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Day of Atonement

DAY OF ATONEMENT (Heb. יוֹם הכִּפּוּרִים, Yom ha-Kippurim), one of the "appointed seasons of the Lord, holy convocations," a day of fasting and atonement, occurring on the Tenth of Tishri. It is the climax of the "*Ten Days of Penitence" and the most important day in the liturgical year.

In the Bible

All manner of work is forbidden on the Day of Atonement, as it is on the Sabbath (being likewise called "a Sabbath of solemn rest"), and the soul is to be "afflicted" ("from the evening of the ninth day of the seventh month until the evening of the morrow"), the punishment for transgressing these commandments being destruction and extirpation (Lev. 16:29–31; 23:27–32; Num. 29:7). Special additional offerings were to be brought (Num. 29:8–11), and, apart from these, a ceremony peculiar to the day (see *Avodah) was solemnized in the Temple (Lev. 16:1–34). The essence of the day and the reasons for the ceremony are expressed by the verse: "For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord" (Lev. 16:30). In the Jubilee year the shofar is to be sounded on the Day of Atonement to indicate the setting free of slaves and the restoration of the fields to their ancestral owners (Lev. 25:9–10).

In the Second Temple Period

The ritual performed by the high priest in the Temple was the central feature of the Day of Atonement (see *Avodah; *Sacrifice). When the high priest, representative of the people (Yoma 1:5), "entered where he entered and stood where he stood" (5:3), while all feared for his life (5:1), he himself was enveloped in awe, holiness, and mystery; while when he had come out, he resembled, in his majesty, "a bright star emerging from between clouds" (Ecclus. 50:6ff.). It is certain that during the time of the Second Temple the Day of Atonement was already considered the greatest of the festivals. It is related that none of Israel's festive days compared with the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement, on which days the daughters of Jerusalem would go forth, dressed in white, and dance in the vineyards – "And what did they say? – 'Young man! Raise your eyes and behold what you choose for yourself '" (Ta'an. 4:8; and see below). According to the calendar of the Book of Jubilees, accepted by the *Dead Sea Sect, the Day of Atonement usually occurred on a different date from that kept by the remainder of Israel; and it is told that "the wicked priest" persecuted the members of the sect and "appeared amongst them just at the fixed time of the season of the rest of the Day of Atonement, to destroy them and to lead them astray on their fast day of Sabbath of rest" (Pesher Hab. 11:4–8).

In the Halakhah

The Pentateuch does not explain what is to be understood by "afflicting the soul" on the Day of Atonement. However, other passages in the Scriptures speak explicitly of afflicting the soul by fasting (Ps. 35:13; Is. 58:3, 5, 10; but cf., however, Num. 30:14; and see Yoma 74b). According to the sages, there are five ways in which the duty of afflicting the soul applies: by prohibitions against eating and drinking, washing oneself (for pleasure), anointing the body, wearing shoes (of leather), and cohabitation (Yoma 8:1; Yad, Shevitat Asor 1:4; 3:9). The penalty of extirpation, however, applies only to eating, drinking, and working (Yoma 74a). The same kinds of work are forbidden on the Day of Atonement as are forbidden on the Sabbath (Meg. 1:5), and danger to life (pikku'aḥ nefesh) overrides all the prohibitions of the Day of Atonement just as it does those of the Sabbath. Children are exempted from all modes of affliction, except the wearing of shoes. However, both in the time of the Second Temple, as well as in the Middle Ages, there were those who insisted that children also observe the "laws of affliction" in opposition to the view of the sages that it is one's duty to feed them with one's own hands (Tosef., Kippurim 4 [5]:1–2; Sof. 18:7; Sefer ha-Yashar of R. Tam responsa, ed. F. Roschthal (1898), 51:2, 52:2). Only a few years before they reach the age at which they are obliged to fulfill commandments (13 years for a boy and 12 years for a girl) should one begin to accustom them gradually to keep these laws. According to the *Karaites, children, too, are to be afflicted (Eshkol ha-Kofer of Judah Hadasi (1836), no. 135). Since the Day of Atonement is regarded as a "festive day," one is bound to honor it by wearing clean clothes (Shab. 119a; see below).

