulation of verses 2—3 implies that Aaron may enter, whenever deemed necessary:

ויקרא טז:ב ...דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל יָבֹא בְכׇל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת... וְלֹא יָמוּת... טז:ג בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ בְּפַר בֶּן־בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת...
Lev 16:2 ...Tell Aaron that he must not enter into the Shrine behind the curtain any time he wants… lest he die… 16:3 Only thus shall he enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering…

Otherwise verses 2—3 should have said: “Tell Aaron that he must not enter into the Shrine behind the curtain any time he wants… lest he die… Only once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, shall he enter the Shrine.”[3]

In addition, it is surprising that God is not presented as relating the laws concerning fasting and desisting from work on Yom Hakippurim from the outset. After all, these laws relate to everyone, Aaron included, and they are clearly of central importance.

C. When Did Aaron Perform this Ritual?

Verse 34b reads, ויעש כאשר צוה ה’ את משה, “Aaron did as God commanded Moses.” (Though Aaron’s name is missing, it is difficult to see who else could be referred to by the verb presented here in the singular.) Thus, Aaron presided over the first observance of what is referred to in Leviticus 23:27 as “Yom Hakippurim.” This strongly implies that the command was given to Moses at some point in or near the seventh month, and that Aaron carried it out on the tenth of the month.

Biblical chronology, however, gives no indication that this is the case. On the contrary, according to Exodus 40:17, the tabernacle was fully set up on the first month of the second year of the exodus (=the first of Nisan). Nadav and Avihu died on the eighth day of the inauguration of the cult (Lev. 8:35; 9:1; 10:1—2), and since this inauguration could hardly have taken place long after the establishment of the tabernacle, we must presume that Nadav and Avihu died in Nisan.[4]

Now according to Leviticus 16:1, the law concerning the purification of the sanctuary was given right after their death. In other words, the dead bodies of Nadav and Avihu inside the sanctuary required that the sanctuary be purified immediately. It hardly seems reasonable to postulate that Aaron waited until the tenth of Tishrei to purify the sanctuary.[5] Yet it is just as difficult to assume that the first Israelite observance of Yom Hakippurim, including the sending off of the scapegoat, the fasting of the people and the desisting from work all took place on the “wrong” date!

It seems clear, then, that the fixing of the purification ritual of Leviticus 16 to the tenth of Tishrei in the final section of the chapter fits poorly with the chapter as a whole.

D. The Sudden Appearance of the Resident Alien

Also, the sudden reference to the resident alien (גר) in verse 29, who must participate in the fasting and refraining from work, immediately raises suspicion. No mention has been made of the alien throughout the chapter, or in the entire book of Leviticus until this point. Yet he is continually referred to in the subsequent chapters, which scholars identify with the unique collection of laws known as the Holiness Collection (cf. 17:8, 10, 13; 18:26; 19:33—34; 20:2 etc.).

E. Just Aaron?

Finally, the reference in verse 34b to Aaron alone as carrying out the divine command fails to acknowledge the central role that the people must play in the yearly observance of the sacred day.

The Purification Ritual Becomes the Yom Kippur Service

These problems imply that the present form of Leviticus 16 reflects a reworking and development of earlier textual traditions and theological conceptions, and that the final product, particularly the supplementation of verses 29—34a, must somehow be associated with the literature of the immediately following Holiness Collection. In other words, vv. 29-34a were fashioned to bridge the earlier form of ch. 16 to what follows.

Whatever the precise nature of the ceremony of Leviticus 16 was in its earlier form(s) and context(s), it has now taken on a broader and more spiritual significance. Purification is not merely a “physical” act of cleansing the sanctuary but also includes a spiritual cleansing of each individual. And a major new role in the process of purification is given to the people themselves, without eliminating the central mediating role of the Aaronite priests in the realization of atonement.

Additionally, the purification of sanctuary and people is fixed to a single yearly date, the tenth of Tishrei. The rituals associated with Yom Hakippurim must take place every year without fail, but never for more than the single day.[6]

Are We Able to Achieve Purity on Our Own?

The unique creation of the final editor of Leviticus 16 can be appreciated not only by comparing and contrasting it with the earlier form (or forms) of the text, but also by comparing and contrasting it to other biblical texts.

Yom Kippur’s Omission in Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy, for example, makes no reference at all to the tenth of Tishrei, or the various rites associated with that day. From a theological perspective – considerations of chronological and historical development aside – this silence accords well with Deuteronomy’s overall orientation. Priestly-ritual matters are often deemphasized or given a more abstract or conceptual significance in this book.[7]

Deuteronomy calls upon Israel to make a spiritual effort to purify the heart (4:39; 10:16) and obedience and loyalty are not beyond reach but are very close to one’s heart (30:11—14). All a person needs is to educate diligently and to place the law “upon your heart and spirit” (11:18—20). And if Israel goes into exile due to sin, they will find their God anew when they seeks God out and return in sincerity (4:29—31).

