Desperately Seeking… Atonement

Dear friends

This Saturday is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the one day in the year when synagogues can guarantee that all seats will be taken as Jewish people seek to find forgiveness for their sins. For 25 hours from sunset on Friday, Jewish people will afflict their souls through fasting and penitence, seeking to find a place in the Book of Life.

At the moment, we are in the period known as the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. According to the twelfth century Jewish philosopher and rabbi, Moses Maimonides (pictured): ‘It is the custom of the entire Jewish community to give greater amounts to charity, and [do more acts of] good deeds, and to be concerned with fulfilment of commandments from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, than the rest of the year. It is the custom to arise in the night during these ten days to pray … until the day dawns’ (Laws of Repentance 3:4).

During this period, if you live near the sea or a river, you might have seen groups of Jews gathering for the ritual of Tashlich (casting off) when they symbolically ‘cast off’ the sins of the previous year by throwing pieces of bread or another food into a river, pond or the sea, reciting Micah 7:18-20:

Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth the iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy. He will again have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob, mercy to Abraham, as Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.

In the Torah, sacrifice was at the heart of Yom Kippur. According to Leviticus 16, two goats were chosen from the flock. One was offered to make atonement for sin, while the other symbolically carried the sins of the people into the wilderness.

Post Temple Atonement?

After the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD70, sacrifices could no longer be offered and without the sacrificial system the priests were surplus to requirements. As a result, the Pharisees, with their insistence on obedience to the Torah, became the major influence within Judaism. Their first priority was to enable Judaism to survive without the temple now that the means of atonement, as prescribed in the law of Moses, had been removed.

The major figure at this time was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Ben Zakkai was able to rationalise the situation and introduce a man-made system of finding forgiveness for sins. This towering figure became the architect of post-biblical Judaism in all its forms.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, in tractate Ta’anit, a volume devoted mainly to the regulations of fast-days, we read that ‘Prayer, repentance and charity avert the evil decree [the pronouncement of death on those who are not perfectly righteous].’

Even though the rabbis deny that the shedding of sacrificial blood is necessary for atonement, it is the custom of some Eastern European Jews to whirl a cock over their heads three times, and offer a sombre prayer: ‘This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement; this cock shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.’

The chicken is then delivered to the shochet, or ritual slaughterer, and donated to the poor.

Deep within the Jewish psyche, there appears to be an instinctive recognition of the principle ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission’. We find evidence of this in an old Yom Kippur prayer:

Our righteous anointed [Messiah] is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.

This prayer bears a striking resemblance to the 53rd chapter of Isaiah:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:5,10)

This Saturday, please remember to pray for Jewish people desperately seeking atonement. They are ‘zealous for God but not according to knowledge’. Particularly remember those who have heard the gospel this year through the witness of CWI field workers and pray that the Spirit of God will bring to the mind of these people of promise the message of Messiah. Pray that the veil that blinds their eyes will be removed so they can see the true means of atonement.

All Israel shall the Saviour own

Many of you appreciated Thomas Cotterill’s ‘Great God of Abraham, hear our prayer’ in my last newsletter. ‘Almighty God of Love’ was written by Charles Wesley, based on Isaiah 66:19,20, in which he sees a future Israel saved and in their own land fulfilling their call to be a light to the nations. Let’s make Cotterill’s and Wesley’s hymns our heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel this Saturday.

Almighty God of love,
Set up the attracting sign,
And summon whom thou dost approve
For messengers divine;
From favoured Abraham’s seed
The new apostles choose,
In isles and continents to spread
The dead-reviving news.

Them, snatched out of the flame,
Through every nation send,
The true Messiah to proclaim,
The universal friend;
That all the God unknown
May learn of Jews to adore,
And see thy glory in thy Son,
Till time shall be no more.

O that the chosen band
Might now their brethren bring,
And, gathered out of every land,
Present to Zion’s King!
Of all the ancient race
Not one be left behind,
But each, impelled by secret grace,
His way to Canaan find.

We know it must be done,
For God hath spoke the word:
All Israel shall the Saviour own,
To their first state restored;
Rebuilt by his command,
Jerusalem shall rise;
Her temple on Moriah stand
Again, and touch the skies.

Send then thy servants forth,
To call the Hebrews home;
From East and West, and South and North,
Let all the wanderers come;
Where’er in lands unknown
The fugitives remain,
Bid every creature help them on,
Thy holy mount to gain.

An offering to their God,
There let them all be seen,
Sprinkled with water and with blood,
In soul and body clean;
With Israel’s myriads sealed,
Let all the nations meet,
And show the mystery fulfilled,
Thy family complete!


Yours for the salvation of Israel,

Mike Moore
General Secretary
Christian Witness to Israel

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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