Yom Kippur is the Hebrew name for the Day of Atonement (literally, “Day of Covering”), the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, observant Jews worldwide repent of sins committed during the past year and seek God’s merciful forgiveness. In keeping with these solemn exercises, a total fast is imposed, even from water, with certain merciful exceptions.
The details for this day’s original observance are recorded in Leviticus chapter 16, as given by God through Moses to the Israelites in the wilderness after their miraculous escape from Egyptian slavery and God’s covenant-making with them at Mt. Sinai. Everything about this day emphasized the holiness and inaccessibility of God as well as his mercy and grace.
On this day alone the High Priest put on white linen clothes in place of his bejeweled ceremonial vestments and entered the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle and later of the Temple. With him, he brought the blood of sacrificial animals, offered first for his own sins and then for those of the people, which blood he sprinkled on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant. He came into God’s ceremonial presence behind a cloud of incense smoke, “lest he die.”
Yom Kippur involved two goats. One was sacrificed for sin and its blood sprinkled as described above. On the head of the second animal, called the Scapegoat, the High Priest placed his hands and confessed all the sins of the people of Israel, symbolically transferring those sins on to this goat. An appointed man then led that goat into the wilderness, carrying those sins, where it was abandoned. The High Priest took off his linen clothes, bathed his body, redressed in his usual ceremonial vestments and came out to the people.