Traditional Observance of the Day of Atonement

Traditional Observance of the Day of Atonement (Part III)

Messianic Echoes in Jewish Traditions—Part III

S. A. KAPLAN

Not long ago on a weekday afternoon one of America's radio celebrities was walk­ing through the streets of lower Manhat­tan. The sidewalks of New York, always full of hurry and bustle at that time of the day, were completely deserted. His curiosity aroused, he asked a lone passer-by what was wrong. The stranger informed him that it was the Jewish Day of Atonement. That explained it all, for on that day the Jewish people throng the syna­gogues and temples to pour out their hearts in prayers of contrition, because they believe that their destiny for the ensuing year is unalterably decreed and sealed on Yom Kippur.

In order to earn a favorable decision pious Jews offer penitential prayers, called Slichot, for a whole month prior to the Day of Atone­ment. Ten days before Yom Kippur, on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanna, or new year, Orthodox Jews repair to the bank of a river or stream, and turning their pockets inside out, "throw" their sins into the water. This traditional ceremony is called Tashlich —from the Hebrew Shalach, to throw away—. and is based on Micah 7:18-20, where the Lord promises to cast the sins of His people into the depths of the sea.

The Sacrifice of the Fowl (Kapparot)

Jews today, for the most part, are wholly ignorant of the perfect atonement for sins that was made by Jesus on Calvary's cross. Sensing intuitively the need of a propitiatory sacrifice, the rabbis have introduced the custom of offer­ing a fowl on the eve of the Day of Atone­ment—a rooster for the male and a hen for the female—as the sinner's substitute. This cere­mony is called Kapparot, from the Hebrew word Kapparah, meaning atonement. After the recitation of certain scriptures the fowl is swung by the worshiper three times over his head as he repeats the following words in Hebrew:

"This is my substitute, this is my vicarious offering, this is my atonement. This cock for hen] shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace!"

The fowl is then slaughtered and it, or its equivalent in money, is given to the poor. In former years certain strict sects of Jews sub­mitted to thirty-nine stripes, called Malkut, on the eve of Yom Kippur, as a means of atoning for their sins.

Day of Atonement Prayers

The prayers of the Day of Atonement are voluminous, filling a good-sized book. The bur­den of these petitions is confession, repentance, and judgment. Indeed, Jews regard Yom Kip­pur as symbolic of the great judgment day, as is evident from one of the most solemn prayers offered on that day, known as Une-tanneh Tokef, from which we quote in part, trans­lated from the Hebrew:

"The great Shofar [trumpet] is sounded; the still small voice is heard; the angels are dis­mayed; fear and trembling seize hold upon them and they say: Behold the Day of Judgment that is to judge all the host on high, for [even] they shall not be accounted worthy in Thy sight in the Judgment. All who enter the world dost Thou cause to pass before Thee like a flock of sheep, and as a shepherd examines his flock as it passes under his rod, so dost Thou number each soul . . . and decreest their destiny."

Another section of the Yom Kippur liturgy describes a part of the ancient Temple ritual. In this solemn prayer are interwoven selections from the Mishnah (which is the main part of the Talmud) in which the identical words of the high priest are allegedly quoted. As the high priest laid his hands on the head of the sacrificial bullock, he uttered the following con­fession:

"I beseech Thee, O Lord! I have sinned, I have been iniquitous, I have transgressed against Thee, I and my household. I beseech Thee, O Lord, pardon the sins, iniquities and transgressions which I have committed against Thee, I and my household, as it is said: 'On this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord.'"

Three times in this prayer where the word Lord appears, the high priest pronounced the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of YHWH, and as he did so the entire congregation pros­trated themselves and said in a loud voice: "Blessed be the Name, the glory of His kingdom forever and ever."

Today, as the cantor chants this confession of the high priest, the worshipers join in the singing. Then, as the cantor reminds them that anciently the congregation prostrated them­selves in the court of the Temple, the wor­shipers cast themselves to the ground and bury their faces. The cantor, however, does not utter the incommunicable name of YHWH, for since the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, no one knows with any degree of certainty how that name should be pronounced.

A Singular Yom Kippur Prayer

Deep in the heart of some Jewish religious leaders of ancient times was the keen aware­ness that the true atonement took place on Golgotha's hill when Jesus gave Himself for sins of the world. One of those leaders, him­self a rabbi, gave expression to his convictions in a prayer which, singularly enough, forms a part of the Day of Atonement liturgy. We quote this prayer in part:

"Messiah our righteousness has departed from us.

We are horror-stricken and we have none to justify us.

Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions

He carried, who was wounded because of our sins.

He bore upon His shoulder the burden of our iniquities,

And by His stripes we are healed.

O eternal One, it is time that Thou shouldest create Him anew,

That He may announce salvation . . . for the second time

By the hand of Yinnon [symbolic Hebrew name of the Messiah]."

This touching prayer will ere long be an­swered and will meet its complete fulfillment when Jesus the Messiah returns in power and glory.

The Ram's Horn

The Day of Atonement solemnities end with the blowing of the ram's horn, or Shofar, by one of the leading members of the synagogue, and symbolizes the heralding of the coming of the Messiah. Here the fervent hopes of literal Israel and of the Advent people—the spiritual Israel—converge. 0 may this longing expect­ancy of the Redeemer's return, soon become a blessed reality!

In the next article the traditional celebration of the Sabbath by the Jews, and its Messianic implications, will be discussed.

(Concluded next month)


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S. A. KAPLAN

August 1955

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