Yom Kippur Rituals & Symbols | Aleph Beta

The Day of Atonement

Understanding The Day Of Atonement Rituals

Immanuel Shalev


What comes to mind when you think of Yom Kippur rituals? Yom Kippur is all about seeking atonement, but nowadays, we accomplish that through prayer and sitting in synagogue all day. But back when the Temple still stood, Yom Kippur customs involved goats and lotteries and sacrifices and sprinkling blood and incense and clouds. How do those weird Yom Kippur rituals atone for our sins? It sounds magical… and irrational. What meaning hides behind these ancient traditions that we can apply to our holy Day of Atonement today?

In this video, we explore these strange Yom Kippur customs to understand how we can atone for our sins. Through this inspection, we deepen our understanding of what the Day of Atonement really means.


David: Welcome to Parshat Acharei Mot. This week, we learn about the detailed Yom Kippur ritual that took place each year in the Tabernacle.

How Do Yom Kippur Rituals Atone for Our Sins?

When we think of Yom Kippur, we generally associate it with prayer and sitting in synagogue all day. But back then, it involved goats and lotteries and sacrifices and sprinkling blood and incense and clouds. And the purpose of all of these rituals is to, somehow, grant forgiveness for all of the sins we did throughout the year. The question is, how? How does killing goats and doing weird blood sprinkling save us from sins? It sounds magical… and irrational.

And if it is forgiveness we're after – what happened to good-ol'-fashioned repentance? Actually trying to change yourself and become a better person? At some point in the Yom Kippur ritual, the priest does confess the sins of the people, but it's just a small part of the elaborate service… just one verse out of 30 describe the ins and outs of rituals involving blood and sacrifice.

So what are we to make of this strange forgiveness-granting ritual? And how do we relate to it when our experience of Yom Kippur is just so different… Join us as we explore the essence of Yom Kippur, this week, on The Parsha Experiment.

Hi, I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And I'm Immanuel, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.

What Is Accomplished on the Day of Atonement?

David: There's actually one verse that describes what the strange Yom Kippur service is meant to accomplish… but it actually may confuse us more. If we can understand what this sentence means, we might get a sense of how the service works:

כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם – for on this day, you shall be granted atonement,

לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם – to purify you,

מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם – from all of your sins.

To grant atonement to purify you from your sins. I understand what it means to be atoned for sins, and maybe even what it means to be purified from sins. But, in this context, don't those really mean the same thing? If the verse would have said, for on this day, you will be granted atonement from all of your sins, would you have said, woah woah woah...WAIT a second...what about purity? Will we also be purified from all of our sins? Or if the verse said that you would be purified from your sins, would you have said, hold it! We need atonement! What is the relationship between purity and atonement?

Immanuel: And things really start to fall apart when we reconsider that word, Kapparah. We always assume that it means atonement – Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. And that makes sense whenever it's used in context of sins. But, there are many other times when the word is used where translating it as "atonement" just doesn't work. For example, when one brings an Olah offering, it's done לכפר עליו. But the Olah is a voluntary offering, not brought for sins! Similarly, a Yoledet, a women who has just given birth, has to bring sacrifices, וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ – it grants her a kapparah. A zav – one who has abnormal bodily discharge – also goes through a ritual which concludes with וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו. As we discussed, both the Yoledet and the Zav are tamei – ritually impure – but childbirth and having discharge are not sins. And yet, both people need kapparah. So kapparahh can't just mean atonement.

David: So let's try and find a definition that works. As we try to understand kapparah and the rituals that help one achieve it, we might get a better sense of the meaning of the Yom Kippur service.

Explaining the Rituals of the Day of Atonement

Immanuel: Now, there are a few instances in which the meaning of the root כ-פ-ר is unmistakable. The cover for the Aron, the ark that held the tablets, is called the כפרת. Additionally, back in Genesis, when Noah was commanded to build his ark, God said, וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ, בַּכֹּפֶר – cover it, inside and out, with a covering.

David: So, that's our first clue: כ-פ-ר means "cover." Now let's plug that definition into the verse in our parsha, כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם...מכל חאטתכם – that would mean that Yom Kippur comes not to atone, but to cover us from our sins. What does it mean to be covered from sins? Is it like some magical shield? And, what about those other cases that don't involve sin, like a Yoledet, one who gives birth. What's being covered there? To crack the Kapparah code, we'll need another clue…. And we may just find it in one particularly strange use of the word.

Immanuel: In the Book of Numbers, when discussing justice for murderers, the Torah warns us: וְלֹא-תִקְחוּ כֹפֶר לְנֶפֶשׁ רֹצֵחַ. Don't take ransom for the life of a murderer, he is guilty and deserving of death. Here, the word כ-פ-ר means ransom. We can't let a murderer buy his way out of justice. So which is it? How can the word "cover" also mean "ransom?" It seems that the ransom money that he would give somehow represents him. It covered for him.

The word "cover" works this way in English. If I am at a restaurant and I meet some friends for dinner, I can tell the manager that "I'll cover them" – and the manager understands that I am going to pay for them. To cover for someone means to substitute for them – to stand in their place. They owe you money? Now I owe you money. I am covering them. The ransom money does not physically cover the person… that makes no sense. It covers for the person.

David: In fact, all the cases of kapparah in the Torah include an object or vehicle for substitution. Kapparah is always a process in which we have an object symbolically represent us. The object covers for us. That process is different in each case, but let's just look at one example: Take semicha. When one bring an Olah offering, including those offered in the Yom Kippur service, he leans his hands on the head of the offering, לכפר עליו – to cover for him. The process of leaning my hands on the animal's head symbolically signifies the animal's substitution for me. The animal stands in my place. But why?

