The High Holy Days and the Ten Days of Awe

Days of Awe

The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and ending with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are commonly known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance.  But Rosh Hashanah is only one of our two New Years. What is also confusing to some is that because we follow a lunar calendar, Jewish feast days and Holy Days fall at a different time each year on the Western (solar) calendar.

Before we elaborate on these Holy Days and the time period in between, let’s talk briefly about the reckoning of days and dates.


For Jews, a new day begins at sundown on the prior day. This tradition developed out of the creation account in the Genesis 1:5 where it says, “the evening and the morning were the first day”.


People often ask us why our holidays are not on the same day each year.  They aren’t on the Western calendar or Gregorian calendar but they are on the Jewish calendar and that is because the Jewish Calendar is a lunar calendar of ~354 days in length and the Western calendar or Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar of 365 days. To make sure that the feasts were celebrated at the proper times, an extra month was added by the priests every 3 years or so (a leap month) to make up the difference between the length of the lunar calendar (~354 days) and the length of the solar calendar (365 days).


As mentioned above, we have two New Years in the Jewish calendar; one is the 1st month of the civil calendar (Rosh Hashanah / Feast of Trumpets) which falls sometime in September on the western calendar and the other is the 1st month of the ecclesiastical calendar which occurs in the spring. The 1st day of the month of Nisan, is 14 days before Passover.


The first month in the ecclesiastic or religious calendar is Nisan and is when the children of Israel were to select a lamb from their flock – a perfect lamb, which would become the Passover sacrifice on the 14th day. As the first month of the religious calendar, the Feasts and Holy Days that God called the Jewish people to commemorate are reckoned from the first of Nisan.  It was also considered the New Year for counting the years of the reigns of kings in ancient Israel. The New Year on the 1st of Nisan is mentioned in both Exodus 12:2 and Deuteronomy 16:1.


Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year”) is the Jewish civil New Year and the name in Scripture is Yom Teruah (literally “day of shouting”) also called the Feast of Trumpets.

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Tell the Israelites: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you are to have a day of complete rest, commemoration, and joyful shouting—a sacred assembly. You must not do any daily work, but you must present a fire offering to the Lord.”

Leviticus 23:23-25

Rosh Hoshanah begins on the first day of the month of Tishrei – which is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. Rosh Hoshanah is the New Year from which years are counted and according to Jewish tradition is the anniversary of the creation of the world. Rosh Hashanah is also called the Feast of Trumpets and it is customary for the shofar or ram’s horn to be blown on Rosh Hoshanah.

A shofar is a trumpet made from a hollowed out horn of a kosher animal (such as a ram or goat) and is the ‘trumpet’ that is blown 100 times during the synagogue service for the Feast of Trumpets.

Rosh Hashanah is mentioned in Numbers 29:1-2 as well as Leviticus 23:24-25.

This year, Rosh Hashanah began Sunday, September 13, 2015 at sundown — which was the start of the year 5776.


The morning service for Rosh Hashanah has many of the same elements as an ordinary Shabbat (Sabbath) service including the Bar’chu (call to worship), the recitation of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4) and the v’havtah (Deuteronomy 6:5-9), it also includes the Birkat Ha-Minim or “blessing of the heretics” which is recited aloud as part of the Amidah (or “standing prayer”) as it has been since 40 years after the death of Jesus.

As discussed in an earlier post, this ‘benediction’ (actually a curse) was added as a 19th to the 18 benedictions of the Amidah under the direction of Gamaliel II in 72-73 CE and calls for the ‘minim’ or ‘heretics’ – including sects such as the Essenes (the sect that hid the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Nazarenes (Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah) to be destroyed and blotted out of the Book of Life. This “blessing” is recited 18 times a week in corporate synagogue prayer and for obvious reasons, a Messianic Jew is unable to say “amen” to the Amidah.  It is by not doing so that we are clearly identified in the synagogue and ostracized as “heretics” and excommunicated from the congregation.

This is the Birkat ha-Minim;

For the heretics let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the Nazarenes [name for Jewish believers] and the minim [any of the other Jewish sects considered to be heretics] be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.”

There are leaders in the Messianic Jewish community who call for us as Jews to participate in the community life and synagogue life along side of our people, however barriers such as the inability to recite the Amidah, that is recited daily, make this is challenging, at best.


According to Jewish tradition, it is said that God opens the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah (Feast of Trumpets) and writes the names of the righteous (tzaddak’im) in it and seals their fate on Yom Kippur.  These are those who will be given another year by God to live.  The names of the wicked (resha’im) are written in another book, the Book of Death on Rosh Hashanah, and their fate sealed on Yom Kippur.  These are those that are not given another year to live because of their unrepentant sin.

