As the Jewish calendar’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, has passed, this article digs into the religious traditions that millions of people observe at this time of year.
But it goes even further, noting that some practices appear closely related to some of Egypt’s more ancient customs.
What ceremonies and practices from the period of Pharaoh Akhenaten might have made their way into the Jewish faith’s books?
There is only one Memorial candle lit.
The sun sets below the horizon. Food and drink are put away, and the Jewish people’s hearts are heavy with regrets, sins, and trespasses from the previous year. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, has officially begun.
The name translates to “Day of Atonement,” and it is a solemn day of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. It falls ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and millions of Jews around the world observe it by worshiping in synagogues, fasting, confessing their sins, and pleading to God for forgiveness.
On this day, more Jews attend synagogues than on any other, confirming their ties to a long-ago and often unexplained history. The emphasis of the day is on spiritual refreshment and well-being, with physical pleasures such as eating and drinking, wearing leather, washing, and shaving, anointing with oils, and having personal connections being forbidden.
Yom Kippur is observed on the 10th of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar. The following are the secular dates that will coincide in the coming years:
2022: Sunset on October 4th, with nightfall on October 5th.
2023: September 24 at sundown — September 25 at nightfall
2024: Sundown on October 11th, with nightfall on October 12th.
2025: October 1st, sundown — October 2nd, nightfall
Note that the Jewish calendar date begins the night prior at sundown. Thus, on the secular dates indicated, all holiday observances begin at dusk, with the next day being the first full day of the holiday. Dates on the Jewish calendar end at sunset.
The Torah mentions Yom Kippur for the first time in Leviticus 16:29–31.
Regarding the Day of Atonement, Moses gives the following instructions to the Israelite priests and citizens:
29 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work — whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you — 30 because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. 31 It is a day of Sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
In the Tabernacle of Moses, and later the Jerusalem Temple, atonement was first accomplished by suspending work, fasting, and animal sacrifices.
After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, the Jewish community was compelled to focus on non-sacrificial forms of atonement, such as repentance, prayer, and charity.
The hallowed day is also shrouded in mystery, particularly when it comes to its origins. Scholars believe it first appeared in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. However, I believe it, along with Rosh Hashanah, can be traced back to ancient Egypt, notably, the period of religious apostasy under the 14th-century BC pharaoh Akhenaten, whom I have contended was also the Hebrew prophet Moses.
Merneptah, son of Ramesses II, reigned from 1213 to 1203 BCE. He invaded Canaan after various neighboring states stopped paying tribute to Egypt, and his victory stele is the second oldest to mention Israel, which it mentions as a nation in Canaan, claiming that it had been laid waste and its grain destroyed, as well as the Philistine city of Ashkelon and the Canaanite Gezer. Menophis is his name in Manetho (corrupted to Amenophis in Josephus and Amenopath in Africanus due to confusion with the Greek for Amenhotep).
Pictured: The Merneptah Stele with the second oldest mention of Israel.
If this is accurate, it could explain a lot of the enigmatic Yom Kippur customs. Let’s have a look at a few of them to get a better understanding.
The Book, the Balance, and the Heart’s Beating
On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a person gets inscribed into God’s “Book of Life,” which is then sealed ten days later on Yom Kippur, according to Jewish tradition. During the ten days in between, a person is required to pray for repentance to “tilt the scales toward righteousness.”
Teshuvah, tefilah, and tezedakah are three ways to attain this (repentance, prayer, and charity). G’mar chatimah tovah, which means “May you be sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year ahead,” is a popular phrase these days.
The concept of a Book of Life dates back to ancient Egypt, whose people were devout believers in the afterlife. They believed that the spirit and body would be kept in the afterlife for all eternity, and that bad deeds and ideas during life would obstruct this process, potentially condemning a person.
The Egyptian Book of Life, which we call the Book of the Dead, was a guidebook for the dead, which they termed the Book of Coming Forth by Day. It featured spells that may assist a person in attaining eternal life.
Every Egyptian citizen desired to be buried with some variation of this crucial papyrus during the New Kingdom period, which would have carried the supplicant’s name, as well as, for instructions for making it to the eternal realm. Every Egyptian’s name had to be etched on this mystical papyrus to assure his eternal life, a genuine Book of Life.
In Judaism, God is described as holding a heavenly Book of Life, which modifies this idea slightly. When Moses discovered his people committing sins before the Golden Calf, he persuaded them that he could atone for them by pleading with God:
“So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:31–32).
This meant Moses believed God had a heavenly book in which he documented everything from the beginning.
