The Evolution of Yom Kippur


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Yom Kippur usually carries a dread – not “only” of a potentially fatal judgment – but the more commonly dreaded 25-hour period where we suffer from prohibitions against simple comforts: we cannot eat or bathe, and we stand many hours in prayer without shoes. These laws create an unfortunate and incorrect, negative association, to a day, which should be most celebrated: we are forgiven! Sadly, many of us focus on the lack of food, more than on how God will pronounce His justice over our life, health, success, and happiness. Our attachment to this Earthly existence is to blame for granting more value to immediate needs, than for our souls. Tell a person sentenced to death that 25 hours of fasting and prayer will give him another year of life, and he will kiss you. We should feel the same way. If we can accept this brief period of fasting and discomfort, and get past the anxiety, we can discover some interesting ideas, which God has covertly conveyed to us in His Torah about this day. And with these new realizations, I feel we will welcome this day with an appreciation for God’s intent, and minimal concern over the discomforts…that do have their place.



The Origin of Yom Kippur

Where did Yom Kippur come from: is it a day God planned from the outset during Creation, or something that evolved, responding to man’s flaws?

All of creation typifies one of these two possibilities; for there is no other. Either something was part of God’s original plan, or it was added later. For example, man was first created quite tall, with a lifespan of 1000 years. The Medrash says that man used to traverse the Earth in a few steps, uprooting cedars, and fierce beasts such as lions were as fleas to him: an exaggerated truism. But after man’s ego directed him to sin (primarily due to these gifts of stature and longevity), God reduced his stature and minimized his years to address the very cause of his sin. Thus, man had an original design, that was later changed due to his sinful nature. Due to his sin, man was then to share the same food as his donkey, but God rescinded this decree and allowed him to have some ego satisfaction, in the act of working the ground for his food. Again, there was an original plan regarding man’s food, and then a concession to man’s nature.

However, in the Garden of Eden, there was not yet a Yom Kippur, only a Rosh Hashanah. This means that a day of judgment and a final verdict occurred simultaneously. But today, we experience a day of judgment (Rosh Hashanah) and a separate Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Why was there a change? The Ran says as does Maimonides, “The wholly righteous [even now] are written and sealed for life immediately on Rosh Hashanah.” They need no Yom Kippur. This makes sense, as a righteous person is always reviewing his thoughts and actions. He probably does not even need a Rosh Hashanah. The Ran continues, “But average people like us (baynoni) are granted a stay of execution for 10 more days, so we might investigate our deeds and repent”. We now understand that Adam did not require the 10-day reflection period. As Ibn Ezra teaches, “Adam was a great intellect”. But as man slid in his perfection, the 10 Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur became a need.

The Ran states (Ran on Rosh Hashanah; 3a, “BiRosh”):  “God desires to grant merit in the Jews’ judgment, and He desires to judge His creations in a time established for atonement and forgiveness”. Here, Ran refers to the fact that Moses obtained atonement for the Jews’ sin of the Gold Calf on this 10th of Tishrei, on Yom Kippur. Therefore, God judges us on the day in which He forgave Israel back then. But we wonder what this means, that God “desired to judge us in a time established for forgiveness”. It was God who initially forgave man! So what is meant by God forgiving “when” He forgave?  Whenever He wants to forgive, will also be a day when “He forgave”! In essence, our question is, “Why does God wish to copy Himself?” Sounds strange? But as always, the Rabbis are teaching profound insights.

My understanding of this phenomenon of God copying Himself means this: God’s forgiveness is based on “Himself”, i.e., His forgiveness is not based on “our claims”, for we have no claim against God. “Copying Himself” (His forgiveness of the Gold Calf sin, and then following through for all Yom Kippurs) means that it is God’s mercy alone that demands man to be forgiven. Without God’s mercy, when man sins, he breaks his Torah treaty with God. And as is the case with all agreements, one who breaks his agreement must pay. But in connection with God, we have the good fortune of an additional aspect of “God’s mercy”, as we recited all week in Selichos, “For on Your abundant mercy do we trust” for forgiveness. Therefore, man has no rights once he sins, but God is merciful, and “this” is why we are forgiven. This is what the Ran means by God using His initial day of forgiveness, as a model for future forgiveness: His forgiveness is based on His nature.

Now let us turn our attention to the sin of the Gold Calf to better grasp its significance as the forerunner of Yom Kippur.