Understanding the Meaning of the Day of Atonement

Immanuel: Earlier, we had a hard time understanding why one who brings a voluntary Olah offering should need kapparah. In last year's Vayikra video, Rabbi Fohrman explained that the Olah is really an expression of Awe. When I realize how great God really is, that He's the Source of everything, I'm overwhelmed, and all I can do is see everything I have as God's; I can't see anything as mine. In fact, the Olah is the only offering in which all of it is completely offered up to God – none of it is consumed by the Kohanim or the giver. So when the giver rests his hands on the animal, it's לכפר עליו, the animal stands in the place of the giver, and when it is offered up completely to God, it is as if he is saying, "God, everything in the world is yours, I willingly give everything up to You… including myself." The rituals through which we do kapparah are designed to achieve that substitution, and help us express that emotion of utter abandonment to God, in a very tangible way.

David: Another case that we had trouble understanding was the Yoledet and Zav – two examples of people who are ritually impure. What does Kapparah mean there? Last week, we explained that Tumah is a status that is designed to force us to confront our own mortality. Death should be the most poignant reminder to us that we're not eternal – only God is – but we often don't internalize that. The rituals of tumah give us a way to re-align our perspectives and realize that God is the great giver of life, and we are encouraged to cling to Him. And in the case of a Yoledet and Zav, we now understand how that works. Both a Yoeledet and Zav bring a korban, וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ – and the offering covers for them.

If we apply our understanding of Kapparah as substitution, it seems that the animal stands in their place. And then think about what happens; imagine yourself bringing an animal to the Tabernacle as a symbolic representation of you. And then, suddenly, the animal is slaughtered in front of you, and offered up to God. That bone-chilling experience would really push you to confront your own mortality. That animal – it represented you… that could've been you!

Your life could have ended just as quickly, but for the grace of God. Your offering of that animal, of yourself to God, helps you remember that God is the Source of your Life. The very idea of the animal covering for you – kapparah – is what pushes you to realize your mortality and it's the mechanism through which tahara is achieved.

What Do Yom Kippur Customs Achieve Today?

Immanuel: And now let's return to Yom Kippur. Somehow, the ritual of Yom Kippur is meant be mechaper – to cover for our sins. How does that work? How do the rituals of the day provide a cover for the wrongs that we have committed? When one sins, he essentially chooses his own morality over God's. He demonstrates that he thinks that he makes the rules, not God. He really pushes God out of the picture.

As we mentioned last week, the concept of Tumah is related to sin; God actually invokes the word tumah with respect to sin. Regarding sexuality and idolatry, God says:אַל-תִּטַּמְּאוּ, בְּכָל-אֵלֶּה – don't make yourself tamei by trangressing these. One doesn't attain a ritual status of tumah by transgressing sins, but by using the same word, the Torah seems to be telling us that committing sins is akin becoming tamei on purpose… When one sins, he chooses his own morality over God's. He pretends that he's the eternal being. Just as we do when we ignore the spiritual message of a confrontation with death.

It seems that sin is spiritually akin to someone choosing to stay in a state of Tumah – a state of denial of the source of all life. If Kapparah is meant to cover sin, then how should it work? Somehow, it must bring one towards Tahara – purity. If sin expresses a denial of God and a false sense of mastery over this world, then kapparah must express the opposite – a complete acceptance of human limitation and of God as the master and source of all life.

Immanuel: Kapparah is the mechanism for how that is achieved. On the simplest level, when a person sins, strict Divine justice would say that he should be held culpable. But God also deals with us mercifully, so He allows a substitute. The animals used in the Yom Kippur ritual – the goats and the cattle offerings – stand in in our place…. they cover for our mistakes and take the punishment that we deserve.

Immanuel: But it's even deeper than just letting the animal absorb our punishment. When we symbolically see ourselves in the animal, we're essentially saying that that we want to let go of who we were... We've made mistakes. We don't pretend the sin never happened – we don't cover up the sin… we acknowledge it… And then we choose to separate ourselves from it. We symbolically transfer our old selves into the animal. And when we dedicate the animal to the service of God – like with the olah offerings – we really dedicate ourselves up to God. That's achieving Tahara – the ultimate way of admitting our own limitations and recognizing God as Master. So, while sin brings one towards Tuma, the illusion of our own mastery, Kapparah, substitution, helps one achieve Tahara, the recognition of God's mastery.

Finding Our Path to Atonement Through Yom Kippur Rituals

David: And with all this in mind, let's go back one last time to that verse that describes the purpose of the Yom Kippur service.

כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם – for on this day, you shall be covered by the substitution service,

לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם – so that you might achieve purity

מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם – from all of your sins.

Kapparah helps us recognize God, corrects the false perspective of chet, and facilitates our purification, our tahara. That's what Yom Kippur is all about: recognizing that God is the Source of all life, and realigning our lives with that reality.

The Torah clearly places a very heavy emphasis on ritual as a vehicle to express ourselves before God. But ritual is not enough – Maimonides teaches us in his Laws of Repentance that without acknowledgement of your sin and a commitment to do better in the future, the sacrifice you bring is meaningless. But now, we are in a better position to understand how God wants us to approach our misdeeds, and we can understand what a gift this day of atonement, the day of covering, really is.

Once a year, when we pray on Yom Kippur in place of the service that once was, we might symbolically cast aside our former selves, and offer ourselves up to God… we might make sure to recognize God as the Source of our lives and achieve forgiveness, rebirth, and purity...and we might be joyful and thankful for the gift of Yom Kippur.

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