According to the sages, the goat dispatched to *Azazel as part of the Temple ritual on the Day of Atonement atones for all transgressions (Shev. 1:6), whereas after the destruction of the Temple, the Day itself atones (Sifra, Aharei Mot 8:1). However most of the sages are of the opinion that even the atonement of the goat was only effective for him who repented, for the Day only atones when accompanied by repentance (Yoma 8:8–9; cf. Yad, Teshuvah 1:2–4). This is the source of the custom of asking forgiveness of one another on the eve of the Day of Atonement. The sages hold that the fate of every person, which has been left pending from *Rosh Ha-Shanah, is finally determined on the Day of Atonement (Tosef., RH 1:13; cf. Yad, Teshuvah 3:3), and hence one should repent during the Ten Days of Penitence, and particularly on the Day of Atonement (ibid., 2:7). The Day of Atonement is the only one of the appointed seasons which has no second day in the Diaspora. This is because of the extreme difficulty of fasting for two successive days. However, there were those who were strict and fasted both days (TJ, RH 1:4; RH 21a; Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, Or Zaru'a, 2 (1862), no. 281). The laws of the Day of Atonement remained essentially the same during the Middle Ages as they were in the days of the Second Temple and in the mishnaic and talmudic periods. Additions and variations were limited to the domain of customs and prayers.


No definite knowledge is available about the Day of Atonement prayers during the period of the Second Temple. The few defective remnants of the Day of Atonement prayers among the writings of the Dead Sea Sect (Barthélemy-Milik, 1 (1955), 152–4) do not suffice to give a clear picture of the scope and content of the sect's prayers on this day. According to Philo (Spec. 2:196), it was already customary in the time of the Second Temple to spend the whole day, from morning to evening, in prayer. The Day of Atonement is the only day of the year which has five *Amidah prayers: Evening, Morning, Musaf, Afternoon, and Ne'ilat She'arim ("Closing of the Gates," shortened to *Ne'ilah). During the time of the Second Temple prayers were also said five times a day on *Fast days and *Ma'amadot (Ta'an. 4:1). This is perhaps the source of the Muslim custom of praying five times a day (but see L. Ginzberg, Peirushim ve-Ḥiddushim ba-Yerushalmi, 1 (1941), lxxii). The prayers for the Day of Atonement begin in the evening with *Kol Nidrei. The subject of the distinctive middle blessing of the Amidah prayer of the Day of Atonement is God's pardoning, forgiving, and granting atonement for Israel's iniquities (see, e.g., Sof. 19:4). The prayers of the Day of Atonement and of the New Year have many common features, and at times some of the prayers peculiar to the New Year have passed into the prayers of the Day of Atonement.

Especially characteristic of the Day of Atonement prayers is the duty of *confession. Though statutory on "the eve of the Day of Atonement close to nightfall," confession is made both prior to the last meal before the fast ("lest he become confused while eating and drinking"), and after it ("lest some mishap occurred during the meal"), as well as at each of the Day of Atonement services, the individual saying it after the Amidah proper and the reader in the middle of it (Tosef., Kippurim 4:14). Confession is now said once in the afternoon prayer on the eve of the Day of Atonement and ten times during the Day itself. Forms of confession are already to be found among the amoraim (Yoma 87b; TJ, Yoma 8:9, 45c), some of which are currently in use. Versions written alphabetically have been preserved from the early Middle Ages. The short form of confession ("We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously," etc.) would appear to have originated already in the days of the amoraim, whereas the long form of confession ("For the sin wherein we have sinned," etc.) dates from a somewhat later period. However, it was already found in *Yannai (see *Al Ḥet; *Ashamnu).