The Gold Calf & Yom Kippur

We now understand why God repeats His forgiveness, for this is His merciful nature, and His nature never changes. Therefore, man will always be forgiven…if he seeks God’s mercy. Additionally, later generations who did not sin with the Gold Calf also require a Yom Kippur since we all share the same design as humans who sin.

Why was Moses’ intercession necessary to obtain forgiveness for the people? Perhaps it was Moses’ potential to educate the Jews back to a proper lifestyle that earned the Jews forgiveness. It was also Moses who had the greatest level of wisdom, enabling him to learn from God how to obtain pardon. But this area requires more study. What I wish to focus on in this section is the sin of the Gold Calf. How was this event so significant for all time? Furthermore, Rashi states (Exod. 32:34): “When God punishes the Jews in the future for other sins, He will also requite some punishment for the Gold Calf. For no punishment comes upon Israel, that doesn’t contain some of the punishment for the Gold Calf”. But why should the Gold Calf sin be requited, when the Jews sin in other matters? What was this sin?


The Jews miscounted the day of Moses’ descent from Sinai. They said to Aaron after seeing Moses delayed, “Rise, make for as elohim (governor) that shall go before us. For this Moses, ‘the man’ who took us out of Egypt, we know not what has become of him”.  The “man”? That’s an odd statement.

The Jews thought Moses might have died. They created the Gold Calf – not as a representation of God – but of the “powers” they witnessed. (Ramban) The Jews displayed the inability to detach from the “man” Moses. So deep was this need for physical, religious life, that they created a gold, physical expression. And so deep was this need, that God allowed a concession for it. Sforno teaches that God only commanded Moses and the Jews in the Temple and in all its vessels, so the Jews might have the expression they sought: a physical means of religious expression. Without the sin of the Gold Calf, Temple would not be part of the Torah, and human life. Of course the allowed human expression in Temple service is highly regulated to insure no idolatrous venting.

Therefore, the Gold Calf sin, in essence, is the inability for man to approach God abstractly. In other words, all of man’s approaches to God are severely compromised due to our feeble natures, and our over attachment to the physical. Thus, when we sin in the future, we are in fact expressing this same flaw, which that ancient generation expressed in building the Calf. Sin means that we cannot live 100% in line with God, we must deviate from Him. So the statement in Rashi that “all sins receive some punishment of the Gold Calf”, means that all sins share the same crime, at their every root, as the Gold Calf. A wise Rabbi recently mentioned that the first Tablets were created during the Six Days of Creation. (Avos, 5:6) The idea, if I recall well, is similar to what we are saying: God initially desired the Jews to possess the first Tablets, i.e., He desired we live a more abstract and thus, more perfected existence, realizing Him from creation, indicated by those first stones being part of Creation. But after the Gold Calf sin, we received Moses’ hewn tablets.

Rashi on Exodus 33:11 says that God forgave the Jews for the Golden Calf with a full heart and with gladness, and this occurred on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. The sin of the Gold Calf epitomized mankind’s central, religious flaw. But this is not all that occurs on Yom Kippur. We have so many unique services. From where or what are they derived?



Fatal, Ultra-Religious Emotions

The Torah outlines the Yom Kippur sacrifices and highly unique services at the very beginning of Parshas Acharay Mos. Sin offerings and Olah offerings are brought; the priests and Jews bring separate offerings; the High Priest clouded the Holy of Holies in the Temple with a incense; and the Scapegoat is hurled off a rocky peak from Azazael. Together, these acts form amazingly unparalleled and curious acts of worship, to say the least. But we also read that these services come on the heels of the death of Aaron’s two sons. What is the connection? Let’s first understand their sin for which God killed them, and then, why their story must be the intro to the Yom Kippur worship. At this point, the Gold Calf, Aaron’s sons’ deaths, these strange forms of worship, and the afflictions…all seem quite disjointed.


Acharay Mos commences as follows (Lev. 16:1,2):


“And God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew close before God, and they were killed. And God said to Moses, ‘Speak unto Aaron your brother, that he does not draw close at all time towards the Holy of Holies, behind the Paroches [curtain] facing the Cherubim that is on the Ark, that he not be killed. For in cloud do I appear on the Cherubim’.”


