Nizahker Venikatev

Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Torah on Yom Kippur Morning

On Yom Kippur, we read chapter 16 of the book of Leviticus, divided into six aliyot to mark the importance of this day (regular festival days have only five aliyot, while Shabbat has seven). For the maftir (additional reading), we read Numbers 29:7–11. Both selections describe, in great detail, the procedures of the Day of Atonement in biblical times. 

Read through Leviticus 16 (Mahzor Lev Shalem p. 278–281). What surprises you about this chapter? What resonates with you? What bothers you? Why do you think the rabbis chose this particular selection to be read on Yom Kippur?

As part of his atonement, Aaron must offer a bull “to make expiation for himself and for his household” (Lev. 16:6) and must also sacrifice two goats for the transgressions of the Israelite people. How do these processes of both individual and communal atonement appear in today’s practice of Yom Kippur? How do you feel about the idea of atoning not just for yourself but also for your community? Do you think that leaders bear special responsibility for their community’s atonement?

After the destruction of the Temple, prayer replaced animal sacrifice as a way to communicate with God. What do you think about the bloody rituals of Temple worship? Imagine that you are part of ancient Israelite society, watching the High Priest place the sins of the community on a goat. What do you feel? Is there a sense of relief? Guilt? Confusion?

Bible scholar and rabbi Jacob Milgrom referred to animal blood as “ritual detergent” that purified the Holy of Holies in ancient times. How do you understand the idea of spiritual cleansing in our time? Do you feel “cleansed” at the end of Yom Kippur? What could you do to amplify that sense of purity?

The chapter describes two goats being used for the Israelite people’s atonement, one that is killed and then burned on the altar (as most sacrifices were) and the other that is set free into the wilderness. Why do you think both methods were used?

Think of a negative attitude, behavior, or feature of your life that you would like to let go of this year. Imagine that attitude or behavior being thrown into a fire and burning up into ash. Do you feel a sense of release? Does this image help you to let go? Now imagine, instead, sending that negative thing off into the wilderness. See it running away from you, never to return. Do you feel different? Does it feel freeing? Which method works better for you?

Read through Numbers 29: 7–11. How does this short excerpt recap Leviticus 16? How does it differ? Verse 7 exhorts us to “observe a sacred occasion” when we shall “practice self-denial.” How do you understand self-denial? How does the experience of fasting help you to connect with the sacredness of this day? Many people are unable to fast for health reasons. What are other ways that you can practice self-denial in order to feel the power of this moment?

For Families and Kids:

In the time of the Bible, the High Priest Aaron would put his hands on a goat’s head and symbolically place on it all of the bad things that the Israelites had done in the past year. Then he would send the goat off into the wilderness. What do you think about this old ritual? Why do you think they did it then? Why do you think we don’t do it anymore? What do we do today instead?

Adults usually fast on Yom Kippur in order to feel connected to this important day. What is something that you can do instead of fasting to show that you care about and respect this special day? What can you do to feel connected to the idea of a Day of Atonement?