In early times many piyyutim, especially seliḥot and raḥamim (entreating forgiveness and mercy), were added to the Day of Atonement prayers and acquired for themselves an important role as part of the "obligation of the day." The piyyutim of the *Avodah ("Order of the Temple Service") occupy a central position in the prayers. Some added special psalms before the morning prayers. Although there are differences of opinion and custom with regard to the details of the piyyutim to be said on the Day of Atonement, some saying moreand some less, the piyyutim and seliḥot have greatly endeared themselves to the public. However, there were also rabbis who were opposed to piyyutim, preferring in their stead "sermons on the laws of repentance, on religious topics, on wise opinions, and on true beliefs" (Menahem Ha-Meiri, in Ḥibbur ha-Teshuvah, ed. A. Sofer (1950), 532). The day concludes with the blowing of the shofar, a series of phrases in praise of God, and ends with "Next Year in Jerusalem."

The Reading of the Torah

In the morning service six people are called to the reading of the Torah (Meg. 4:2) from the portion Aḥarei Mot (Lev. 16; cf. Meg. 3:5), whose subject is the Day of Atonement. The *maftir is the section in Numbers dealing with the additional sacrifices of the Day of Atonement (Num. 29:7–11; cf. Tosef., Meg. 4 [3]:7), and the haftarah is Isaiah 57, from verse 15 (or 14) until 58:14 (Meg. 31a), in which the prophet describes the ideal fast. During the afternoon service three men are called to the reading of the Torah of Leviticus 18, which deals with incest prohibitions (and which is a continuation of the morning reading of the Torah according to the ancient custom which still exists in Italy). The haftarah is the Book of Jonah and Micah 7:18–20, whose subject is ideal repentance and its effect, and God's forgiving mercy (Meg. 31a).


Many customs have their origin in the Middle Ages, especially among the Ashkenazi Jews. Thus it is customary to arrange the table for the eve of the Day of Atonement in the same manner as the Sabbath (Sefer Ravyah, ed. by V. Aptowitzer (19642), no. 528); to adorn the synagogue with beautiful drapery (Tur, OḤ 610); to wear white clothes, either in order to resemble the angels (Sefer Ravyah, no. 528) or because white is the color of shrouds and will thus inspire repentance by evoking death (Isserles to Sh. Ar., OḤ 610, 4). This last custom also passed into Italy and Provence, and it became a widespread custom to wear a white robe called kittel. Even a confirmed repentant is forbidden to wear sackcloth (Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. Freimann, 646). Very significant is the custom which originated in Germany in the days of the tosafists, and which became law, to light candles at home and recite a blessing over them. In addition to this candle and to that kindled (according to ancient custom) in order to prevent cohabitation, which is forbidden this day (Pes. 4:4), it has also become customary in some places to light a candle for the souls of the living (Abraham b. Nathan ha-Yarḥi, Ha-Manhig (1855), Hilkhot Ẓom Kippur, no. 71; cf. E.E. Urbach (ed.), Arugat ha-Bosem of Abraham b. Azriel, 3 (1962), 572, notes 35–36) and a candle for the souls of the dead (Sefer ha-Minhagot of Abraham b. Saul of Lunel in S. Asaf, Sifran shel Rishonim (1935), 152). It also became the custom "to mention the dead on the Day of Atonement and to donate charity in their memory" (Tanḥ., Ha'azinu 1, addendum). In northern France and Germany, after the reading of the Law, they used to publicly announce charitable donations "on behalf of the living and the dead: charity on behalf of the dead is not donated throughout Germany save on this Day" (Maḥzor Vitry, ed. S. Hurwitz (1923), 392). The custom of donating for charity was also adopted in Provence, Italy, and Spain, whereas the special prayer commemorating the dead was adopted only among the Ashkenazim and the Italians. Northern France is the place of the source of the custom of wearing a tallit also for the evening service, which is even put on while it is still day in order to be able to recite the blessing over it (Rashi, Ha-Pardes, ed. by Ehrenreich (1924), 234). In Germany it was fixed that in the evening, just at the beginning of the prayer, "absolution is granted from the ban against praying together with anyone guilty of transgressing any communal regulations" (Sefer Ravyah, no. 528). The formula "In the higher [i.e., celestial] assembly and in the lower assembly, with the consent of the Omnipresent and the consent of the congregation, we permit prayers being said together with transgressors" (Tur and Sh. Ar., OḤ 619) was adopted, with minor variations, throughout most of the Diaspora. It was customary, in the main, to recite the She-Heḥeyanu blessing in the synagogue on the night of the Day of Atonement before *Barekhu. Some, however, said the blessing at home, or on the way to the synagogue, or even after the evening prayer. Women recite it when they kindle the festive candles. During the recital of the *Shema, the words "Blessed be His glorious sovereign Name for ever and ever" are said aloud and not quietly as is usual (Deuteronomy Rabbah, ed. by S. Lieberman (19642), 69). In Germany the custom of saying the Amidah aloud was introduced, and from there comes also the custom that some remain standing during all the Day of Atonement prayers, and some even remain in the synagogue throughout the whole night, reciting psalms, hymns, and praises (Sefer Ravyah, 529). In many places, no break at all is made in the prayers during the course of the day, the Minḥah service following immediately after the Musaf service. Some places are most particular about the choice of a suitable reader, and some have had the custom of having two men stand one at each side of the reader during all the prayers. It is customary to smell spices, the enjoyment of pleasant odors not being forbidden.

