A Guide to the Christian Observance of the Biblical Sabbath, Feasts, and Holy Days
Many people who accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, whether they refer to themselves
as Christian or Messianic, observe the biblical Feasts and Holy Days, including the
weekly Sabbath, as times of worship, fellowship, and celebration. They believe that
these Feasts and Holy Days are shadows pointing to the reality of Jesus. And they
believe that there are valuable spiritual lessons to be learned week by week and
year by year through actually physically setting aside these times as “appointments
See The 3 Rs Introduction article for an overview of the three biblical principles
of Refreshment, Rejoicing, and Remembering as they apply to the observance of the
biblical Feasts and Holy Days. The rest of the articles in this series on The 3 Rs
provide specific, practical suggestions for building those 3 Rs into these observances.
The 3 Rs of the
Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement is the only annual Holy Day that is not a “feasting” day—it
is a “fasting” day. So one of the physical preparations that needs to be considered
before the day arrives is just how you and your family are going to approach the
notion of fasting—going without food and perhaps even beverages. For details on the
concept of Christians fasting in connection with this day see the comments below
on fasting. That material discusses the question of whether children should be required
to—or even allowed to—fast if their parents do so.
For those who are going to be fasting on this day, which lasts for the twenty four
hours from one sunset to the next, it is important to understand some of the physiology
of fasting before attempting such an extended fast the first time, and make proper
preparations. For instance, heavy coffee drinkers need to know that going “cold turkey”
off coffee for twenty four hours can lead to bad headaches. The solution is to cut
back gradually over a period of days leading up to the Day of Atonement. Most who
do this carefully find that they avoid the headaches.
Another key to avoiding headaches and other unpleasant symptoms is to drink a lot
of water shortly before the beginning of the fast to avoid serious dehydration. You
should also avoid drinking alcohol and eating salty foods the day before, which can
compound dehydration problems. And try not to overeat, nor eat lots of spicy foods
for your last meal before the fast. It’s one thing to “afflict your soul” through
regular thirst and hunger, but if you get sick you won’t be able to focus on the
spiritual emphasis of the day! You’ll be too busy fighting nausea or pain.
At the end of the day, when you are going back to eating, be sure to thank God for
the blessing of being able to savor good food. But be sure to not gorge yourself
then either. Eating too much on an empty stomach can also lead to intestinal distress.
And then there are the spiritual preparations that should be made for this day. Many
find that the Jewish custom of viewing the ten days between Trumpets and Atonement—which
they refer to as the Days of Awe—as a special time of introspection is very helpful.
Here is how one Jewish website puts it:
One of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is the concept that G-d has “books”
that he writes our names in, writing down who will live and who will die, who will
have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the next year. These books are
written in on Rosh Hashanah, but our actions during the Days of Awe can alter G-d’s
decree. The actions that change the decree are “teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah,”
repentance, prayer, good deeds (usually, charity). These “books” are sealed on Yom
Kippur. This concept of writing in books is the source of the common greeting during
this time is “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
Among the customs of this time, it is common to seek reconciliation with people you
may have wronged during the course of the year. The Talmud maintains that Yom Kippur
atones only for sins between man and G-d. To atone for sins against another person,
you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed
against them if possible.
Whether one accepts the validity of the analogy of the “opening of the books” during
this time, the notion of examining one’s heart and actions, repenting before God,
and seeking reconciliation for estranged relationships are all very biblical principles.
A ten-day Days of Awe Devotionalthemed to the period spanning the time from the
Day of Trumpets through the Day of Atonement (termed the Days of Awe by Jews) is
available in this Times of Refreshing series.