The Torah then describes all of the Yom Kippur sacrifices and services. When we read of the sin of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:1) the Torah says that they brought a “strange” fire that they “were not commanded” to bring. In other words, they sought to serve God with their own type of worship. God teaches us their sin above with the words “when they drew close to God”. God is teaching us that our approach to Him must be exactly as He outlines in His Torah. Nadav and Avihu did seek to “draw close to God”, but they allowed their instincts to run free in the religious sphere. They imagined they could worship God with unguided actions…actions God never prescribed. But this is impossible, and a fatal error. The correct formula is this: our approach to God cannot be by any means that God disagrees with. “Do not add to the Torah” is a command addressing this very ultra-religious emotion, and teaches exactly what God denounces: “all that is omitted from Torah is prohibited”. The Talmud teaches that the religious sphere is where man’s instincts are greatest. We see this today with jihads and Temple mount claims. And the Talmud metaphorically depicted the instincts as a fiery lion exiting the Holy of Holies. This teaches our very point, as a wise Rabbi taught, "the instincts are strongest in religious matters"…the Holy of Holies is where human instincts are as powerful (fiery) as a lion.


But why observe all of these services, on Yom Kippur? How do Nadav and Avihu tie into this Day of Atonement? It would appear, that as Temple is a response to the Gold Calf sin, and Nadav and Avihu erred in Temple worship, the tie is apparent. The very vehicle God compromised on – Temple – contains dangers, and explains why it was not a preferred institution! Even our very approach to God in Temple will be flawed, since man is flawed.

Therefore, the sacrifices on Yom Kippur actually come to atone for “sinful worship”, as ironic as it sounds. Rashi teaches that the Yom Kippur sacrifices atone for the Jews and the Priests’ errors in worship. Of course the Scapegoat atones for other sins, but a primary focus is on atonement for flawed, Temple worship. This explains why the Yom Kippur services outlined in the Torah come on the heels of Aaron’s sons’ sin. Just as they erred in approaching God in Temple, we do as well. In our very approach to God, our instincts do not let up. Amazing. How honest is our Torah! But again, be mindful that Temple is a ‘concession’, explaining why flawed worship is no surprise.

My friend Jeremy Koppel suggested this following idea many years ago: the reason there are sin offerings and Olah offerings, is to teach that atonement (sin offering) is not the final objective, but approaching God without the need to repent is: love of God is greater than fear of God. Another two ideas tie in now.


Why does the High Priest cloud the Holy of Holies? He does so as God says, “For in cloud do I appear on the Cherubim”. This quote was God’s response to Aaron’s sons’ sin. This means that God is imperceptible via human senses. In all of God’s revelations and communications, cloud is present: cloud hovered over the Temple; at Revelation at Sinai there were clouds and fog; and the Temple has the incense altar that creates cloud. Why do we need cloud? This is to teach that a “veil” exists between God and mankind. “For man cannot know Me while alive” was said by God to Moses. And it was this truth that Aaron’s two sons did not grasp, and assumed they could imagine how to approach God. However, not only is God unknowable, but also, so is man’s approach to Him, unless we are taught how.

We also learn in Acharay Mos that the priests offer separate sacrifices from the Jews. This can be explained as a result of the priests’ role. They worship in the temple daily, and have a greater danger of falling prey to religious emotions. Therefore, their atonement for Temple infractions is of a greater nature than the Jews’, explaining why their animal sacrifice is a greater animal, a bull, while the Jews’ sin offering is a goat.



We learn that Yom Kippur is God’s merciful response to man’s flaws, and that this day evolved due to the Jews' sin of the Gold Calf, and to Aaron's son's flawed worship. The Gold Calf sin demanded a day be devoted to addressing man’s Earthbound, sinful nature; our inability to live 100% without sin. But the sacrifices brought on Yom Kippur were not based on this Gold Calf event. They were a response to Nadav and Avihu’s sin. Yet, these sins are a direct result of Temple, which itself is a result of the Gold Calf. Due to our need to employ physical expression in our worship of God, God conceded with a Temple. And due to this concession, man inevitably sinned in his expression, embodied in Nadav and Avihu’s sin.

Reflecting on these ideas, we come to realize our natures as humans: creations that are imperfect; creatures with dependent existences, and who rely on the Creator for our lives. But during our brief existence, we are so fortunate that God extends to man this Day of Atonement; where He wipes our slate clean. He encourages our renewed existence in the pursuit of learning more about Him and living properly. He gave us His Torah for us, not for Him, as God has no needs.

So as we enter and exit this holy day, we must feel fortunate, not hungry or tired. We should truly search out from our Torah leaders what God truly wants of us, for our own good.

Yom Kippur equips us with a fresh beginning; and abandonment of old sinful ways, as a new "me" emerges revitalized with vigor. May we harness this new strength to grow ever stronger in our Torah lifestyles, remaining firm to what God teaches, without deviation.