The significance of Yom Kippur for a Messianic Jew
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is upon us. In ancient times this is when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, and the sins of the people would be atoned. The entire process is explained in detail in Leviticus 16. The duties of the regular people during that day are described in Leviticus 23:26-32. A central point is to “afflict your soul,” in some translations written as “deny yourselves,” or “humble yourselves.” This has traditionally been interpreted as fasting. The fasting, however, was not the main point of this holiday. The main points were the sacrifice, the scapegoat, the entering of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies.
The Talmud tells us of a miracle that would happen every year. A scarlet thread called Lashon haZehorit would turn white if God forgave their sins, matching with the verse, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Isaiah 1:18 NIV.
So if it did turn white, people would know that their sins were forgiven. If it didn’t, they would know that something wasn’t right, and that they might need to be more careful in how they performed the sacrificial system, making sure to follow the Torah better during the coming year.
However, the Talmud also states that about forty years before the destruction of the temple, the thread stopped turning white altogether. The destruction was in 70 AD, so the scarlet thread stopped turning white right around the time of Yeshuas death and resurrection! From that moment, the atonement was already done, and God stopped the miracle. He no longer accepted the Yom Kippur sacrifice.
Many Christians will say that Yom Kippur is now irrelevant. Our sins are already atoned. We have forgiveness of sins 24/7. We can turn to God and repent of our sins whenever we want, not just on Yom Kippur. They do have a strong case, especially when we read what the New Testament says about Yom Kippur:
“But only the High Priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year … this is an illustration for the present time … external regulations applying until the time of a new order.”
Hebrews 9:7,9,10 NIV
But should we really cease observing Yom Kippur altogether? I can’t see any scripture that supports a full cessation of keeping the holy days God gave us. I do think that there is a point with keeping it.
I have heard some Messianic Jews who solve this question by saying that this is a good holiday to celebrate our atonement. Rather than praying and crying over our sins, like the Orthodox Jews do, we can celebrate that our sins have already been forgiven.
With all due respect, I think that celebrating Jesus death on the cross is what we do on Pesach, not on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur was never intended to be a celebration. It’s a day of fasting, of self-reflection and of repenting our sins.
And I think that this is where we find the true meaning of Yom Kippur for the Messianic Jew today. It is not a day to ask God to forgive our sins, nor is it a day to celebrate the forgiveness we have. But it is a day to repent. To take one day a year of fasting, praying, repenting and take stock of our life. Ask ourselves where we are on our walk with God and where we want to be. How can we do better next year? Where do we wish our spiritual life to be next Yom Kippur?
Yes, Yeshua gave us eternal forgiveness. Yes, our sins are forgiven. But we are still required to confess our sins. To bring them before God. We can do this daily if we wish, but having one day a year that is intended to fast and pray over it is essential. It gives us a yearly opportunity to do what Shaul told the Corinthians: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” 2Cor 13:5 NIV
For me, Yom Kippur is the one day a year when I disconnect from the life circus. In our family we shut off all phones and electronics (except one for emergencies), not because we believe we have to, but because it puts us in “Yom Kippur mode.” When we don’t need to spend any time cooking, eating or washing dishes, when we are not distracted by our phones, we can use the time to read scriptures, reflect, repent from our sins. It’s a yearly reminder to follow Him daily. We are already justified through the blood of Yeshua. Our names are already in the Book of Life. Yom Kippur is when we work on our sanctification and get closer to God.
May we get closer and closer to Him every Yom Kippur.
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Tuvia Pollack is a teacher and translator at the Jerusalem Assembly and also an unpublished writer of historical fiction novels depicting Judeo- Christian relations throughout history. Articles published here originally appear at his blog on tuviapollack.com.