Interestingly, Akhenaten venerated writing and language more than any other Pharaoh, emphasizing the already well-known Egyptian idea of the relationship between writing and life. Scribes and priests read and wrote at the Per Ankh, or “House of Life,” from the beginning, and scrolls on all aspects of magic, religion, medicine, science, math, and astronomy were maintained.
On Yom Kippur, God, according to tradition, decides each person’s fate for the future year. This was precisely why the Egyptian Book of the Dead was created: to assure a favorable outcome. Surprisingly, the supplicant’s heart was the focus of his confession and repentance.
For the ancient Egyptians, the heart was the most important organ in the body. It represented the seat of awareness and the battle between good and evil. A deceased person’s heart would be measured against a feather of truth when he or she begged to be allowed into eternal life.
Contemporary Jews include confession and repentance in their daily prayers, but it is only on Yom Kippur that it takes center stage. In Judaism, confession is known as viddui, and it is an old practice. The High Priest was to confess the sins of the entire land on Yom Kippur, then send the “scapegoat” into the wilderness.
Jews recite their sins publicly while rapping their fists on their chests for each violation during the Viddui prayer. This is to represent their hearts, which are the site of compassion and transgression, being punished.
Only on Yom Kippur is an extended confession, the Al Cheyt, done in which Jews confess to forty-four mistakes they have made. This brings to mind the famous list of 42 negative confessions from Book of the Dead Spell 125.
The Jewish idea of the heart (i.e. their “innermost being”) is identical to that of the ancient Egyptians, which is why it was “weighed” to assess a person’s faults. A wicked heart was weighty, whereas a clean heart was light as a feather. Consider the following categories of transgressions that the Chamberlain Tutu of Akhenaten associates with the heart, or his “innermost being”:
“My voice is not loud … I do not swagger … I do not receive the reward of wrongdoing to repress truth falsely, but I do what is righteous … I do not set wrongdoing in my innermost being …” From the tomb of Ay: “I was straightforward and true, devoid of rapacity … My greatness was in being close-mouthed … a possessor of character, fortunate, joyous, patient … my abomination is lying.”
Many essential Yom Kippur themes can thus be found in the Egyptian Book of Coming Forth by Day, including a concentration on writing in general and especially the writing of a person’s name in a “book of life” to assure a blissful eternity. Other motifs include God’s divine judgment on the celestial scales, the supplicant’s many confessions of lying, loudness, rapaciousness, and haughtiness, and the focus on the heart as both the source of sin and salvation.
The Cake and Yom Kippur
The symbolic meals linked to Yom Kippur, including fish, honey cakes, and poultry, have many ties to Akhenaten. While Yom Kippur involves absolute fasting on the day itself (to focus on spiritual healing), the days leading up to and after the fast are marked by traditional delicacies, many of which have hidden links to Akhenaten and Egypt.
Fish, for example, is traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of the Yom Kippur fast for the large break-fast supper. Smoked salmon, whitefish, and herring are all common ingredients (along with bagels and cream cheese).
During the High Holy Days, one New York establishment, Russ and Daughters, is busiest, hand-slicing approximately 8,000 pounds of smoked salmon each year. During Yom Kippur, the narrative of Jonah is also read. Its message of God’s rejection followed by the prophet Jonah’s final repentance echo the holiday’s themes, and God’s teaching tool is a gigantic fish!
Fish are the most prominent emblem of Jewish folk art, representing fecundity, rebirth, and renewal. They were the first living animals mentioned as being created by God in Genesis:
“So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems…” (Gen 1:21). Compare this to Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten: “Fish upon the river leap up in front of you, and your rays are within the Great Green Sea (i.e. the Mediterranean).”
Gorgeous polychrome glass fish-form vessels, as well as inscribed building pieces depicting fish being skewered in ponds, have been discovered at Amarna. Other depictions depict Akhenaten and his entire family feasting on delectable fish and birds, which resemble a traditional Jewish Yom Kippur break-fast meal.
The Lekach honey cake (which originates from the German word lecke, which means “lick”) is another classic Yom Kippur food item. It is usual for youngsters to ask their Rabbi for a slice of honey cake on the eve of Yom Kippur, before the fast formally begins at sunset, to symbolize the wonderful new year of purity and regeneration that lies ahead. The Lubavitcher Rebbe started a habit of giving out these delicious delicacies to Jewish communities in the evening.
Honey cakes, it turns out, were a popular dessert delight for nobility and commoners alike in ancient Egypt. Inscriptions found in the tomb chapel of the Vizier Rekhmi-Ra show men preparing and baking these cakes with honey, tiger nuts, dates, and fat. From the tomb of Huya, Chief Steward to Queen Tiye, Akhenaten’s mother, we learn about honey cakes. Honey was considered a royal food since Pharaoh was known as He of the Sedge and the Bee.
