Day of Atonement Procedure

And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year. And he did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Leviticus 16:34 (KJV)

Everlasting statute – Not many of us understand the gravity of this most solemn day for Israel. The effort and preparation for this day exceeded all other days, especially for the High Priest. Let us review the service in whole as written down in the Mishnah Yoma.

Seven days prior, the High Priest is removed from his family and taken to his Temple chambers so that he does not become defiled accidentally. In addition, a deputy High Priest is selected if, for any reason, the current High Priest cannot serve, dies, or becomes unclean for this day. A second wife is also separated out for him in case his wife at home dies. This is to ensure he can fulfill the requirement of providing a bull as a sin-offering for he and his household. If his wife dies at home, he no longer has a “household” so the second wife is there to be married to him immediately if this should happen for the fulfillment of this law.

During this time, the High Priest studies the procedure for this day in detail making sure he understands each part. Much is relying on his perfected service while inside the Holy of Holies.

The night before Yom Kippur, the High Priest is kept awake by his fellow priests. This ensures the High Priest endures every moment of the “afflicting one’s soul.” If he should sleep, the High Priest would not be afflicting one’s soul to the level of expectation for his role. To keep him awake, the High Priest either teaches the Torah to those around him, or he sits as the Torah is read aloud. If he becomes sleepy, fingers are snapped and he is instructed to get up, walk on the cold floor, and even wash with cold water.

At midnight, the ashes are cleared from the altar. This is different from all other days of the year.

The priests have the High Priest swear an oath that he does not change one part of the ritual while within the Holy of Holies. All Israel depended upon this ritual, and wanted to ensure the High Priest would not go astray from the exact service.

When the morning is spotted and identified, the first sacrifices begin. The High Priest has over 40 ritual tasks to complete before the sun sets in the west.

He undresses himself and bathes in the mikvah. This is the first of 5 times he will do this on this day. Then he dresses in his first set of garments (these ones are gold). This is the first of 5 garment changes he does this day. The golden garments are the usual clothes he wears. Today the High Priest is the one to offer the first of the daily sacrifices. Once this is complete, he will then change into the linen garments.

The linen garments were extremely valuable and cost quite a bit and can be obtained from places like Egypt.

After the 2nd washing and clothing change into the linen garments, it is time to bring forth the bull which will be sacrificed as a sin offering for the High Priest and his household. The High Priest confesses his sin, and in so doing he also utters the full pronunciation of God’s name – YHVH. This is the only day when the Jews would hear the name of God declared aloud, and it happens 3 times this day.

This is considered the first miracle of the day. The Temple is filled with people with standing room only, and at the hearing of the name of God, they all lay down prostrate on the floor. It is said that the Temple itself would miraculously grow in size to accommodate all these people laying down side by side.

After the High Priest’s confession, he makes his way to the Temple entrance – The Nicanor Gate. Here, the High Priest draws lots for the two male goats. Both lots were made of gold; one had an engraving of “For YHVH” while the other had the engraving, “For Azazel.” The goat for YHVH is sacrificed in the Temple while the other is kept alive until it is later lead out into the wilderness and then cast down a mountain to die.

Once the two goats are decided upon, the High Priest returns to the bull and confesses his sins audibly over the bull and declares God’s name for the 2nd time today. The bull is then slaughtered and its blood is captured in a basin.

Now the High Priest walks to the outside altar to collect hot coals and then two handfulls of incense. This is difficult because the High Priest must hold the hot coal in a metal (silver or gold) container by a stick under his armpit while carrying two handfulls of incense. None of this could be dropped as he makes his way into the interior of the Holy of Holies.

There is much debate around whether or not the High Priest lights the incense outside or inside the Holy of Holies. The Sadducees believed it should be lit outside and then taken in while the Pharisees believed it should be lit while inside the Holy of Holies. This debate stems from Leviticus 16:12-13. The High Priest would do as he interpreted the verses himself.

The curtains into the Holy of Holies overlapped one another. The first had an opening on the left and offered about 18 inches between it and the other curtain which had an opening on the right. So the High Priest could not merely walk straight into the Holy of Holies. He walked through one opening, turned right, walked a few steps ultimately turning left to enter into the most sacred room.

The High Priest would set the incense down on the “Mercy Seat” which was the lid of the ark of the covenant. The smoke would fill the room so that the High Priest did not die from the presence of God. This is the first of 4 visitations into the Holy of Holies throughout the day.

It is important to note that during the second temple, the ark of the covenant was lost and did not exist in the Holy of Holies. So the High Priest would set the incense down on a stone inside the room.

After the incense is placed, the High Priest exists the Holy of Holies and takes the basin that contains the bulls blood from earlier. A priest had been stirring the blood to keep it from coagulating this whole time. The High Priest returns back into the Holy of Holies and sprinkles the blood in a whipping motion; once upward, and seven times downward.

He then walks back to the Nicanor Gate and sacrifices the goat for YHVH. Returning now a 3rd time into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle this blood the same way he sprinkled the bull’s blood; one time upward and seven times downward.

The High Priest exits the Holy of Holies and then sprinkles the blood of both the goat and the bull in turn on the curtain that lead into the sacred room. After this, he then mixes the bull’s blood with the goat’s blood and wipes it upon the horns of the golden altar of incense inside the main Temple room.

He then walks back to the Nicanor Gate and confesses the sins of Israel over the remaining live goat. He declares the name of YHVH aloud for the 3rd and final time. Again, the whole congregation falls prostrate on the floor when hearing it spoken. Now another man takes the goat for Azazel out into the wilderness for its long journey. To keep the goat from fainting, there is water and food stored up at various way-stations.

While the goat is making its journey, the limbs, entrails, and skin of the previous sacrifices are gathered and taken outside the camp to be burned.

Once the relay flags are signaled across the mountains indicating the Azazel goat has been thrown off the mountain, the High Priest can finally relax. The whole day was filled with anxiety and anticipation for this last moment. After seeing that the service has been fulfilled, the people turn to complete joy knowing their sin has been atoned.

The High Priest reads aloud the procedure of Leviticus 16 for all the people to hear. He then washes and changes his clothes into a new set of golden garments.

Two rams are then sacrificed and their blood is sprinkled on the corners of the outside altar. Around now, there are a couple more offerings along with a few more washings and changings – the last being into another set of linen clothes.

The High Priest enters into the Holy of Holies for the 4th and last time to collect the incense. After which he then changes back into the golden garments. He may complete the evening offering before a final 10th washing of the hands and feet. They observe the stars and finally light the menorah marking the day complete and returning home to break his fast and enjoy the company of his family.

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