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The Secret of Yom Kippur’s Atonement

Rabbi Rafi Eis

Midreshet Lindenbaum Faculty

The mystery of the Yom Kippur atonement begins with its placement in the Torah. While the atonement sacrifices are listed in Vayikra 4-7 and the Beit HaMikdash services for each chag appear in Vayikra 23, the Kohen Gadol’s Avodat Yom HaKippurim is placed in Vayikra 16. It is detached from the laws related to forgiveness or holidays. Why?

Further, the Torah’s description of the Avodat Yom HaKippurim seems to deemphasize its centrality to Yom Kippur. The section begins with:

Vayikra chapter 16 
(1) The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.
(2) The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.
(3) Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

ויקרא פרק טז

(א) וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וַיָּמֻתוּ:

(ב) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל יָבֹא בְכָל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל  פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת:

(ג) בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ בְּפַר בֶּן בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת וְאַיִל לְעֹלָה:


Performing this service on Yom Kippur only gets mentioned at the very end of the unit:

(29) And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. 
(30) For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.
(31) It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.
(34) This shall be to you a law for all time: to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year. And Moses did as the LORD had commanded him.

(כט) וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם:

(ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק תִּטְהָרוּ:

(לא) שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם:

(לד) וְהָיְתָה זֹּאת לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכָּל חַטֹּאתָם אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה וַיַּעַשׂ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק אֶת מֹשֶׁה: פ

If we were just looking at the Torah, we would conclude that the section primarily describes the procedure for Aharon to enter the Kodesh HaKodashim and not meet the same fate as his sons Nadav and Avihu, who died in the Mishkan under mysterious circumstances. The Torah seems to mention that the obligation to perform this atonement service on Yom Kippur as an add-on.

The Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu, Vayikra 16:2) understands this section exactly in this way. In contrast to any other Kohen Gadol, Aharon could enter the Kodesh HaKodashim at will by performing this service. Subsequent Kohanim Gedolim could only do so on Yom Kippur. The Vilna Gaon even notes procedural differences between Aharon’s service and the service of future Kohanim Gedolim. Rashi (Vayikra 16:3 s.v. Bizot), however, states that even Aharon could only enter the Kodesh HaKodashim on Yom Kippur and with the performance of this service. According to Rashi, then, why does the atonement of Yom Kippur not take center stage in the Torah’s presentation?

An answer to these questions relates to the unique nature of the Yom Kippur atonement. Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 1:2) states that the Sair l’Azazel achieves atonement for all Jews. Further, even if a person does not repent, the Sair l’Azazel atones for all regular sins aside from capital crimes, false oaths or those punished by spiritual excision. With repentance even severe sins are atoned. Rambam then notes that without a Beit HaMikdash, repentance and the essence of the Yom Kippur day effect a lower level of atonement and could require punishment to cleanse sin fully.

In explaining the Rambam, Rav Soloveitchik (“The Individual and the Community,” On Repentance) states that the fundamental difference between Yom Kippur in the Beit HaMikdash and Yom Kippur without is that during the times of the Beit HaMikdash the Avodat Yom HaKippurim atoned for all Bnei Yisrael as a community, whereas Yom Kippur without the Beit HaMikdash service only atones on the individual level. Those guilty of the severe offenses have removed themselves from the community and could not benefit from communal atonement. Repentance for these sins brings the individual back into the community of Knesset Yisrael. But what is the basis for the communal kapparah that Yom Kippur can effect with the presence of the Mikdash?[1]

Yom Kippur and Chet HaEgel

Taanit 26b states that Yom Kippur was one of the most joyous days of the year. After the Kohen Gadol would complete the service, the young adults would go to a singles event in the hope of finding a spouse. On 30b, the Gemara explains that Yom Kippur attained this level of joy due to the granted atonement and this is the day that God gave the Bnei Yisrael the second set of luchot.

Rashi (s.v. Shenitnu) explains that Moshe breaks the luchot on the 17th of Tammuz due to Chet HaEgel. Over the next 80 days, Moshe prays on behalf of Bnei Yisrael and receives the second luchot, which occurs on the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur.[2]

The connection between the day on which Moshe descends with the second set of luchot and the day of Yom Kippur may be more intrinsic than just a day of Divine favor. It may be that the Kohen Gadol in the Avodat Yom HaKippurim aims to achieve the atonement for his people as Moshe achieved for their ancestors. The Kohen Gadol’s actions parallel those of Moshe after Chet HaEgel. Our starting point is Ramban (Shmot 25:2 s.v Kaasher) who explains that the Mikdash serves as a continuation of Har Sinai for HaShem’s revelation. The Kodesh HaKodashim represents the peak of Har Sinai where God speaks to Moshe.