Since most people are considered neither righteous nor wicked the fate of these is not sealed until Yom Kippur; which provides them time to repent during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  These are called the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance.

This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent to God and others and to make amends to those who have been harmed. The Talmud (a written record of the Oral Law) states that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and God so to atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them, if possible. These are days of ‘teshuvah’ of ‘turning back to God’.  In Judaism, God’s judgement, far from being absolute, is conditional and based on man’s conduct toward God and others.  A change in man’s conduct (repentance) will bring about a change in God’s judgement.

Common greetings at Rosh Hashanah include “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year” and “May your name be written in the Book of Life for another year”.


Yom Kippur is a day in which the entire nation of Israel is to seek God corporately for forgiveness of their sins and concludes the Days of Awe.  In 2015, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on the evening of Tuesday, September 22 and concludes after sundown on Wednesday, September 23rd.

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” or literally ‘the day of covering’ and is the holiest day on the Jewish Calendar; a day that the Old Testament describes as a day for affliction of the soul or self-denial (Lev. 23:27).

The Lord again spoke to Moses: “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. You are to hold a sacred assembly and practice self-denial; you are to present a fire offering to the Lord. On this particular day you are not to do any work, for it is a Day of Atonement to make atonement for yourselves before the Lord your God. If any person does not practice self-denial on this particular day, he must be cut off from his people.  I will destroy among his people anyone who does any work on this same day. You are not to do any work. This is a permanent statute throughout your generations wherever you live. It will be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must practice self-denial. You are to observe your Sabbath from the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening.”

Leviticus 23:26-32

Yom Kippur is first mentioned in Exodus 30:10 in reference to the initial instructions to the priests about making atonement once a year upon the Ark of the Covenant and later in Leviticus (Lev. 23:26-32) and Numbers (Num. 29:7-11), God provides a summary of instructions for Israel concerning observance of Yom Kippur.

Leviticus 16 is an entire chapter about how the day was to be observed in Temple times and contains detailed description of the High Priest’s role in offering sacrifices during Yom Kippur.


In ancient Israel, observance of Yom Kippur centered on the Temple. The High Priest, a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses was to prepare himself in order to be able to come into the Lord’s presence and offer the sacrifice for the sins of the entire nation.

God instructed the priests to first undergo ‘mikveh’ which is a form of bathing in small baths for the purposes of ritual purification. The Church’s custom of immersion baptism is derived from mikveh but that is a topic for another post.

The High Priest would then put on special priestly garments, representing the sacredness of the holiday.

The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aaron’s sons when they approached the presence of the Lord and died. The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he may not come whenever he wants into the holy place behind the veil in front of the mercy seat on the ark or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.

“Aaron is to enter the most holy place in this way: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to wear a holy linen tunic, and linen undergarments are to be on his body. He must tie a linen sash around him and wrap his head with a linen turban. These are holy garments; he must bathe his body with water before he wears them. He is to take from the Israelite community two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering.

Leviticus 16:1-2


According to Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement was the only time that the High Priest – and only the High Priest – could pronounce the name of God, the sacred Tetragrammaton (יהוה) – which in English is represented by the four letters YHWH.  It is said that when the High Priest entered the Holy Place with the blood of the Lord’s goat, that he would utter the Name. He was the only one, and that was the only time, when the Name could be uttered.  It was the responsibility of the High Priest to pass on the exact pronunciation of the Name of God to his successor — if with his last dying breath.


Before the High Priest could offer the sacrifice for the forgiveness of the sins of the nation, he had to offer a sacrifice of a bull for his own sins and those of his family (Leviticus 16:6).

The the High Priest then selected and consecrated two separate male goats; each had an important role on the Day of Atonement.  One goat would become a sacrifice before God as a sin offering and the second goat would become the “azazel” or ‘scapegoat’ and which the community would later lead into the desert (Lev. 16:7-10). The exact meaning of the word ‘azazel’ is thought to be a technical term describing ‘complete removal’ or ‘dismissal’ of sin. The ‘scapegoat’ was quite literally the “escape goat” as it escaped death and was sent into the wilderness.

After Aaron casts lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other for azazel, he is to present the goat chosen by lot for the Lord and sacrifice it as a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot for azazel is to be presented alive before the Lord to make purification with it by sending it into the wilderness for azazel.

Leviticus 16: 7-10


The High Priest would then take the blood from the bull which he had sacrificed as sin offering for his own sins and those of his family and would take fiery coals from the altar and then bring them along with two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense inside the veil into the Holy of Holies, before the Lord. (Leviticus 16:12). He would then put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud of incense covered the Mercy Seat.  Any mistake in carrying this out would result in the High Priest dying instantly (Leviticus 16:13).

