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SBL e-journal

Baruch J. Schwartz





Yom Ha-kippurim: The Biblical Significance



APA e-journal

Baruch J. Schwartz





Yom Ha-kippurim: The Biblical Significance






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Yom Ha-kippurim: The Biblical Significance


Yom Ha-kippurim: The Biblical Significance

The scapegoat. Leviticus 16. A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations. Wikimedia

Introduction: The Pervasive Power of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the holiest and most solemn day of the year, a day of fasting, confession, introspection, prayers for forgiveness, and resolve to change the direction of our lives.[1] Due to its extreme importance, its effect is felt long before it arrives. Its atmosphere pervades the Rosh Hashanah festival and the days intervening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so that we refer to the entire period as the Ten Days of Penitence.

Yom Kippur’s advent is sensed for an entire month preceding Rosh Hashanah, in the prayers recited and the sounding of the shofar. Yom Kippur is felt after it departs as well, in the Sukkot ceremonies, particularly those of the seventh day of Sukkot, on which the prayers for rain are accompanied by prayers for forgiveness taken from the Yom Kippur liturgy.

What is Yom Kippur all about, from the biblical point of view?

A Day of At-One-ness: A Christian Translation

In English translations of the Torah, this day is called the “Day of Atonement.” This translation entered English Bibles centuries ago. And while the translators were all learned in the Hebrew tongue, they were also believing Christians—and so they naturally translated a Hebrew word according to its meaning in Christian theology. This expression—the Day of Atonement—is an example of this. The English word “atone” comes from two words: “at” and “one.” To atone is to be “at one” with someone, to be of one mind and heart.[2] The early translators were saying that this is the day on which humans and God are reconciled—humans, who are constantly estranged from God, are finally reunited with Him in perfect fellowship.

However, biblical thought is predicated on the idea that man and God are entirely distinct; God’s holiness is His separateness from all that He has created. In the Bible, humans can incur God’s anger or avert it, comply with God’s will or ignore it, pray for God’s forgiveness and secure it—but they cannot be “at one” with Him. Only in Christian doctrine, based as it is on the idea of “communion”—man and God becoming one—is this possible. This is a case in which the Bible was translated into English in accord with a Christian concept—“atonement” as it was understood in the Church.

A Day for Making Amends

What about today’s English? When we say “atone,” in expressions like “atone for a crime,” we usually mean to “make up for,” to make reparation. When we have committed some offense, we want to make amends, either to repay the other party or to suffer some penalty, or both, and, when we have done so, we feel absolved of guilt. When Jews speak today of the “Day of Atonement,” they probably mean that on this day they “make up for” all they have done wrong in the past year, thus securing divine forgiveness.

How is this accomplished? Most people would say: by fasting, by self-denial, by suffering some self-inflicted penalty. By accepting the burden of observance of Yom Kippur, they feel that they are “atoning,” making up for what they have lacked in the year gone by. Just as a criminal who is sentenced to some fine or imprisonment is spoken of as “paying his debt to society,” we tend to think of atoning for sin as a matter of “paying,” making reparations, suffering some penalty to settle a debt.

This notion, that sin is a debt that needs to be paid off, became widespread only in post-biblical, Second Temple writings—most notably in the Aramaic translations of the Bible.[3]

A Day of Performing the Kippur Ritual

In the Bible itself, however, it is not the fast, not the cessation from work, not the refraining from physical pleasures that secure kippur . In the Bible, the kippur is accomplished by means of the elaborate ritual performed on the Day of Kippurim as prescribed at length in Leviticus 16, the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning. At the conclusion of the instructions for the performance of the kippur ritual, the Torah states explicitly:

ויקרא טז:כט וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. טז:ל כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה תִּטְהָרוּ.
Lev 16:29 In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall fast;[4] and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. 16:30 For on this day he (i.e. the High Priest) shall perform kippur for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you will become clean before YHWH.

The fast and the cessation from labor accompany the ritual; they are necessitated by it and need to be carried out on the same day that the kippurim rituals are performed.