  1. Revelation of HaShem in an Anan, cloud

In both the ascent of Moshe to the peak of Har Sinai and the entrance of Aharon into the Kodesh HaKodashim, HaShem is revealed in a cloud. Aharon’s first instruction is:

Vayikra chapter 16 
(2) The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.

ויקרא פרק טז

(ב) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל יָבֹא בְכָל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת:[3]


This parallels Moshe’s experience of:

Shmot chapter 34 
(5) The LORD came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name LORD.

שמות פרק לד

(ה) וַיֵּרֶד יְקֹוָק בֶּעָנָן וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּוֹ שָׁם וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם יְקֹוָק:

  1. Alone with HaShem

Not only does the Kohen Gadol enter the Kodesh HaKodashim alone but the preceding room, the Heichal or Kodesh, which contains the Menora, Shulchan, and Golden Altar for incense must also be empty of people.

Vayikra Chapter 16 
(17) When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out. When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel,

ויקרא פרק טז

(יז) וְכָל אָדָם לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ עַד צֵאתוֹ וְכִפֶּר בַּעֲדוֹ וּבְעַד בֵּיתוֹ וּבְעַד כָּל קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Similarly, God instructs Moshe that when he comes back up Har Sinai:

Shmot chapter 34 
(3) No one else shall come up with you, and no one else shall be seen anywhere on the mountain; neither shall the flocks and the herds graze at the foot of this mountain.”

שמות פרק לד

(ג) וְאִישׁ לֹא יַעֲלֶה עִמָּךְ וְגַם אִישׁ אַל יֵרָא בְּכָל הָהָר גַּם הַצֹּאן וְהַבָּקָר אַל יִרְעוּ אֶל מוּל הָהָר הַהוּא:

  1. Entries into the Kodesh HaKodashim

Over the course of the Avodat Yom HaKippurim the Kohen Gadol enters the Kodesh HaKodashim four times:

i. To set up the ketoret/incense;

ii. To sprinkle the blood of the bull;

iii. To sprinkle the blood of the goat declared by the lottery ‘for HaShem;’

iv. To remove the incense vessels.

These four entries parallel Moshe’s four interactions with HaShem at the peak of Har Sinai:

i. Moshe is already on Har Sinai receiving the first luchot, when HaShem informs him of Bnei Yisrael’s sin. HaShem threatens to destroy Bnei Yisrael and Moshe succeeds in preventing annihilation (Shmot 32:7-14).

ii. Moshe returns to HaShem saying vidui, but asking for the original plan of going to Eretz Yisrael to continue. God says the plan will proceed, but with an angel amongst the people, not God (Shmot 32:31- 33:3).

iii. Moshe again attempts to convince God to be with the people, this time invoking his unique relationship with HaShem. Moshe asks to be shown God’s ways and glory. God assents and tells Moshe to prepare stone tablets for the renewed covenant (33:12- 34:3).[4]

iv. Moshe ascends Har Sinai with blank luchot, experiences God’s revelation, the thirteen midot harachamim, and comes down the mountain with newly written luchot.

  1. Intimate Conversation with HaShem

When Moshe speaks to HaShem the fourth time, he receives a level of God’s revelation with a discussion about HaShem’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael. The Kohen Gadol too receives a similar type of revelation:

Berachot 7a 
It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the Kohen Gadol, said: Once, on Yom Kippur, I entered the innermost sanctum, the Kodesh HaKodashim, to offer incense, and in a vision I saw Akatriel Ya, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. And He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me. I said to Him: “May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger and may Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, and may You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and may You enter before them beyond the letter of the law.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, nodded His head and accepted the blessing.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות ז עמוד א

תניא, אמר רבי ישמעאל בן אלישע: פעם אחת נכנסתי להקטיר קטורת לפני ולפנים, וראיתי אכתריאל יה ה’ צבאות שהוא יושב על כסא רם ונשא ואמר לי: ישמעאל בני, ברכני! – אמרתי לו: יהי רצון מלפניך שיכבשו רחמיך את כעסך ויגולו רחמיך על מדותיך ותתנהג עם בניך במדת הרחמים ותכנס להם לפנים משורת הדין, ונענע לי בראשו.