The High Priest would then take some of the bull’s blood and would sprinkle it with his finger against the side of the Mercy Seat and then seven times before the Mercy Seat, making atonement for his own sin.


Having made atonement for his own sin and that of his family, the High Priest was then fit to sacrifice the Lord’s goat for the sins of the nation.

He would then enter into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the goat’s blood upon the side of the Mercy Seat and in front of it, exactly as he had with the blood of the bull that he offered for his own sins (Leviticus 16:15).


The High Priest would then place some of the blood from the Lord’s goat onto the second goat – the azazel.  He would then confess the sins of the nation over the second goat, then the nation would lead the azazel goat out into the wilderness (16:21-22). The removal of the goat from the camp symbolized the removal of the nation’s sins from Israel.

According to the writings of the rabbis, the azazel goat was taken ten miles out of Jerusalem and along each mile of the way, there were refreshment stations for the man who escorted the goat out of the City.  When the man reached ten miles from the City, he would then watch the goat wander off until he could no longer see it no longer and would then return to the City and report that the sin was gone and the Day of Atonement was considered complete.

Under the Law of Moses, the sin-bearing goat bearing the sin of Israel was alive somewhere but put away. Sin could be put away, but never really eliminated.


How could one know for certain that God had accepted the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement? What if the scapegoat wandered back among the people of Israel? What if someone accidentally came upon the scapegoat in the wilderness?

Over time, the Jewish people began to address some of these concerns through various traditions, one of them being that of the scarlet string, or cloth.


Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible says that the Jews began to tie on the head of the scapegoat, a piece of scarlet ‘cloth’ and Matthew Poole’s Commentary refers to it as a scarlet ‘string’.  The tradition was that if God accepted the sacrifice, the scarlet string (or cloth) turned white while the goat was led to the desert; but if God had not accepted this the sacrifice, the string remained red and the rest of the year was spent in mourning. Through this, they thought they had some certainty about the work of atonement.

Matthew Poole’s Commentary says that later the Jews altered the ceremony so the goat would be killed and have no chance of returning to Israel.  After the blood of the Lord’s goat was placed on it and the sins of the nation laid on it, the goat was carried to a mountain which the Jews had named Azazel (after the name given to the goat) and it was thrown off of a cliff.  If the red string turned white, God was pleased with the Israelites, otherwise it remained red and they mourned all that year.

According to the Talmud, the rabbinical text central to mainstream Judaism, forty years before the temple was razed to the ground by the Romans a disturbing change occurred. There are two versions of the Talmud: the Jerusalem Talmud (known as the Yerushalmi) and the longer, more authoritative Babylonian Talmud (known as the Bavli).

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “forty years before the destruction of the Temple the crimson thread remained crimson” (The Yerushalmi, translated by Jacob Neusner, p.156f).

According to the Babylonian Talmud (The Soncino Talmud, tractate ‘Yoma,’ 39b), “during the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the crimson-coloured strap did not become white“.

Forty years before the destruction of the Temple coincides with Jesus’ death on the cross — the final sacrifice.  One can only surmise that as an outward sign to the Jews that God no longer accepted the sins of the nation being put on the azazel, the scarlet thread no longer turned white.


Coming into God’s presence in Temple times was not something anyone could do.  Only one person was set apart by God to come into His presence and that was a descendant of Aaron, a High Priest. And he couldn’t come in any way that he pleased; he had to be clean – both ritualistically (through ‘mikveh’) and cleansed of his own sin through the sacrifice of a bull and the offering of its blood as atonement for his sin.  He had to be dressed is garments of pure linen and have his head covered.

Leviticus 16 is very clear;

The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he may not come whenever he wants into the holy place behind the veil in front of the mercy seat on the ark or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.

Leviticus 16:2

Through the sacrifice of Messiah on the cross, we have access to God’s very presence – at any time. He is our High Priest, our sacrifice, our redemption, our access!

But the Messiah has appeared, high priest of the good things that have come. In the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands (that is, not of this creation), He entered the most holy place once for all, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow, sprinkling those who are defiled, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to serve the living God?

Hebrews 9:11-14

At the day of reckoning, we who overcome to the end will be dressed in white clothes and our names will never be erased from the Book of Life;

In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels.

Revelation 3:5

This leads us to ask these two questions;

When we come into God’s presence in prayer, do we come as we are — or do we first confess our own sins and come by the blood of the Lamb?

Do we walk in without repentance, without preparation and without accepting His blood as atonement for our sin — coming in anyway that we choose?

Yes,  as Hebrews 4:14-16 says we can come boldly, but not presumptuously.

