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Yom Kippur in Bible Times- The High Priest

The high priest is entirely responsible for the Day of Atonement. He began preparing for this day a week early. He stayed in the high priest chamber in the temple court and studied the laws of the Day of Atonement. It was very important the priest not make a mistake. An error could cost him his life and the nation of Israel’s atonement. The high priest spoke a word this day that was unspeakable all other times. During the services he voiced the Holy name of God, YHWH or Yahweh ten times during the ceremony. When the people heard the Holy Name they fell on the ground in reverence.

The interior of Solomon’s Temple was rectangular, about 35 feet wide and 140 feet long. It was divided into three parts. The priest would have entered the porch, which was about 17 feet deep. He would then pass through gilded Cyprus doors decorated with flowers, palm trees, and cherubim, and enter the main room of the Temple—often called the Holy Place. Beyond a set of olive wood doors lay the room no ordinary priest would ever see. This was the Holy of Holies. It was a perfect cube, with each side measuring nearly 35 feet. In it was the Ark, containing the two tablets of stone of the Ten Commandments (Guinness 1988).

The Holy of Holies was entered only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest made atonement for the people. This was the great solemn day that the high priest put aside his official robes and dressed in a simple white garment. To fulfill the law of the Bible, he wore eight garments on this day (Lev. 8:7; Ex. 28:33-35).

  1. The golden crown on his forehead.
  2. The breastplate on his heart.
  3. The outer robe decorated with pomegranates and bells (the people listened for the bells while the priest was in the Holy of  Holies to be sure the priest was still alive).
  4. The apron or vest.
  5. Four white garments made from white flax.
  6. The belt.
  7. The turban.
  8. Pants.

He then offered a bullock as a sin-offering for himself and the priesthood. He would fill the censer with live coals from the altar, then enter into the Holy of Holies, where he placed incense on the coals. The incense sent forth a cloud of smoke over the mercy seat, which served as a covering for the ark of the covenant. The high priest took some of the blood of the bullock and sprinkled it on the mercy seat and on the ground in front of the ark cleansing them from defilement.
The burnt offerings were: seven male lambs, each a year old, one young bull, and one ram. The sin offering was one male goat. Every step the priest took was precisely scripted. According to the Talmud he made forty-three trips between the court and sanctuary on this respected day.

Order of Events

A Bible study by Greg Killian explains the high priest would:

1. Remove the ashes from the outer altar (1:8).
2. Immerse (baptize) himself for the first time. Put on the golden vestments (3:4).
3. Slaughter the daily morning elevation (burnt) offering (3:4).
4. Receive and throw the blood of the elevation (burnt) offering (3:4).
5. Prepare the five lamps of the menorah (3:4).
6. Offer the daily incense (3:5).
7. Prepare the remaining two lamps of the menorah.
8. Burn the limbs of the daily morning elevation (burnt) offering on the outer altar (3:4).
9. Offer the daily meal offering (3:4).
10. Offer the Chavitin offering (3:4).
11. Offer the wine libation (drink offering) (3:4).
12. Offer the Mussafim: The ox and the seven lambs – all elevation (burnt) offerings, along with their meal and drink offerings (7:3).
13. Immerse (baptize) himself for the second time and then don the linen vestments (3:6).
14. Do the first confession on the High Priest ox offering (3:8).
15. Draw the lots to select the he-goats for God and for Azazel (3:9, 4:1) [see the section titled “Two Goats” in the “Messianic Significance of the Day of Atonement” further in this chapter].
16. Do the second confession on the High Priest ox sin offering (4:2).
17. Slaughter his ox sin offering (4:3).
18. Perform the service of the special Yom HaKippurim incense: (a) scoop up some coal; (b) scoop up the incense into the ladle; (c) burn the incense in the Holy of Holies. This was his first entry into the Holy of Holies (4:3, 5:1-2).
19. Sprinkle the blood of his ox in the Holy of Holies. This was his second entry into the Holy of Holies (5:3).
20. Slaughter the he-goat for God (5:4).
21. Sprinkle the he-goat’s blood in the Holy of Holies. This was his third entry into the Holy of Holies (5:4).
22. Sprinkle the blood of his ox on the curtain in the Holy place (5:4).
23. Sprinkle the he-goat’s blood on the curtain in the Holy place (5:4).
24. Mix the blood of his ox and the he-goat (5:4).
25. Sprinkle the mixture on the inner altar (5:5-6).
26. Do the confession on the he-goat to Azazel and present the he-goat, to the designated person, for dispatch to azazel (6:2). This was not a sacrifice.
27. Remove the entrails of his ox and the he-goat and place them in a utensil (6:7).
28. Prepare the limbs of his ox and the he-goat for removal to the burning place (6:7).
29. Read from the Torah (7:1).
30. Immerse (baptize) himself for the third time, then don the golden vestments.
31. Perform the service of the he-goat sin offering of the Mussafim (7:3).
32. Offer his ram (7:3).
33. Offer the people’s ram (7:3).
34. Burn the entrails of the ox and he-goat on the outer altar (6:7).
35. Immerse (baptize) himself for the fourth time, then don the linen vestments (7:5).
36. Remove the incense ladle and the shovel with burnt coals from the Holy of Holies. This was his fourth and final entry into the Holy of Holies (7:4).
37. Immerse (baptize) himself for the fifth time, then don the golden vestments (7:5).
38. Offer the daily afternoon elevation (burnt) offering (7:3).
39. Burn the daily afternoon incense (7:4).
40. Light the Menorah (7:5).

Ten times would the High Priest pronounce the Name of God on Yom Kippur: six times in connection with the bullock, three times in connection with the he-goat, and once in connection with the lots. Those who were near him would fall on their faces, and those who were far from him would say: “Blessed be His Name whose glorious kingdom is for ever and ever.” Neither those who were near nor those who were far would move from their places until he had disappeared.

The Fast

The fast, the penitential prayers, the Bible readings, the formulas of confession (viddu’i), and every part of the Atonement Day ritual emphasize this single theme–that would relieve one from the burden of sin–acknowledging the transgressions, declaring repentance through a process of confession, and then making atonement before God in order to obtain His forgiveness.

Yom Kippur is a time to atone for sin. While fasting is not explicitly mentioned, the Bible ordains for this day, “You shall afflict your souls” (Lev. 16:31; 23:27-32; Num. 29:7), and from early times the rabbis interpreted this to mean fasting. Part of the “affliction of the soul” included five statutory rules of mortification. These were abstention from: food and drink, marital relations, wearing leather shoes, using cosmetics and lotions, and washing any part of the body other than the fingers and eyes. The pleasure of such bodily comforts is seen as a prime source of opposing the “affliction of one’s soul.” In Biblical times, rending one’s garments and putting on sackcloth and ashes were further signs of distress, accompanying abstention from food (Jonah 3:6; Ezek. 9:5). In other cases the fasting is clearly implied (Josh. 7:5-13; Jer. 6:26; Lam. 2:10).

Excerpts from the book A Family Guide to the Biblical Holidays

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