Yom Kippur is considered by many to be the most solemn holiday in Judaism. It is the final day of the "Ten Days of Awe" or "Ten Days of Penitence" which commences with Rosh Hashanah. Occurring on the tenth day of the seventh month, Yom Kippur is Hebrew for "day of atonement." It is a time when individuals can seize an opportunity to become reconciled with God by purging their lives of evil and sin.
Yom Kippur is mentioned several times in the Torah. Initially it occurs in Leviticus 16:29-34. In this reference, the Children of Israel afflict their souls while the priest makes an atonement for them for the sins they have committed. In Leviticus 23:27-32, Yom Kippur, along with several other feasts, is commanded by God to be kept by Moses and the Children of Israel. Yom Kippur in this reference is designated as a holy convocation and a day of atonement before the Lord. It is a time when Israelites afflict their souls and make an offering unto the Lord. The final time that Yom Kippur explicitly is mentioned in the Torah is in Numbers 29:7-11. In this reference, Yom Kippur once again is designated as a holy convocation and time of afflicting souls. Outside of these references, there are no other explicit references to Yom Kippur in the Bible.
From the biblical references listed above, there are several features which are consistently revealed about Yom Kippur. First, it is a time for Israelites to afflict their souls. Second, it is a time to make an atonement before the Lord. Third, it is a time to give an offering as a token for sins committed. Finally, it is a holy convocation that should be kept forever.
"Afflicting souls" is a term that includes fasting from food and drink. During ancient times, fasting was considered by some to be a form of symbolic self-sacrifice. Fasting temporarily suspends life's sustaining functions, for mankind cannot live indefinitely without food and water. Another ancient view of fasting was that it was a test of one's loyalty and sincerity to God. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 was used as a scriptural reference to support this view. Fasting is from eve to eve. Afflicting one's soul also refers to abstinence or self-denial from physical pleasures and desires, such as sexual relations, anointing, washing, and wearing leather. Thus, afflicting one's soul is a form of self-restraint. By divorcing oneself from pleasures and desires, one is able to get closer to God.
"Making an atonement before the Lord" refers to becoming reconciled with God for the sins that one has committed. In ancient times, the High Priest interceded for the Children of Israel to atone for their sins before God. Leviticus 16:11-19 points out how Aaron made an atonement for the Israelites for their iniquities. An important preliminary to atonement, however, is confession. Leviticus 16:21 and Numbers 5:6-7 show the significance of confession. Confession occurs when one looks inward, recognizes one's sin, repents, and publicly acknowledges the sin.
The third feature of Yom Kippur is "offering a sacrifice." Leviticus 16:25,27; 23:27; and Numbers 29:8-11 express how the day included the submission of a sin offering, making an offering by fire, and giving a burnt offering to the Lord. In some ancient traditions, the act of offering a sacrifice was thought to be a means of physically pleasing God, the beneficiary of the sacrifice. Yet, in other traditions, the act was symbolic of total submission to God by the individual. Offering a sacrifice was a sign of humility, whereby the individual relinquished a portion of his inheritance. With this school of thought, the individual was the beneficiary, because of his heightened spiritual awareness.
The final traditional feature of Yom Kippur is its designation as a holy convocation. It is a day of rest (a sabbath), and a day of great seriousness. Several scriptural references explicitly state that work is prohibited on this day. Leviticus 23:30-31 says that the "soul" of the individual will be destroyed, if he works on this day. Thus, the entire House of Israel is required to participate.
Yom Kippur is considered the most solemn day in Judaism. Mentioned several times throughout the Torah, its central theme is atonement and reconciliation with God. All acts and rituals including fasting, abstaining from pleasurable desires, making an offering, and confessing ones sins are designed to facilitate one's ability to attain the meaning of the day. Though solemn in nature, Yom Kippur is also a day of spiritual exaltation. For spiritual joy comes to all who through penitence attain a state of purity from sin in anticipation of God's forgiveness.