Kipper as Decontamination

In the ritual vocabulary of the Priestly source in the Torah, to which Leviticus 16 (as almost all of the sacrificial law in the Torah) belongs, the verb kipper means “to cleanse,” “to decontaminate.” This meaning of kipper was noted centuries ago by Rashi,[5] and is now confirmed by our knowledge of ancient Semitic languages.[6] Once recognized, it becomes quite obvious from usage and context. For instance, we read in the laws of Yom Kippur:

ויקרא טז:כ וְכִלָּה מִכַּפֵּר אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ...
Lev 16:20 When he (i.e. the High Priest) has finished kipper -ing the holy of holies, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar…

The holy of holies, that is, the inner sanctum of the tabernacle or Temple, as well as the altar and the tabernacle as a whole, are direct objects of the verb kipper. [7] Thus kippur must be an action that you do to something. The text goes on to tell us that the reason the priest must kipper the inner sanctum (and, by extension, the tabernacle as a whole) is that the Israelites have contaminated it with their uncleanness (bodily impurities) and transgressions:

ויקרא טז:טז וְכִפֶּר עַל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם וְכֵן יַעֲשֶֹה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם.
Lev 16:16 Thus he shall kipper the holy place of the uncleanness and transgressions of the Israelites… and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting of the One who abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.

If the reason you have to kipper something is that it is contaminated, it stands to reason that kipper must mean “to cleanse, to de -contaminate.” This is indicated conclusively by the verse quoted above, the verse that sums up the entire significance of the day and its rituals: a verse that is so important that it is recited in every service on Yom Kippur. It reads as follows:

ויקרא טז:ל כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה תִּטְהָרוּ.
Lev 16:30 For on this day he (i.e. the High Priest) shall perform kippur for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you will become clean before YHWH.

The express purpose of kippur is to be cleansed of sins, and the result of kippur is cleansing, purification.

What Contaminants Are Being Purged?

When kippur is performed, what is purged? What is cleansed on Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Cleansing?

The verses quoted above show that transgressions, offenses against God, contaminate. Since it is the holy places and sacred objects that need to be cleansed, it is clear that these objects and areas have been contaminated. Once a year, the tabernacle, the altar, the curtain, the Ark and everything else in the holy precincts must be cleansed of the impurities that have been collecting there all year long. But what has caused them? The wrongdoings of every Israelite wherever he or she may be; these are said to accumulate in the sanctuary as a form of contamination that builds up until it is removed by the kippur process.

Why is it so crucial to remove it? The Torah provides the answer to this as well. The verse that concludes the laws of purification, immediately preceding the Yom Kippur laws, reads as follows:

ויקרא טו:לא וְהִזַּרְתֶּם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִטֻּמְאָתָם וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּטֻמְאָתָם בְּטַמְּאָם אֶת מִשְׁכָּנִי אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹכָם.
Lev 15:31 Put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My dwelling which is in their midst.

Throughout the ancient world, and Israel was no exception, what we call “Temples” were called houses of the gods. Temples were imagined, designed and built as divine abodes, and that is how they functioned. The tabernacle in the wilderness too was thought of as God’s dwelling.[8] The initial commandment to build such a structure says unambiguously: “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). The idea, then, is that God agrees to dwell among the Israelites provided that they maintain a fitting, consecrated place for Him to dwell. However, if they defile His dwelling-place, He will leave them, and when and if He does, they are doomed.

They are warned not to allow defilement to build up unchecked in the divine abode, as this endangers the entire community. Rather, they must regularly decontaminate the sanctuary of whatever sins may have created defilement. This then is the function of kippur in biblical times—to cleanse the divine abode of the defilement which Israel’s wrongdoing, purposeful or unwitting, may have generated, thus ensuring the continued protection and loving-care of an ever-present God abiding in their midst.

Yearly Decontamination Versus the Annual Kippurim

Some of the sacrificial rituals performed on Yom Kippur are actually performed all year long. Each time a person, a group, or the community as a whole realizes that a wrong has been performed or discovers severe physical defilement, the person or persons responsible must perform a ritual of kippur , similar (but not quite identical) to that performed on behalf of the entire community on Yom Kippur.

