Miracles of Yom Kippur

At sunset on 25 September, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar will commence. Synagogues around the world will be filled to capacity with mmen and women seeking atonement for their sins and hoping to be inscribed in the Book of Life. But apart from afflicting their souls by fasting, on Yom Kippur not a single Jewish person will be able to follow the order of service set out in Leviticus 16. For almost 2,000 years the Jewish people have lived in exile without a temple, without a priesthood and without sacrifices. Everything in the biblically prescribed rituals focused on the temple, the high priest, and two goats: one goat for the Lord, the other ‘for Azazel’. But all that came to a dramatic end in 70AD.

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


‘Forty years before the destruction of the Temple,’ says the Jerusalem Talmud, ‘the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open’ (The Yerushalmi, translated by Jacob Neusner, p.156f).


According to the Babylonian Talmud, ‘Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘for the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the western-most light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves’ (The Soncino Talmud, tractate ‘Yoma,’ 39b).


The four miracles


According to both versions of the Talmud, between AD30 and AD70, every night the gates of the Temple would open by themselves. In Yoma 39b, the Babylonian Talmud records that ‘Rabban Johanan [ben] Zakkai rebuked [the doors], saying: “O Temple, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah b[en] I do has already prophesied concerning thee: ‘Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars’.”’


Leviticus 16 states that the high priest was to cast lots over two goats, one of which was sacrificed on the altar while the other was driven into the wilderness symbolically bearing Israel’s guilt. During the last forty years in which this ritual took place, according to the Talmud, ‘The lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand’.


Two stones were taken as lots from the high priest’s breastplate. The ‘lot for the Lord’ designated the goat to be offered on the altar. For the Lord’s lot to come up in the left hand two years in succession was regarded as unpropitious. For that to happen every year for forty years was deeply troubling because the mathematical odds against such an occurrence are 240 , two to the power of forty, to one. For the benefit of non-mathematicians, two to the power of forty is 5,500,000,000 to 1! 


A third miracle apparently took place during the final generation of the second temple era: every night ‘the western light went out’. The western light of the Menorah, the seven-branched lampstand, was the ‘eternal flame’; it was to be kept burning perpetually. The doors of the temple faced east and during the day, only the western lamp and the two eastern lamps remained alight. In the evening, the middle four oil lamps were re-lit from the flames of the western lamp but, says the Talmud, every night for forty years, the western lamp went out. There are 12,500 nights in forty years. Mathematically, the odds against the same lamp going out every night for 12,500 consecutive nights is 712,500 to 1, or seven to the power of 12,500 to one (the reason we can’t print that many zeros is because they would occupy about six pages of Herald!).


The fourth miracle of Yom Kippur was that ‘the crimson thread remained crimson’. The Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt was noted for his almost eccentric painstaking attention to detail. When he painted The Scapegoat, he travelled to Palestine to set up his easel on the shore of the Dead Sea in the Judean wilderness. Hunt was aware that according to Jewish practice, in the first century, the scapegoat had a scarlet cord tied to its horns. If the cord turned white, it signified that atonement had been achieved. A scarlet thread was also attached to the temple doors where, in the glare of the Middle Eastern sun, it would quickly be bleached. During the last forty years of the ritual, according to rabbinic tradition, the wool remained red.


More questions than answers


All this is, of course, tradition. But why would the rabbis record these things if they were mere legend with no basis in fact? The compilers of the Talmud were aware that there was deep significance in the destruction of the Temple. Orthodox Jews still regard the Talmudic record of the miracles as true, even though they recognise the dark overtones. Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC because of the rampant idolatry and social injustice in Judea; what could account for the fact that Israel has been without a temple for nineteen centuries?


‘Why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity?’ asks Yoma 9b in the Babylonian Talmud. The answer it gives is, ‘Because therein prevailed hatred without cause.’


When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by one of his own people in November 1995, a shocked Jerusalem Post editorial lamented that such ‘causeless hatred’ had resulted in Israel’s temple being removed. When I read that JP editorial 17 years ago, the hair on my arms stood up the word might be fulfilled which is written in their Torah, “They hated me without a cause”.’


Addressing the Talmudic claim that the scarlet cord did not turn white, anti-missionary Rabbi Tovia Singer of Operation Judaism says, ʻ…the reason this miracle [of the cord turning white] ended 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple was due to the deplorable lack of social justice and brotherly kindness among the Jewish people…ʼ


The explanation raises more questions than it answers. First of all, there appears to be a contradiction because, according to Yoma 9b, the Jewish people ‘were occupying themselves with Torah, [the observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity.’ How could there have been, simultaneously with Torah study and charity, a ‘deplorable lack of social justice and brotherly kindness’? If both conditions co-existed, why do Orthodox Jews insist that man’s ‘evil inclination’ (the yetzer hara) can be overcome by Torah study? If there was a lack of social justice and brotherly kindness, Israel was in greater need of atonement than ever; so why was the nation’s only means of atonement removed? If, as Orthodox Jews believe, repentance and good works are more efficacious than sacrifices, the long term effects of the removal of the temple must have been ultimately beneficial; so why do Jews mourn the loss of the temple and pray for a third temple?


Ultimate Answers


A simpler and more satisfying answer is provided by the New Testament, an answer that holds out hope for the Jewish people. Hebrews 10:12 expresses the point clearly and succinctly: ‘But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.’ The only seat in the Holy of Holies, where the blood of sacrifice was presented on Yom Kippur, was the Mercy Seat, the throne of God. No high priest, however holy, could sit there. According to Hebrews, Messiah presented his blood in the true Holy of Holies, of which the one in the Jerusalem temple was a mere symbol.


Depending on which system of dating you follow, forty years before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple Jesus was either baptised and anointed by the Spirit or else he was sacrificed for the sins of his people. Following the chronology of Colin Humphreys in The Mystery of the Last Supper (see the March issue of the Herald), I take it that Jesus was baptised in 30AD, and his subsequent anointing by the Spirit of God set him apart as the Messiah.


The casting of lots for the two goats on the Day of Atonement was not a matter of chance or luck. Proverbs 16:33 is clear about that: ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.’ A lot did not have to be cast to determine the role of Jesus because, according to Revelation 13:8, he was chosen as God’s Lamb before the creation of the world. Jesus took on himself the role of both goats; the one which was sacrificed and the other which symbolically took away the sins of Israel. With the coming of the Lamb of God who would bear away the sins of the world, what need was there for further offerings?


In John 8:12, Jesus announced in the temple courts that he was ‘the light of the world’ and that whoever followed him would not walk in darkness but would have ‘the light of life’. In chapter 12 verse 46, he declares, ‘I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me should not abide in darkness.’


With the coming of the true ‘light of the world,’ the menorah had served its useful purpose; a greater temple with an infinitely greater light was now in the world. After the conquest of Jerusalem by Rome a generation later, the beautiful seven-branched temple lampstand would be taken to Rome as part of the victor’s spoils, never to be seen again. These things being so, is it any wonder that the gates of the temple were supernaturally thrown open each night? Following the death of the Lamb he had provided, Israel’s God threw open the doors to his house for all. This Yom Kippur, pray that God’s Spirit will open the eyes of Jewish people in synagogues everywhere to this great reality.

This article was first published in the Autumn Herald 2012

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