The Joy of Yom Kippur
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel described Yom Kippur in the following way;
There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none. All these garments required immersion. The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards.
He then provided the following note to the above description;
They would dance to attract the attention of a husband.
As would be expected for the most holy day in the Biblical calendar, Yom Kippur has often been associated with reverence, solemnity, and introspection. We are commanded to afflict our souls, for most, this means fasting, and to take stock of and address our sin. None of this inspires fun and joy.
But, as was described by Rabbi Gamliel, who was the head of the Sanhedrin during the outbreak of the first Jewish Revolt prior to the Second Temple, Yom Kippur was also an occasion of joy, dancing and apparently, matchmaking for all the lonely singles.
This sense of joy associated with Yom Kippur is found in our Bibles, but lost somewhat in the English translation.
In English, we find the words forgiveness, forgiveness of sins, remission and remission of sins used interchangeably depending on specific translations. Whatever of these phrases is used, they all come from the word aphesis in the Septuagint. In the Greek, aphesis is translated as release or letting go and connected to, according to the Greek Lexicon, “the act of freeing and liberating from something that confines”.
Often then we find aphesis used in the context of releasing slaves, such as in Isaiah 61:1 which states;
The spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To proclaim good news to the poor
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted
To proclaim freedom for the captives
And release (aphesis) from darkness the prisoners
With release in mind, aphesis then is also used for freedom, such as in Luke 4:18, which reads;
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because of which he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to send out in freedom those who are oppressed,
In this verse, both release and freedom are aphesis.
Forgiveness, remission from sins – however we say it or read it in our Bibles, is intimately linked then to being released from sin and then free from sin. In fact, with aphesis in mind, it is more accurate to say that forgiveness is the act of releasing and setting free. We of course know this, but it is interesting to note that aphesis, and therefore forgiveness, emphasizes both being released and free.
This sense of release and freedom is particularly important given Yom Kippur. Practically speaking, Yom Kippur is the festival where the High Priest would sanctify the Holy of Holies – God’s throne on Earth. This is outlined in Leviticus 16:16 which says;
In this way, he will make atonement for the most holy place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.
Spiritually speaking, the Holy of Holies is the intersection between heaven and earth – it is that point to which we spiritually strive towards – union with God. This was the mission of Jesus, our High Priest, as outlined in Romans 3:23-26;
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
The mention of Jesus being a sacrifice of atonement links Jesus to the Yom Kippur festival – in the Greek, this phrase is rendered as ‘Ark of the Covenant’, while in Hebrew it is translated as ‘the mercy seat’. Yom Kippur was the only time of the year when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and cleanse that sacred place for Israel. Through his death, Jesus cleansed the intersection between heaven and earth, granting us access to God.
It is for this reason then that Yom Kippur is a day of joy. With the cleansing of the Holy of Holies Israel is granted the freedom to enter into union with her God – to be the bride she was destined to be. It makes sense then that this day was one for all those single people to find their husbands and wives for Yom Kippur was a day of ultimate unity.