The Eve of the Day of Atonement

A special importance was assigned to the day prior to the Day of Atonement, which was regarded already in the period of the Mishnah and Talmud not merely as a preparation for, but as an inseparable part of, the Day of Atonement. The statement, "Everyone who eats and drinks on the ninth [of Tishri] is considered by Scripture as having fasted on the ninth and tenth" (Ber. 8b) means that one should eat and drink well on the eve of the Day not merely to prepare for the fast but also to fulfill the command to rejoice in and to honor the festive day. From ancient times much meat, fowl, and fish was eaten on this day (see, e.g., Gen. R. 11:4), in which one spent less time in study and prayer. Little by little the eve of the Day of Atonement took on the character of a festival, some people desisting from doing any work then. It is customary to send gifts to the poor, and a duty to ask forgiveness from one another and to appease each other. During the geonic period, the custom of ritual immersion on the eve of the Day of Atonement after midday was introduced; this was usually performed before the Minḥah service, in any case before the final meal (se'uddah mafseket), but there were also other customs. Some said a blessing before the immersion. The opinion of most halakhic authorities, however, has been that a blessing should not be said. Even one who finds it difficult to immerse himself should endeavor to wash in hot water. It is also customary to trim the hair. In Germany and France it was customary after the Minḥah service to inflict 39 stripes, while the victim repeated the confession, and the one wielding the lash said "And He being full of compassion forgiveth iniquity" (Ha-Orah 1:95; et al.). This also became the custom among the Sephardim. Some visit the cemetery. In recent generations the custom originated in some places of blessing one's children before nightfall. (For customs from the geonic period which have an element of magic, see *Kapparot, *Kol Nidrei.)

Termination of the Day of Atonement

The termination of the Day of Atonement was also assigned a special status, similar to that of the eve of the Day. During the geonic era the custom of blowing the shofar at the conclusion of the Day of Atonement was adopted, there being differences of opinion about the number of blasts, the time (whether at the end of Ne'ilah or after the evening service and Havdalah), and the reason for blowing. There are those who contend that the purpose of the blowing is to call attention to the festive and joyous character of the termination of the Day of Atonement; in northern France and Germany, the termination of the Day was considered a festival, it being a religious duty to rejoice and eat abundantly. There were also special table-hymns for the end of the Day (Sefer Ravyah, no. 530; Or Zaru'a 2, no. 281); and there was also the custom of greeting people with the blessing "May you be answered and your entreaty granted"; "May you be inscribed for life and merit many years" (Orḥot Ḥayyim; cf. Judah Halevi, Divan, ed. by H. Brody, 3 (1910), 305, in a seliḥah for Ne'ilah: "May you merit many years, be answered, and have your entreaty granted"). Some have the custom to begin building the booths for *Sukkot as soon as the Day of Atonement terminates (Isserles to Sh. Ar., OḤ 624:5).