  1. Exiting God’s Revealed Presence

When Moshe comes down the mountain we are told:

Shmot chapter 34 
(29) So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him.

שמות פרק לד

(כט) וַיְהִי בְּרֶדֶת מֹשֶׁה מֵהַר סִינַי וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה בְּרִדְתּוֹ מִן הָהָר וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ:

Rav Soloveitchik[5] similarly explains that the jubilant Mar’eh Kohen liturgical poem expresses the radiance of the Kohen Gadol’s face, indicating that “the Shechinah was shining on him,” and HaShem had accepted the teshuvah and the tefillot of the people.

  1. Azazel

While more speculative, we can suggest that the two goats represent the two sets of luchot. The goats look alike (Yoma 62a) as did the luchot (Shmot 34:1[6]). The first luchot are broken by being thrown down a mountain (Shmot 32:19), so with the Azazel goat we are told:

Yoma 67a 
And he pushed the goat backward, and it rolls and descends. And it would not reach halfway down the mountain until it was torn limb from limb.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף סז עמוד א

ודחפו לאחוריו, והוא מתגלגל ויורד. ולא היה מגיע לחצי ההר עד שנעשה אברים אברים.

The blood from the ‘for HaShem’ goat gets brought into the Kodesh HaKodashim the way that Moshe brings the second luchot up to the mountaintop.

  1. Clothing of the Kohen Gadol

On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol wears his regular gold clothing and also has a special set of white clothing for when he enters the Kodesh HaKodashim. He cannot wear the gold clothes in the Kodesh HaKodashim because:

Rosh Hashana 26a 
a prosecutor cannot become an advocate.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף כו עמוד א

אין קטיגור נעשה סניגור.

Aiming to embody Moshe while also wearing a reminder of the Egel HaZahav would not achieve a renewed covenant.

A Renewed Covenant

When we put all this together we come to appreciate the uniqueness of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we do not just receive forgiveness, we obtain a renewed covenant, which gives us a fresh start. We are not trying to erase the mistaken writing; we are trying to start with a new page. We become clean and purified (Vayikra 16:30). The eighty day period following Chet HaEgel really divides into two units of forty days. During the first forty days, Moshe prays to HaShem to forgive Bnei Yisrael, which God grants. The second unit of forty days, however, achieves a renewed covenant (Shmot 34:10). Every Yom Kippur tries to achieve a renewed covenant as the first one did.

The Torah separates the Avodat Yom HaKippurim from the other sin offerings to emphasize their fundamental difference. The sin offerings in Vayikra 4-7 aim to repair a damaged covenant, to erase what was; Yom Kippur provides a renewed covenant.

Moshe and the Kohen Gadol advocate on Bnei Yisrael’s behalf[7] and have a voice in setting the terms of the renewed covenant. The Torah places Yom Kippur at the end of the description of the service to emphasize that the intimate encounter plays the primary role in achieving the new covenant, while the date plays a supporting role.

When we had a Beit HaMikdash, our representative renewed the covenant and achieved forgiveness for all of Bnei Yisrael, irrespective of an individual’s state of mind. The lack of Mikdash means that we can only achieve a personal ‘erasing’ of sins; no fresh pages, no collective renewal. We hope and pray that we will soon merit a renewed covenant and intimate relationship with HaShem in the rebuilt Beit HaMikdash.

[1] Rav Soloveitchik emphasizes the innate power of Am Yisrael in explaining this distinction. See there for further elaboration.

[2] Rashi details the precise calculation of days as relating to whether Tammuz, Av, and Elul were 29 or 30 day months. Tosafot Baba Kamma 82a s.v. Kidei gives a slightly different account of the time between 17 Tammuz and 10 Tishrei. See Rashi Devarim 9:18 s.v. Vaetnapal.

[3] See Rashi and Rashbam  s.v. Ki BeAnan.

[4] Ramban 33:12 s.v. VaYomer Moshe emphasis that this conversation occurs on Mount Sinai as it is not explicit in the text.


[6] Ibn Ezra discusses the precise similarities and differences of the two sets of luchot.

[7] See Rosh Hashana 17b where the role of shaliach tzibbur is emphasized.

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