History of Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement

Bill Petro
2 min readOct 4, 2022
Second Temple, Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago

The Jewish High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah and continue until Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown tonight. Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” or more correctly Yom ha-Kippurim (Leviticus 16), goes back to Jewish antiquity almost 4,000 years to the time of Moses. This most solemn occasion of the Jewish Festival cycle was the season for annual cleansing from sin, but in time its significance was deepened so that it acquired personal meaning and filled a personal need. It is observed on the 10th day of Tishri, the seventh month, and is the climax of the whole penitential season.

Yom Kippur in Biblical Times

Originally, on one day of the year, the high priest would enter into the innermost part of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple in Jerusalem). He would enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of the sacrifice for the sin of the people as a congregation and sprinkle it upon the ‘mercy seat’ of the Ark of the Covenant (made famous by the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” :-). This would “cover” the sin of the people, as this is what the Aramaic (and Hebrew) root “kaphar” (atonement) means. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., later Rabbinic legislation adapted the old ritual to the synagogue. The blast of the ‘shofar,’ the ritual ram’s horn trumpet, signifies, among other things, the inarticulate cry of the soul to God.

Yom Kippur in Post Biblical Times


In later times, there is a whole body of Jewish law requiring the individual to seek forgiveness from one another. This is a part of the Mishneh Torah — a distillation of Jewish law based in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud — written by the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and legal authority Maimonides. It calls for attention to requests for forgiveness from family, friends, and associates for the offenses of the past year. The body of law, lore, and custom surrounding repentance, forgiveness, and the Day of Atonement is immense and has grown since the time of Maimonides.

G’mar chatima tova “May you be sealed in the Book of Life.”

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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Bill Petro

Writer, historian, technologist. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com