The Meaning of the Day – The Day of Atonement in Philosophic, Aggadic, and Belletristic Literature

In the Pentateuch there is no reference to mourning practices on the Day of Atonement. On the other hand, the Book of Jubilees maintains that the Day of Atonement, the one day in the year when forgiveness is granted to all who repent fully (Jub. 5:17–18), was established on the day that Jacob heard of Joseph's death and mourned for him. For this reason one should always be sad on this day (Jub. 34:17–18), and atonement is made with a male goat as a reminder of the male goat which Joseph's brothers slaughtered and in whose blood they dipped his shirt. This conception of the Day of Atonement as a day of sadness is peculiar to the author of the Book of Jubilees and does not appear elsewhere in Judaism except among many Karaites who instituted mourning practices on the Day of Atonement.

*Philo was the first author to discuss profoundly the significance of the Day of Atonement. In his opinion it is the greatest of the festivals as in it, being both a festival and a time of repentance and purification, true joy is to be found. In contrast to many other people, Philo maintained that true joy is not to be found in overeating and overdrinking, feasting and reveling, and dancing and music, which in reality only stir up man's lowest desires and lusts. The Day of Atonement, on the contrary, is defined by abstinence and devotion to praying from morning to night. The purpose of the fast is to purify the heart of people who pray without being disturbed by corporal desires, and entreat their Maker's forgiveness for their past sins and His blessing for the future. Philo testifies that all, not only those devoted to piety, but even those who are not distinguished at all on other days by the fear of heaven, fear the sanctity of the Day and observe it, evildoers standing together with the good in the struggle to subdue the evil inclination (Philo, Spec. 1:186–8; 2:193–203; Mos. 2:23–24).

The sages too regarded the Day of Atonement as the supreme festival and the greatest day of the year (Gen. R. 2:3), hence its names: "The Great Day" (or, in abbreviation, "The Day"), and "The Great Fast" (Ta'an. 4:8; Tosef., Ḥul. 5 [6]:9; Sifra, Aḥarei Mot 8:9, but cf. Men. 11:9; Sof. 19:4). A day of unparalleled joy, both for God, who gave it to Israel with love (SER 1), and for the children of Israel themselves (SEZ 4), the whole purpose of the Day of Atonement is to atone for those who repent and confess their iniquity. Even one who was far from his home the rest of the year endeavored to return to his wife and family in order to spend the day and the meal of its eve together with them (Ket. 62b, 63a; Shab. 127b). According to the aggadah, the Day of Atonement is the day the second Tablets of the Law were given to Moses (SOR 6), and also the day of Abraham's circumcision (PdRE 29); there is also a tradition that it is the day of the *Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. It was said that even if all the other festivals were to be abrogated, the Day of Atonement, on which the children of Israel resemble the angels, would remain (ibid. 46). Satan has no power to accuse the children of Israel on this Day (Lev. R. 21:4). The assembly of Israel, sullied by sins during the whole year, is cleansed on the Day of Atonement (Song R. 1:5) since it is a day of pardon and forgiveness, and atonement is promised even to the completely wicked who repent, for their Maker desires their repentance and greatly rejoices in it. The Day of Atonement is thus regarded not just as a duty but still more as a right; and side by side with the feeling of the great transcendent distance between the sinner and God there manifests itself in an emphatic fashion the conception of His immanent nearness to all His creatures ("Thou dost reach out Thy hand to transgressors; Thy right hand is extended to receive repentant sinners").

During the Middle Ages, the character of the Day of Atonement as a joyful and a festive day did not change, but emphasis was also put upon its character as a day of judgment and justice and as the hour of "signing the verdict." As did Philo and the sages, the medieval philosophers also describe the Day of Atonement as a day when the soul, freed from corporal fetters, attains the peak of its perfection in the service of God (Judah Halevi, Kuzari, 3:5; Maim., Guide, 3:43; Ha-Meiri, Ḥibbur ha-Teshuvah, 427–8, 430, 442; according to Ha-Meiri 439–40, eating on the eve of the Day, too, serves this purpose).