Furthermore, rituals of this type are performed on set occasions throughout the year, “just in case” any contamination has accumulated. Thus, kippur , cleansing some or all of the sacred objects in the Temple, is an ongoing process, a continual obligation of the Israelite people and priesthood, in order that the level of contamination is kept at a minimum and the divine residence is kept fit for habitation.

The annual kippur -ceremony performed on the Day of Kippurim is therefore the climax of an entire year’s rituals. It differs from the kippur performed all year long in that it encompasses the entire Temple, inside and out, including the holy of holies, the inner sanctum, the actual locus of the divine presence itself. Thus, it is designed to get rid of even the most severe impurities and transgressions, those that have penetrated into the deepest recesses of the Temple. For there are many types of contamination: those caused by physical impurity, which are natural and not sinful and occur quite regularly, and those caused by wrongdoing. And there are all sorts of sins: deliberate and accidental, sins against God and sins against one’s fellow.

The rituals of Yom Kippur are designed to be all-inclusive. That is why everything is purified: Temple, Temple precincts, sacred objects, Ark, holy of holies—the idea is that whatever defilement exists, wherever it is, must be removed. We might say that the annual Day of kippur is a day of house-cleaning, of eradicating the foul, odious contamination that would otherwise make God’s dwelling uninhabitable.

The Biblical Notion of Sin and How It Is Removed

The significance of all this hardly requires elaboration. The biblical idea of sin is that it affects its surroundings, especially things and places that are antithetical to sin. But the biblical idea is that sin can, and must, be removed—wiped away, cleansed away, washed away. Over and over again forgiveness is called “cleansing” and “purification”—we see this frequently in the biblically inspired prayers that we recite on Yom Kippur. “Sprinkle clean water upon us and cleanse us, as it is written: ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall become cleansed; of all your defilements of all your idolatrous practices I will purify you’ (Ezekiel 36:25).”

In the Biblical conception of things, human wrongdoing is a stain, but one that can and must be eradicated. The contamination does not remain upon the guilty parties themselves, and it is not only they who are in need of cleansing. The contamination envisaged in the Torah is contagious; it is attracted to, and accumulates in, the sacred precincts, the Temple and its furnishings, which serve as magnets of sorts, attracting contamination, and the rituals of kippur must be performed in order to remove it.

Temple-purification was extremely important among ancient Israel’s neighbors as well. Impurity was feared because it threatened the gods as well as their temples. Elaborate rituals were employed to rid these temples of demons and to prevent their return. The biblical mechanism of kippurim is a uniquely Israelite manifestation of this common cultural heritage. In it, the world of demons does not exist; the only source of defilement is from humans, and only humans can banish defilement, by following divinely imparted instructions.

Understanding the Scapegoat Ceremony

The best-known part of the ritual of Yom Kippur is the scapegoat ceremony. This ceremony was conducted right after the cleansing ritual. The moment the priest emerged from the Temple interior and completed the kippur ritual, he placed both his hands on the head of the live goat and, in that position, hands on goat, he would pronounce aloud, on behalf of all Israel, that they had sinned:

ויקרא טז:כא וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁתֵּי ידו [יָדָיו] עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל... וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה. טז:כב וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲו‍ֹנֹתָם אֶל אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר בַּמִּדְבָּר.
Lev 16:21 Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites… putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness. 16:22 Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wildernessץ

This ritual suggests that some things – intentional, deliberate sins and crimes – that do irreversible damage. They are so severe that they cannot quite be eradicated by the normal cleansing ritual. For them, another form of removal is required. They must be physically, tangibly and visibly to cast away, thrown off, discharged and banished for good. Some things cannot be undone; the best we can manage is to cast them off into the realm beyond civilization, for Azazel[9] to do with them as he may.

Not surprisingly, we find parallels to the scapegoat ritual among the Babylonians and Hittites as well, with the Israelite ceremony displaying its own unique features. The major difference between the biblical idea and that of the other ancient Near Eastern religions was that the latter sought to rid themselves not of sin but of misfortune, and they believed that to do this they had to exorcise the demons that had temporarily taken hold of them, by means of curses and magical spells. The biblical ritual has “purged away” this element entirely.

