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The Greatest Commandments, Yom Kippur Edition

(To see the latest snapshot of our work in progress, scroll to the end of this post, or click here.)

A special set this week as we address the mitzvot regarding Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which occurs on the 10th day of the 7th month in the Biblical calendar. Conveniently, Maimonides groups all the Yom Kippur commandments in 5 commandments – exactly the number I am tackling per week for our Commandments Hierarchy project.

The day of atonement occurred this past weekend for most Jews. For some, including yours truly, Yom Kippur was observed this Wednesday. Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day in the Biblical calendar, a day when Israel’s sins were atoned for.

Yom Kippur is not a celebration, but a solemn observance, with commandments to afflict, deny, fast. For some, especially Christians, this presents a problem. As Derek Leman explains,

There are many reasons in our modern world not to take Yom Kippur seriously. The modern spirit urges us not to believe in traditions and dates and ancient stories of divine oversight. The postmodern spirit urges us to believe all spiritualities are the same and disdain particularistic traditions like Yom Kippur. The popular religious spirit urges us to believe forgiveness is easy and cheaply received so that chest-beating and uttering confessions with the lips are passé.

But God says of this day, “On this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord” (Lev 16:30).

Let’s look at a mile-high view of the personal commandments for Yom Kippur:

The LORD said to Moses, "The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present an offering made to the LORD by fire. Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the LORD your God. Anyone who does not deny himself on that day must be cut off from his people. I will destroy from among his people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a sabbath of rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath."

-Leviticus 23:26-32

Additionally, God gives Israel special instructions for sacrifices in the tabernacle, the first set of commandments we cannot carry out today.

Let’s get started.

No regular work on Yom Kippur

You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live.

Commandment 93 in the traditional listing of the commandments is the order to make God’s special feast day, the day of atonement, holy by refraining from your regular work.

Where does this fit in our commandment hierarchy? Right now there isn’t a great place for it, simply because we have so few commandments this early on in the project. For now, it is derived from “keep all God’s commandments”, though I suspect we’ll reorder this hierarchy as we add general commandments regarding God’s feasts.


Deny yourself on Yom Kippur

This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you.

Traditionally, many folks have interpreted “you must deny yourselves” as “you must fast”. In fact, in the footnotes of most bibles will actually insert “you must deny yourself and fast”.

Interestingly, Maimonides lists “you must deny yourself” and “you must fast” as 2 separate commandments.

What is meant by “you must deny yourselves”? If one looks at the context and similar passages in Leviticus, we see alternate readings of “you must afflict yourself”. It seems to imply solemn confessions of guilt. Weeping over our guilty, sinful state. Sadness over our wayward paths away from God.

Needless to say, this is not a popular message! Negative things like this is not something that would fly in much of today’s pop religion. Nonetheless, it remains something God commanded as “a lasting ordinance for all generations to come, wherever you live”. More on Derek Leman’s blog.

Fast on Yom Kippur

Anyone who does not fast on that day must be cut off from his people.

Separate from the above commandment, but certainly related, is the personal commandment to fast. Part of denying and afflicting yourself, I deem, is denying yourself food, so I derive this commandment from the above “afflict yourself” commandment.

Bring additional offerings on Yom Kippur

Present as an aroma pleasing to the LORD a burnt offering of one young bull, one ram and seven male lambs a year old, all without defect. With the bull prepare a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil; with the ram, two-tenths; and with each of the seven lambs, one-tenth. Include one male goat as a sin offering, in addition to the sin offering for atonement and the regular burnt offering with its grain offering, and their drink offerings.

The previous verse indicates this is on the 10th day of the 7th month, Yom Kippur.

Today, this commandment cannot be carried out in literal form. Judaism traditionally holds that, in lieu of sacrifices, the fruit of our lips – praises and thanksgiving and daily prayers – are instead offered.

Despite a valid, albeit temporary replacement of sacrifices in general, I deem this one as “cannot be carried out”. This is our first commandment we must mark as “cannot be carried out today”, and not kept by Christians, Messianics, nor observant Jews.


Special Levitical Commandments

The priests have a boat-load of commandments to carry out specially for Yom Kippur:

This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

That is only a tiny sample: all of Leviticus 16 contains special commandments for Aaron and his sons – the Levities, the priesthood in the tabernacle.

Fortunately for ease of parsing, Maimonides listed all these commandments as a single commandment: Levites have special procedures for making atonement for the people of Israel, including but not limited to:

  • Slaughtering a bull for the priest himself.
  • Sacrificing a goat for as a sin offering.
  • Taking coals from the altar and handfuls of incense into the Holy of Holies.
  • Sprinkling blood from the bull onto the Ark of the Covenant

There’s a desire in many of us to look down on these intricate, laborious commandments. In today’s enlightened era, we look at them as primitive forms of religion that’s cruel to animals. “Appease the gods with blood sacrifice”-kind-of-thinking.

Additionally, many Christians say, “This is unneeded, given Christ’s sacrifice. This sacrifice stuff was only a temporary stop-gap measure until Christ came.” Or, as one Christian once commented, “Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law. He then fulfills a large part of the law by completely removing any need for further sacrifices.”

These ideas are shortsighted. The shedding of blood for the atonement of sin makes us realize the serious nature of sin: death. Something has to die.

As for the Christian objection, they should be aware of the eternal nature of these commandments: The above commandment ends, in Lev 16, with this statement from God:

This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.

As if to stress the eternal status, the same is repeated in Lev 23:

This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live.

Also, Christians should note that Jesus never said, “Now that I’ve died for your sins, you can disregard those commandments about sacrifices in the Temple.”

Finally, we should know that Ezekiel prophesies of a day when the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem – the 3rd Temple – but also that sacrifices will resume in that Temple. Paul, in the New Testament, also predicts this 3rd Temple in his letter to the Thessalonians.

All that said, we cannot keep these commandments: there is no tabernacle, let alone a Temple. In fact, a big Moslem mosque currently stands were the Temple once stood.

Yet in time, we know that, by one means or another, God will rebuild the Temple. We look forward to that time.

The Big Picture

That’s it for this week’s rather-long installment of the Commandments Hierarchy Project. We’re up to 21 commandments completed! That means were about 3% completed. Here’s the current snapshot of our labor of love:

(Click for full size)

Nerd Notes

Last week, I mention that I hosted the source code for our commandment chart generator program on the CodePlex open source hosting site:

Well, I’m happy to say, we have a contributor! Kineti reader Nathan Tuggy has offered to contribute his software skills to mapping more commandments! (And fixing my ugly code.) If you click the hierarchy above, you’ll see his contributions. Thanks Nathan!

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