In short, according to Deuteronomy, though the temptation to sin is real, Israel’s ability to be loyal, or to successfully repent and wholeheartedly return, is sufficiently strong to make priestly rituals of atonement of secondary importance at best. Actually, the lack of emphasis on priestly rituals focusing on the sanctuary may well reflect a sense of their spiritual danger. If the priests can guarantee divine absolution of sins on a regular basis, then a feeling of complacency is likely to set in, and no true improvement will ever come about. Priestly atonement is spiritually dangerous in that it weakens the urgency of improvement and repentance.[8]

Ezekiel’s Version of Yom Kippur

In contrast with Deuteronomy, Ezekiel 45:18—20 does provides a parallel of sorts to the rituals depicted in Leviticus 16. According to Ezekiel 45:18—20, the future Temple is to be purified by the priest through the sprinkling of the blood of a single bull for a sin offering (פר חטאת; cf. Lev. 16:3, 25). This purification is to take place both on the first of Nisan and on the first of Tishrei (following LXX to v. 20). Here we have two fixed days on which the Temple is purified rather than one!

Though there is no mention of the tenth of Tishre there, the manipulation of blood in the Temple before the festivals that start on the fifteenth of the month broadly parallels Lev. 16. What is more, according to verses 21—22, on the fourteenth of Nisan, the day of the Passover, the Nasi (Ezekiel’s word for the demoted Davidic king) brings a פר חטאת (the bull of the sin-offering) on behalf of himself and on behalf of the people. This again parallels the sacrifices brought by the priest in Leviticus 16 on his own behalf and on behalf of the people.

More significant than the question of the relative chronology of the Ezekiel text and the final form of Leviticus 16 is the result of a broad theological comparison of the texts.[9] The Ezekiel text prescribes priestly rituals of Temple purification that have no relation to the purification of the people themselves. What is more, there is absolutely no mention of fasting, cessation of work, or any other activity involving the people themselves. In other words, according to the prophet, even when the goal is the achievement of atonement for the people, as in verse 22, the atonement is accomplished through sacrifice alone and the people play no direct or personal role.

Ezekiel 45 thus provides us with a parallel to Leviticus 16, but in its earlier form, before the supplementation of verses 29—34a. Theologically, it represents the polar opposite to Deuteronomy.

Ezekiel vs. Deuteronomy

Perhaps this Ezekiel text can be related to a contrast between Deuteronomy and another text in the book of Ezekiel 36:16—31. While Deuteronomy believes in Israel’s ability to purify itself and repent, Ezekiel 36 clearly does not. Israel is so entrenched in sin that God will be forced to redeem it without repentance, for His name’s sake. If Israel is to be purified, this will have to take place by miraculous divine means alone. God, the text tells us, will force Israel out of exile and bring her into the land. He will then sprinkle Israel with clean water, which will cleanse them from all of their impurities and iniquities. He will replace their heart of stone with a heart of flesh and imbue them with a new spirit, so that they will follow his commandments and remain loyal.

This helps explain the exclusive emphasis on ritual in Ezekiel 45’s parallel to Yom Hakippurim. If people are incapable of true repentance there is no point in calling upon them to match the priestly rituals in the temple with their own acts of inner purification. Purification must come from the divine-priestly realm alone.

The Balanced Approach in Leviticus 16

The unique theological synthesis of the final form of Leviticus 16 emerges against the backdrop of these texts. Unlike Ezekiel, Leviticus 16 implies that we are indeed capable of improvement and self-purification. Priestly acts of purification and atonement that do not actively involve the people are worthless. And ritual that is not coupled with the demand for remorse and penitence can lead dangerously to spiritual complacency and moral stagnation.

Unlike Deuteronomy, with its rather optimistic belief in man’s ability to purify his own heart, Leviticus 16 acknowledges that true obedience and profound repentance is anything but easily achieved. More in line with the approach of Ezekiel, Leviticus 16 seems to recognize that in many ways, humans’ hearts are made of stone. If atonement and purification were dependent solely on our own attempts to effect change from within, our prospects for improving ourselves and finding renewed favor in the eyes of God would be precarious indeed.

Leviticus 16 thus advocates a nuanced approach. On the one hand, we must attempt to bring about change within ourselves and to purify ourselves as best as we can. This is why we fast and refrain from work on Yom Hakippurim. On the other hand, we must not submit to the spiritual arrogance of believing that we can affect our purification by our own means. Nor should we submit to feelings of absolute despair due to the “total depravity” of people.

The message of Leviticus 16 in its final form may perhaps be summed up best by the words of the Mishnah in Avot 2:16:

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה.
It is not for you to complete the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.

We should trust that God will purify us by means that are not dependent on our limited human abilities to reform our ways. At the same time, we dare not rely on a guaranteed atonement. We must make every effort to do our share to purify ourselves before God: לפני ה’ תטהרו!


September 25, 2014


Last Updated

October 17, 2022


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).