Additionally, there is a third link that involves birds. The kapparot ritual is a popular Yom Kippur eve tradition. It comes from the Hebrew root k-p-r, which means “to atone,” and is the same source as Yom Kippur. It’s a Jewish atonement ceremony in which a person waves a chicken over their head before sacrificing it, symbolically replacing the bird’s life for their own.
Its roots are vague and contentious, but they are most doubtlessly, exceedingly old, as bird sacrifice is described in Moses’ Torah. “If the offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds, you are to offer a dove or a young pigeon…” says Leviticus 1:14. I believe Akhenaten, who is identified in an inscription waving a duck before sacrificing it in the same pose as current Jews conducting the rite, planted the seeds of this ceremony (chickens were not introduced into Egypt until the Roman times, so ducks were the fowl of choice).
Your Name Will Be Forever Remembered
The Yizkor, or Remembrance Service, is an important part of the Yom Kippur service. It entails burning a special 26-hour candle to burn as a memorial for Jewish family members who have died so that God will remember the souls of those who have died. Its purpose is to reinforce and renew the bonds between the living and the departed so that we never forget those who have gone before us.
Remembering the dead, chanting their names, lighting lamps and incense, and offering spiritual sustenance to help their souls were all prevalent concepts in ancient Egypt. Their descendants brought food and drink to their ancestors’ tomb chapels, as well as prayers so that their souls could remain in peace and bliss in the afterlife. To an ancient Egyptian, possibly the most important aspect of existence was to be remembered. To be forgotten meant to “die all over again.”
Check the following Amarna texts:
“May you grant that my spirit may belong to me, lasting and enduring in the fashion of when I was on earth,” and “May you be united with your place of eternity, and may your mansion of eternity receive you,”, and “May the Aten grant the permanence of your resting in your tomb, and that one may pronounce your name continually forever.” How similar this sounds to 2 Samuel 7:26: “And may your name be honored forever.”
Samekh or Simketh in many Semitic alphabets, including Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic is the fifteenth letter representing /s/. The Hebrew letter samekh, or “circle letter,” is placed on the Aten sun disk as a symbol of God’s eternity. (From Davies, N. de G., The Rock Tombs of El Amarna: Part IV, Tombs of Penthu, Mahu, and Others, Plate XXXI) (London, Egypt Exploration Fund, 1906).
Circle of Life
Forgiveness, pardoning, and atonement are the three fundamental elements of the Yom Kippur liturgy. This abbreviation stands for samekh, the Hebrew letter known as “the circle letter.” Surprisingly, the circle represents several Yom Kippur motifs, including the “circling back” to God of repentance and atonement, the restoration to purity, the union of the past with the future, God’s crown, and even Yom Kippur’s unending delight.
It also echoes the ankh sign for life’s circle, as well as the Aten sun disk at Amarna, a city brimming with light and happy motifs. According to the Amarna literature, the Aten even circles the Earth: “Great Living Aten… master of everything the Aten encircles…”
Dancing in circles was common in ancient times to signify the entire round humans made during the year, ultimately returning to God. Young singles would dress up in white clothing and dance, hoping to find that particular someone with whom they may start a family, according to Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8. As a result, Yom Kippur was never intended to be a day of mourning, but rather a day of pleasure.
David Evan Markus, a rabbi, explains:
“That’s why Yom Kippur — even in solemnity — also is for light, joy, and circle dancing. It’s why my synagogue will observe Yom Kippur in traditional ways, and also with dancing. On this Yom Kippur, may we all join the ancient circle dance of light, joy, and atonement for a truly good and sweet new year!”
Surprisingly, evidence for this motif may be found in the name of the celebration itself. The day is known as Yom Ha-Kippurim in the Torah. While it is most commonly interpreted as “Day of Atonement,” it can also mean “Day like Purim,” which has long been considered Judaism’s most festive holiday.
Another of Akhenaten’s themes at Amarna was a joy. The Egyptian word for joy or gladness was hai, and the pharaoh had Per Hai, or “Houses of Joy,” portions of his temples. Like the courts of later Israelite rulers, they were packed with musicians and singers praising God.
The shofar horn is blown to signal the conclusion of Yom Kippur, signaling the end of prayers, penance, and the prohibition on all food and drink. The last lone blast echoes throughout the synagogue, lit by the setting sun’s last rays, signaling the end of the day. “O Living Aten, king of lords, ruler of Egypt, you have set beautifully” (Ahmose tomb inscription).