Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) by Marc Zvi Brettler

Today, Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. But how did it develop from a day centered around cleansing the wilderness tabernacle to a day focused on personal atonement?

Is “the Day of Atonement” a good translation of the Hebrew Yom Kippur?

The fall holy day celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month is called twice in the Hebrew Bible, Yom Hakippurim (Lev 23:27; Lev 25:9), and medieval Jewish texts often call it Yom Kippur. (Kippur is the singular of kippurim.) The conventional translation “atonement” for kippurim comes from the Septuagint, the ancient Jewish Bible translation into Greek, and from Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate), which renders it as “expiationum,” expiation, which usually refers to the process by which an individual performs some actions that cause sins to be forgiven. The Hebrew word, however, does not refer to atonement or expiation in this sense.

The main biblical text that describes the Yom Kippur ritual is Lev 16, which uses Hebrew terms related to kippur sixteen times, most often in reference to parts of the tabernacle, the pre-temple sanctuary imagined to have accompanied the Israelites in their forty-year wilderness journey. It is the tabernacle, or parts of it, such as the sacrificial altar or the holy of holies—the innermost part of the tabernacle—which is kippur-ed according to most verses of the chapter. In other words, the altar absorbs certain sins of the Israelites, and the main function of Yom Kippur is to cleanse these sins by using the blood of a purification offering (sometimes called a “sin offering”) as a type of ritual detergent. Leviticus 16 describes in detail this bloody ritual, at which the high priest Aaron or his descendants officiate; it makes the tabernacle (or later temple) ritually clean, and thus God is willing to reside there among Israel. The biblical term yom kippurim is thus best translated as “the day of purgation,” and specifically refers to the purgation or cleansing of sins from the tabernacle or temple. This festival only appears in Priestly texts that focus on the tabernacle or temple, such as Lev 16 and Lev 23; it is absent from other biblical calendrical texts (e.g., Exod 23 and Deut 16) that have a more agricultural focus.

Leviticus 16 describes other rituals as well, including a scapegoat that carries away the sins of the Israelites. Thus, the chapter is broadly concerned with cleansing sin but not with repentance, which would become the main theme of the day’s activities after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. In such ritual practices, the significance of repentance is emphasized through the liturgical reading of the book of Jonah, whose main theme is the efficacy of sincere repentance. Most of the other activities now associated with Yom Kippur, such as fasting, are based on the interpretation of the phrase “you shall deny yourselves,” which appears in various biblical texts about Yom Kippur (e.g., Lev 16:29); rituals of self-denial are meant to call God’s attention and sympathy.

Why is Yom Kippur important in the New Testament?

The rituals surrounding Yom Kippur play a major role in the New Testament, in which a number of texts implicitly view Jesus as a Yom Kippur offering. This association is found in a wide variety of texts: in the gospels (Matt 27:15-26), in Paul (Rom 3:24-26; Gal 3-4), and in texts sometimes attributed to Paul in Christian tradition (Heb 9). The supersessionist author of Hebrews emphasizes how Jesus is more perfect than the priests from the family of Aaron who performed the Yom Kippur rituals in Lev 16, and thus the offering of Christ, and his blood, is more effective than the sacrifice described in the “Old” Testament:

9:11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

This is one of many cases that shows the manner in which the religion that would develop into Christianity is deeply indebted to the Hebrew Bible, which the early Christ-believing community interpreted in novel ways.

Marc Zvi Brettler, "Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)", n.p. [cited 2 Dec 2022]. Online:


Marc Zvi Brettler

Marc Zvi Brettler
Professor, Brandeis University

Marc Zvi Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is the author of How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford, 2007) and coeditor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.

Reconciliation between God and a person, often brought about by sacrifice or reparation.

A state of being that, in the Bible, combined ritual and moral purity. Certain actions, like touching a corpse, made a person unclean.

Annual day of fasting, prayer and repentance. The last of the ten days of penitence that begin with the Jewish New Year.

The practice of atonement, resulting in the removal of sin.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

The innermost part of the tabernacle/temple, which housed the ark of the covenant and the presence of God; only the high priest was allowed to enter it, and then only on the annual day of purgation (Yom Kippur).

A Christian priest and theologian from around 400 C.E.; his translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate, became the definitive Bible translation for over a thousand years.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

a site with religious significance

The goat offered as an expiatory sacrifice on behalf of the people of Israel in order to purify the temple on the day of atonement; see Lev 16.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Of or related to a theology holding that Christianity takes the place of Israel's in God's plans.

The Latin-language translation of the Christian Bible (mostly from Hebrew and Greek) created primarily by Jerome.

Lev 23:27

27Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the Lord's off ... View more

Lev 25:9

9Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all y ... View more

Lev 16

The Day of Atonement
1The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.2The Lord said to Moses:
Te ... View more

Lev 16

The Day of Atonement
1The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.2The Lord said to Moses:
Te ... View more

Lev 23

Appointed Festivals
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shal ... View more

Exod 23

Justice for All
23 You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. 2 You shall not follow a majorit ... View more

Deut 16

The Passover Reviewed
1Observe the month of Abib by keeping the passover for the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Eg ... View more

Lev 16:29

29This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citi ... View more

Matt 27:15-26

Barabbas or Jesus?
15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a n ... View more

Rom 3:24-26

24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, ... View more

Gal 3-4

Law or Faith
1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!2The only thing I want ... View more

Heb 9

The Earthly and the Heavenly Sanctuaries
9 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tent[a] was constructed, th ... View more

Lev 16

The Day of Atonement
1The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.2The Lord said to Moses:
Te ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.