In all generations halakhic sages, thinkers, and moralists deprecated lengthy praying when achieved at the cost of understanding and devotion. At the same time, it is the prayer of the Day of Atonement which expresses the perfection and greatness of the Day. In recent generations the Day of Atonement has become the last concrete bond with Judaism for many Jews.

The honored place allotted to the Day of Atonement in the various branches of the belletristic literature and art also testifies to its leading position both among Jews and among Gentiles who write about Jews. In modern Hebrew literature the Day of Atonement appears as a symbol of Judaism, both when depicting rebellion against Judaism (as for instance in the case of Nahman, the hero of Le-An by M.Z. *Feuerberg), and when depicting the yearning for it. In Sheloshah she-Akhlu, D. *Frischmann depicts against the background of the Day of Atonement the wealth of meaning exhibited by the perfect world of Judaism, even from the standpoint of humanity as a whole, in contrast to the ludicrous emptiness of the world of the superficial maskilim. In his tale Neshamot Illemot: 4 Nissim al ha-Yam, I.L. *Peretz depicts the Day of Atonement as the only symbol of the simple faith of Satyah, the plain common Jew living among Gentiles. However, in his story "Niggun Ḥadash," the Day of Atonement expresses the contradiction between the bright, heavenly ideal and the gloomy, human reality. A.Z. *Rabinovitz in Ḥalom brings up the significance of the Day of Atonement in the consciousness of refugees saved from the pogroms, immigrating to Ereẓ Israel, in such a way that even God, as it were, is required by them on this day to justify His conduct of the world. The Day of Atonement plays a most important part in the works of S.Y. *Agnon. Reflected against the ideal and profound nature of the perfect Day of Atonement of the past (Ba-Derekh; Zikkaron ba-Sefer – the introduction to Yamim Nora'im, Days of Awe, 1965), Agnon brings up its problematic significance in a world broken and shattered both without and within (Ore'aḥ Nataḥ Lalun; Im Kenisat ha-Yom; Eineinu ha-Ro'ot). On the one hand, the power of the Day of Atonement is so great that even the dead share a part in it with the living (Bi-Meẓulot); that man clothes himself with a different soul (Eẓel Ḥemdat); and that even his sick body is healed by it (Lefi ha-Ẓa'ar ha-Sakhar). On the other hand, however, not everything depends upon the Day itself, for a man could forfeit the Day of Atonement without Torah and prayer – an irrecoverable and irreplaceable loss (Pi-Shenayim; Tallit Aḥeret).


S. Landersdorfer, Studien zum biblischen Versoehnungstag (1924); Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 149–54; Idelsohn, Liturgy, 223–48; S.Z. Zevin, Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (19492), 62–89; T.H. Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year (1952), 135–86; D.Z. Hoffmann, Sefer Va-Yikra (1953), 298ff.; L. Jacobs, Guide to Yom Kippur (1957); Kaufmann, Y., Religion, 302–9; H. Schauss, The Jewish Festivals (1938), 119–42; idem, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (1962), passim; M. Arzt, Justice and Mercy (1963), 191–290, includes bibliography; E. Munk, The World of Prayer, 2 (1963), 169–209; M. Noth, Leviticus (Eng., 1965), 115–22; EM, 3 (1965), 595–600; S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe (1965), 183–279, includes bibliography; K. Elliger, Leviticus (Ger., 1966), 200–17; H. Chamiel (ed.), Yamim Nora'im (1968); B.A. Levine, in: Eretz Israel, 9 (1969), 88–95 (Heb. sect.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Knohl, in: HUCA, 58 (1987), 65–117; idem, The Sanctuary of Silence (1995); D. Wright, On the Disposal of Impurity (1987); idem, in: ABD II, 72–6; B. Levine, JPS Torah Commentary Leviticus (1989); J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16 (AB; 1991); S.D. Sperling, Original Torah (1998), 103–19; idem, in: R. Chazan et al. (eds.), Ki Baruch Hu (Studies Baruch Levine; 1999), 373–85.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.