It is important for us, as New Testament believers to remember that atonement for our sin was provided at a great cost and our access to God necessitates the preparation of repentance and the application of His blood for our cleansing.

His Holiness and our sinfulness demand it.

May we never to take our access to His presence and the forgiveness through His blood lightly.


Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Jews observe only the command of Leviticus 23:27 to practice self-denial and to afflict one’s soul on the Day of Atonement.  This is accomplished by observing a complete fast from before sundown the evening prior and concluding after nightfall on the following day.Jewish people express their repentance through prayer, confession and the giving of ‘tzedakah’, or charity.  Jewish Oral Law also prohibits washing and bathing, marital relations, and use of any type of beauty products, including lotion or perfume.

Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, there is no place for Jews to offer sacrifices according to the Law of Moses for the forgiveness of their sins.  Aside from afflicting their souls by fasting on Yom Kippur, not a single Jew today is able to follow the order of service set out by God in Leviticus 16.

This cannot be understated —  because the Law says that ‘without the shedding of blood, there is no atonement for sin’ (Leviticus 17:11).


A few ultra-Orthodox sects of Judaism, most notably the Chassidim observe a practice of ritual atonement for sin using a chicken, which is called kapparot.

The practice involves a chicken (specifically a rooster for men and a hen for women) which is taken the afternoon before the beginning of Yom Kippur and is designated to be donated to the poor, as part of the consumption of the pre-Yom Kippur meal. The rooster or hen is swung over the head of the individual for whom it serves as a ‘sacrifice’, while the following prayer is recited in Hebrew and which is translated;

This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster (or hen) will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace”.

After the Kapparot ritual is concluded, the rooster or hen is treated as any normal kosher poultry product and is slaughtered according to the laws of shechita. It is then given to charity, so that a poor family has a meal to eat before the beginning of the fast of Yom Kippur meal.

In a second variant of the practice of Kapparot, a bag of money is swung around the head three times and then given to charity. In this case, the prayer recited translates as:

This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This money will go to charity, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.

The practice of Kapparot is first mentioned in Jewish writings from Babylonia in 853 C.E and is thought to be a custom of Babylonian and Persian Jewry, originally of non-Jewish origin.

Jewish scholars in the ninth century explained that since the Hebrew word “gever” means both “man” and “rooster” — that a rooster may substitute as a religious and spiritual vessel in place of a man.

The ritual of using a chicken or money as a substitute is still a ‘bloodless sacrifice’ and the written Law clearly states that only “blood that makes atonement for our soul” (Leviticus 17:11).


There are five separate synagogue services on Yom Kippur where a special prayer book called the Machzor (meaning cycle) is used. This prayer book is used during the 10 Days of Awe – from erev (the night before) Rosh Hoshanah to the end of Yom Kippur and the special prayers focus on confession and repentance.

Some Jewish men wear special white robes called a kittel, symbolizing both purity and mortality.

While it is also customary for Jewish men to wear a tallit (or prayer shawl) during prayer services year round, Yom Kippur is the only time in which they will wear the tallit in the evening.

The final synagogue service concludes with the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn).

As is the case with the Rosh Hashanah service (and the Shabbat service) there is the recitation of the Amidah (with inclusion of additional lines) and including the Birkat Ha-Minim – the “blessing on the heretics”.  As a result, Messianic Jews are unable to say ‘amen’ to this prayer; clearly identifying them from other Jews as “heretics”.


For us, as Jewish believers Rosh Hashanah does not represent the day that God decides whether our names will be written in the Book of Life, for we know that our names were inscribed in the Book of Life when we came to accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Philippians 4:3) and to the one who overcomes to the end, our names will never be blotted out of the Book of Life (Revelations 3:5).

As Jewish believers, we know without a doubt that atonement for sin is available only through the death and resurrection of our Messiah and has already been accomplished through the finished work of Jesus’ death on our behalf.

We are confident that Yom Kippur is not when our fate is sealed – for as long as we have breath, we can repent, turn from our sin and be forgiven. We can ask God for forgiveness through the blood of the Lamb and know we are forgiven and can repent, make amends and restitution if possible, to those we have wronged.

The ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remain for us a time of repentance – both individual and corporate; a time where we reflect on God’s holiness and on the reality that our sin has terrible consequences to us, to those around us and is repugnant to our Holy God.

As Jewish believers, Yom Kippur is a time where, having come by the blood of the Lamb into His very presence, we can intercede for the salvation of our people — at the very time that they are seeking His Face.

Despite our deep sorrow over our own sin and the sins of our people, we know and are confident that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens and who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because He came and lived as we do, yet without sin.  We know that because of what He has done that we can approach the throne of grace with boldness and that we will receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time (Hebrews 4:14-16).