Catholic Thoughts on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement



On Yom Kippur, the ritual trial reaches its conclusion. The people finally drop all their defenses and excuses and throw themselves on the mercy of the court, yet the same people never lose the conviction that they will be pardoned. This atonement is by divine grace; it is above and beyond the individual effort or merit. (Rabbi Irving Greenberg)

Beginning this Friday evening, September 29th at sundown, will be the first day of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Before my conversion to Catholicism, I observed (as a secular Jew) only one religious holiday, Yom Kippur. My observance was not Orthodox, although I did and do now fast (note: Jewish fasts are more stringent than Catholic – no food or drink whatsoever). My fast this year will be intermediate between the Jewish and the Catholic. I’ll have coffee with milk (and maybe a piece of apple – after all, I am 87 years old!)

When I was younger, I’d go to some place far away from the city, think about the past year and ask the God in whom I did not quite believe to forgive me for all the sins and wrongs I had committed and ask Him to make me better.

Atonement in the Jewish Tradition

My observance of repentance (Hebrew: t’shuvah), admitting wrongdoing and asking forgiveness from God, was only a part of the Yom Kippur atonement process. I have found out since then that Orthodox Jews hold that there are three ways we can sin: against God, against our fellows, and against ourselves.

To atone for sins against God and ourselves, Jewish tradition requires that we have to resolve sincerely not to commit such sins in the future. With respect to sins against myself, I am supposed first, to forgive myself (very hard to do in my case) and second, to set up a program whereby I will not commit that sin in the future.

To atone for sins against others, we have to apologize for hurts we have inflicted on them and ask for their forgiveness, and to make restitution when that is possible. Interestingly, any Twelve Step Program (some years ago I was involved with several) requires atonement, specifying that we attempt to make amends for what we have done wrong:

Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”
Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Tradition gives the following Jewish practice for asking forgiveness: If the person you have asked for forgiveness doesn’t do so after the first request, you can ask two more times. If the person still doesn’t forgive you, you can write it off if you have made a sincere and effective effort to right the wrong you have done.

Concordance With Catholic Teaching

So, how do all those Jewish observances square with Catholic teaching and dogma about repentance to save us from sin: the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the sacrifice of Christ as the lamb of God.? As a Catholic, do I err or sin by fasting on Yom Kippur, making special prayers, and acts of atonement?

There are several important differences. First, as a Catholic, I acknowledge and glory in the fundamental dogma of the Church: Jesus Christ replaces the scapegoat that was offered by the high priest at the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Yom Kippur; He is the sacrificial lamb, who gave Himself up for our eternal life. He, who was without sin, took on the sins of world by His Passion.

Second, as a Catholic, I should not offer my repentance directly to God. My confession of sins and request for forgiveness is made to God through a priest, in persona Christi, to Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. Much more can be said about the mental preparation for receiving absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the resolutions, the contrition, the restitution to those injured (as with Jewish teaching), but this is covered in the Catholic Catechism on this Sacrament.

Suppose a priest isn’t available, as the example in my Sacramental Theology class put it, you’re on a sinking ship and no priest is available. What do you do then? The Church takes all things into consideration and that situation also. There is “an act of perfect contrition”:

Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed together with the resolution not to sin again.’ When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible (CCC 1451-52)

Different or Similar?

So there are fundamental differences and there are similarities. Similarities in being contrite and resolving to do better in making atonement and restitution to those we have harmed. Differences in the mediator through whom we offer repentance, and in acknowledging a Savior who takes on our sins, including Original Sin.

And with this, “G’mar Hatima Tova”–may you be sealed in the Book of Life.

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4 thoughts on “Catholic Thoughts on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement”

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