Among those Christians or Messianics who observe the Day of Atonement, there are
several distinct styles of observance. Below are three typical ways that Christian
or Messianic congregations choose to celebrate. See the Introductory article to this
3 Rs series for an overview of each of these three types.
Varieties of Contemporary Observances
Traditional Jewish Celebrations
Some groups, particularly among those which label themselves as Messianic or Hebrew
Roots congregations, model their Day of Atonement (Hebrew: Yom Kippur) observances
closely on the traditional modern Orthodox or Conservative Jewish customs for this
Holy Day. They will, however, often interpret these customs in ways that emphasize
Jesus (whom they may refer to by a Hebrew version of His name such as Yashua or Y’shua)
and the Gospel of salvation. It is common for Messianic and Hebrew Roots groups to
adhere to the following patterns of observance closely:
With no Temple and no priesthood since the first century, the Jewish people cannot
have the sort of elaborate ceremonies that were the focal point of the observance
of Atonement in biblical times. Other than extra prayers and extended liturgy during
the main synagogue services of the day, the primary unique emphasis connected with
the Day of Atonement in modern times is the observance of the “Days of Awe.” These
are the ten days from the Feast of Trumpets to the Day of Atonement. The focus during
this time is on self-examination leading to confession of sin, and the culmination
of this process on the actual Day of Atonement.
(For a description and details about the Days of Awe and related Jewish customs,
see the Times of Refreshing booklet Jewish Feast and Holy Day Customs: Yom Kippur.
It is believed that Atonement, or reconciliation, between God and each believer is
only one-half of the equation that plays out in the Day of Atonement. So during this
ten-day period, an attempt is made to “make amends” for anything that has caused
an estrangement with other people, and to make reparations to anyone against whom
you may have harmed in some way.
The biblical command from God regarding the Day of Atonement in the Torah was that
the Israelites needed to “afflict their souls” on the Day Atonement. Historically
this has been interpreted by both Jewish and Christian commentators as being a poetic
way of expressing “don’t eat or drink anything.” However, there are also many additional
prohibitions that have been added throughout history in Jewish tradition. These include
forbidding: the wearing of leather shoes, bathing, “anointing” yourself (as part
of grooming), and sexual relations.
In modern synagogues, the Book of Jonah is read on Atonement afternoon, a story of
repentance and forgiveness. Note that before his death, Jesus said that the story
of Jonah’s release from the fish pointed to the only sign that would be given the
unbelieving of the role of Jesus as the Savior—the one who makes Atonement with the
Several times during the liturgy of worship on the Day of Atonement at the synagogue,
the Al Chet “prayer for sin” is recited by all. The following English translation
of this prayer is provided on a Messianic Jewish website:
Some traditional Jewish communities confess the following sins out of the prayer
1) committing sin under duress or unwillingly; 2) committing sin by hard heartedness;
3) committing sin inadvertently; 4) saying something with an utterance of the lips;
5) committing sin immorally; 6) committing sin openly or secretly; 7) committing
sin with knowledge and deceit; 8) committing sin through speech; 9) committing sin
by deceiving a fellow man; 10) committing sin with improper thoughts; 11) committing
sin with gathering of lewdness; 12) making a verbal insincere confession; 13) being
disrespectful to parents and teachers; 14) committing sin intentionally or unintentionally;
15) committing sin by using coercion; 16) committing sin by desecrating the Divine
Name; 17) committing sin with impurity of speech; 18) committing sin with foolish
talk; 19) committing sin with the evil inclination; 20) committing sin knowingly
“For all of these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us”
1) committing sin with false denial and lying; 2) committing sin with bribe-taking
or a bribe-giving hand; 3) committing sin by scoffing; 4) committing sin with evil
talk [about another]; 5) committing sin with business dealings; 6) committing sin
by eating and drinking; 7) committing sin by taking and giving interest; 8) committing
sin with a haughty demeanor; 9) committing sin by the prattle of our lips; 10) committing
sin by a glance of the eye; 11) committing sin with proud looks; 12) committing sin
“For all these God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us”
1) committing sin by casting off the yoke of heaven; 2) committing sin by passing
judgment; 3) committing sin by scheming against a fellowman; 4) committing sin by
a begrudging eye; 5) committing sin by frivolity; 6) committing sin with obduracy;
7) committing sin by running to do evil; 8) committing sin by tale bearing; 9) committing
sin with causeless hatred; 10) committing sin by embezzlement; 11) committing sin
with a confused heart
Some Christian groups which observe the Day of Atonement pay little attention to
Jewish customs and instead create their own style of observance for this day.