Where Is God? The Problem with Magical Rituals

In all that we have seen so far, it appears as if both God and humans are completely out of the picture and a lot of hocus-pocus performed by a priest is sufficient to absolve the Israelites of their sins and keep God from abandoning them. This in turn would imply that ritually manipulated powers control God himself, and this is not compatible with biblical belief, nor is it very easily reconciled with the text.

Another possibility might be that God is thought to be so gracious that He accepts ceremonial action as sufficient, and requires no more than that to grant forgiveness. And indeed, some Sages and scholars suggest that Yom Kippur’s rituals are enough to remove all guilt, regardless of the state of mind of the individual. Certainly, many Jews alive today believe that this is so as well.

At least in the mind of the Priestly author, however, this was not the case. According to Leviticus 16, the priest is required to pronounce aloud the sins of the Israelites. Since these cannot be articulated unless they are recognized, this action must have been preceded by acknowledgment and some form of remorse. The act of transferring the transgressions to the scapegoat is thus not merely ceremonial. Ritual here, as elsewhere, is designed to manifest outwardly what is felt inwardly, not to take its place but to express it.

The Place of the People in the Kippurim Ritual

What about the people – are they entirely passive? Are they even aware that the ritual of cleansing is taking place? We look again at the passage quoted above:

ויקרא טז:כט וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. טז:ל כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה תִּטְהָרוּ.
Lev 16:29 In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall fast; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. 16:30 For on this day he (i.e. the High Priest) shall perform kippur for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you will become clean before YHWH.

The people do indeed have a part in the Yom Kippur ritual—and a crucial one. They are to fast and abstain from work—not because this makes amends for their sins, but because this too is needed in order to eradicate them. If the cleansing is to be effective, if the decontamination of the sanctuary is to work, if the confession articulated on their behalf is to succeed in transferring their sins to the head of the scapegoat and casting them off into the wilderness, they must participate. They must feel and act sorry and sorrowful.[10] True, the priest performs the actions, but unless he has the complete participation of all Israel, expressed by fasting and the complete cessation of daily activity, they are ineffective.

The verse that sums up the entire Yom Kippur law (Leviticus 16:20, quoted above) says “to cleanse you”; “you will become clean.” In this verse, the cleansing does not pertain only to the Temple only; it pertains to the people as well. Wrongdoings not only contaminate the holy place and sacred objects; they are also a burden weighing upon those who have committed them. Not only must the divine precincts be purged of sin, humans too must be rid of the offenses that they have committed. Thus, the rituals are performed with the mental participation of every Israelite, with the result “you will become clean.”[11]

Conclusion: Three Forms of Kipper

The verb kipper in the text appears with regard to all three actions—cleansing the sacred area and objects, the scapegoat ritual, and the cleansing of the people. This is why the Torah refers to the annual day of cleansing as Yom Ha-kippurim , “the day of purifications,” in the plural. This is what the Talmud calls it, and this is what we say in the prayers we recite on that day. It is the Day of Purifications , a day of total catharsis.

All that remains of the Biblical ceremony of kippurim is the nostalgic longing for it that we include in the Musaf prayers. But its legacy is still with us: the concept that our wrongdoings affect the entire community, that they threaten to chase away the divine; that it is in our power to free ourselves of them and of their effect, and that to do so we must combine tangible, obligatory ritual with sincerely felt remorse, confession and penitence, and that when we do so we are insured, guaranteed, promised, total and complete absolution, in order that we may begin the new year with a clean slate—all these ideas are still with us. They are an inseparable part of our Judaism, these ideas which ancient Israel, by adopting and transforming the heritage it received from the civilizations that preceded it, developed and bequeathed to us.


September 21, 2015


Last Updated

September 30, 2021


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Prof. Baruch J. Schwartz is the J. L Magnes Professor of Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his Ph.D. He writes and lectures on the J, E, P and D documents, the uniqueness of each, and how they were compiled to create the five-book Torah. Schwartz is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.