- How believers should talk about Yom Kippur
With Yom Kippur (“the Day of Atonement”) having taken place last week, it is worth spending some time reflecting on how Messianic Jews should treat this day. For any theological discussion about religious festivals, all believers must be grounded in the godly advice of Paul, who instructs us:
Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah.
One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honour of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God.
We would be foolish to ignore this advice, either by accusing Messianic Jews who do observe Yom Kippur of the dubious charge of legalism, or by pressuring Messianic Jews who don’t observe Yom Kippur to feel somehow un-Jewish or excluded for their decision.
We also would affirm fasting as a godly and commendable practise for believers in Yeshua, if coupled with prayer and the reading of God’s word. Fasting without prayer is not a spiritual discipline – fasting frees you up to spend time with God, but in itself has no inherent powers.
Before writing any more, we cannot emphasise enough that in any choice you make about your fasting, the festivals you observe, and the days you consider holy, you have freedom of conscience, and we allow the grace of God to season our discussions on the matter. However, it is Paul’s advice that “each must be fully convinced in his own mind” that gives me the opportunity to make my case for Messianic Jews treating Yom Kippur as a feast day, rather than a fast day, and celebrating the occasion with food and drink.
2) The Purpose of Yom Kippur
We read about the Day of Atonement in Leviticus: שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם, וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם–חֻקַּת, עוֹלָם Here, the Day of Atonement is a “sabbath of solemn rest”. The children of Israel are told: “Afflict your souls”; and that the day should be observed for the rest of time. God clarifies further in the Torah as to the point of Yom Kippur:
“Atonement will be made for you on this day to cleanse you, and you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must practice self-denial; it is a permanent statute. The priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as high priest in place of his father will make atonement. He will put on the linen garments, the holy garments, and purify the most holy place. He will purify the tent of meeting and the altar and will make atonement for the priests and all the people of the assembly. This is to be a permanent statute for you, to make atonement for the Israelites once a year because of all their sins.”
Clearly, the point of Yom Kippur is for the Israelites to be able to atone for their sins, via the anointed high priest. When we read the Book of Hebrews (chapter 7), we see the author interacting with the Biblical concept of atonement, in the light of Yeshua’s death and resurrection.
To summarise, the author says that Jesus is a priest according to the new order of Melchizedek, and makes atonement for us – not by “offering sacrifices every day, as they high priests [did] – first for their own sins, and then of the people”, but by offering himself as an atonement. We are taught how Jesus’ atonement replaces the previous atonement which was conducted in the Temple by the Levite priests:
“So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. […] By saying, a new covenant, He has declared that the first is old. And what is old and ageing is about to disappear.”
The New Testament essentially renders the need for a Day of Atonement superfluous. Messianic Jews keep Yom Kippur for a variety of reasons still:
- It would be offensive to your family and community for you to do anything other than fast this day – especially as they have a tough time accepting you as a believer already.
- It is a day for you to focus on getting right with God, especially if living in Israel where the whole country shuts down, enabling you to fast with less opportunities to be distracted by food.
- It is what you do, it is what you’ve always done, and you owe no-one an explanation for your actions.
- This is the way you show yourself and others that you are Jewish, because Jews fast on Yom Kippur.
- The Bible instructs that Yom Kippur is forever, and so you will observe it every year you can.
- It is a way for you to show kinsmanship with fellow Jews.
- You want to pray for more of your friends and family to understand and appreciate Yeshua in the way you do.
- You want to fast as a witness to other Jews.
These are all understandable points and again, we wouldn’t disparage someone for choosing to observe the fast. Still, I have noticed a trend on social media, for believers to announce they are fasting on Yom Kippur, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily healthy, in the light of Yeshua’s (rather blunt) words:
“Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you
It is also potentially problematic in a logical way, for Messianic Jews to say they are observing Yom Kippur itself, rather than simply observing a fast on Yom Kippur.
If you say you need to fast on The Day of Atonement in order to afflict your soul, then how do you make sense of the New Testament’s theology that Yeshua is your ultimate atonement?
Just as an atheist shouldn’t bother observing Yom Kippur if she hasn’t sinned, neither has a Messianic Jew any point in observing Yom Kippur if she doesn’t believe it actually is a way to achieve atonement.
3) Why we think Messianic Jews can feast on Yom Kippur
The writer of Hebrews show how Yeshua atones for the sins of all believers in Israel through his death, with a once-and-for-all sacrifice. So if you believe he died for your sins, then logically the true day of atonement is the day Yeshua was crucified.
This puts an end to any need for a day of atonement following Yeshua’s death. So, there is no need to afflict your souls. Yom Kippur is a special Sabbath, and this is a Sabbath of rest, where we do not need to necessarily abstain from foods.
For Orthodox Jews, and for Christians, the purpose of Yom Kippur is to achieve atonement through abstention and worship. But if you have already achieved righteousness via a perfect atonement, then there is no point in you observing the Day of Atonement.
Rabbi Schneerson of Chabad made this point – anyone who has fully repented and is righteous before God has no need to fast on Yom Kippur, and should eat and drink instead.
Eating and drinking on Yom Kippur would be a very clear signal that you have obtained this level of righteousness. You are now considered holy because of your perfect, everlasting atonement.
By eating and drinking on Yom Kippur, Messianic Jews would send a powerful message which would be easily understood – we have no need for an annual day of atonement, as our sins are atoned for in Messiah’s once-and-for-all death.
It would be a message instantly understood by Orthodox Jews too, who believe in the eventual annulment of all the feasts. Some rabbis teach in the annulment of all the feasts except Purim and Yom Kippur; others say that only Purim remains in Messiah’s days. In any case, Yom Kippur would be treated much more as a celebration (“yom-ke-purim”) – the day like Purim.
But we obviously cannot accept the logic that there would still be the need for a Day of Atonement in the days of Messiah, So we would go another step and declare the abrogation of Yom Kippur for Messianic Jews, eating to celebrate our complete atonement in Yeshua, freeing us up to eat on this particular day.
We could celebrate it even as an outright feast, to make this point.
In recent years, some Orthodox Jews have begun feasting on traditional Jewish fast days, in order to convey their beliefs that Schneerson is the Messiah.
In general, Orthodox Jews know that when Moshiach comes, there will be a new Torah and a change in the way we celebrate holy days.
When Messianic Jews choose to fast and observe Yom Kippur as Yom Kippur (rather than as a convenient day of fasting and prayer), we may send a mixed message to the Jewish community.
We say with our mouths that Yeshua is the Messiah, and Jewish people would expect for people who believe that the Messiah already has come, to treat the Torah in a different, past-tense way. Yet if with our actions we say Yom Kippur still applies in the same way, we are sending mixed messages.
This is why I feast on Yom Kippur, and I am fully convinced in my own mind. But each person should be fully convinced in his own mind whether he chooses to fast or not on Yom Kippur, and like everything, his actions should be dedicated to the Lord.