Since the command to “afflict your souls” comes directly from the scripture, and
is believed by most Jewish and Christian commentators to refer to fasting, most non-Jewish
observances of the Day of Atonement still include some form of fasting. For many
this does include no food or drink of any kind, including water. The prohibition
against leather shoes and such is strictly Jewish tradition, and therefore is ignored.
Some groups expect or encourage all adult, baptized members of their fellowship to
fast, with children and teens “allowed to” if they choose to do so of their own free
will, but not required to.Most groups consider the practice of fasting on the Day
of Atonement to be a matter of individual conscience, and make no attempt to “enforce”
it on anyone.
Even fairly conservative groups that make it a matter of “church policy,” and use
peer pressure or threat of church sanctions to persuade all to follow the custom,
allow special dispensation for people with serious health problems such as diabetes,
and for women who are pregnant or nursing. Unfortunately, a limited number of ultra-conservative
groups go far beyond Jewish custom (which counsels common sense and mercy in regard
to the Day of Atonement) and insist that there is no excuse for not fasting, and
would insist all but the tiniest children should be admonished to participate in
the fast. But such a rigid approach is viewed as spiritually unhealthy by most groups
who observe the day.
The sermon on this day would most often be on an atonement-related theme, and a piece
of special music might be chosen for a choir that had that theme. Other than this,
and the fact that most people in the congregation would be fasting on this day, so
there would be no food or drink served after a church gathering, there is little
else to distinguish the activities on this day in most non-Jewish groups compared
to their weekly Sabbath gatherings.
Some groups, while borrowing some of the customs, rituals, and symbolism of Judaism,
are more experimental in their inclusion of these. Rather than try to imitate the
whole package of the standard Jewish Day of Atonement observance, they will pick
and choose those aspects which appeal to them, perhaps sometimes for spiritual reasons
because they seem to be deeply meaningful, and at other times just because they are
A hybrid service on the Day of Atonement might include a sermon and special music
on the atonement theme, similar to the non-Jewish service. But it might also feature
a group recitation of a prayer adapted from the Al Chet prayer mentioned above, and
perhaps a reading of ... or a play performed by the children about ... the Book of
Many Christians, even those who choose to celebrate the annual biblical Holy Days,
question why Christians ought to fast on the annual Day of Atonement—since our atonement
has already been provided once and for all by Jesus. Here is how one Messianic Jew
puts it, in an article about why he observes the day of Atonement, and continues
special prayers and fasting on that day. This perspective could make the core of
a useful message on the topic. (See the Times of Refreshing bookletJewish Feast
and Holy Day Customs: Yom Kippur for a description and explanation of elements of
the traditional Jewish observance of the Day of Atonement, such as the Kol Nidre
prayer he mentions here.)
... as a Messianic Jew, I have been atoned for by the gracious atoning work of the
Messiah. That in itself is sufficient reason to observe the Day of Atonement. But
more than that. As a believer in Yeshua, the fact is that I continue to sin - in
spite of the fact that I have been atoned for my sins and that at a terrible cost
of personal suffering and agony by the Messiah on a Roman Cross. This sad and miserable
fact is sufficient reason for me to humble myself and afflict my soul in fasting
and mourning at least one day of the year and that at the appointed time given to
our people by God. God in His grace surrounds us with things and events to induce
us to repentance and holiness, and one of these is the Day of Atonement. If I pay
attention to the confessional that is recited at Kol Nidre, I have to confess that
many of the sins listed are ones of which I have been guilty, especially sins involving
the tongue and the lips. I feel that it is a gracious opportunity to confess and
apologize before the Lord my failure, determine in my heart to do all that i can
to avoid repeating these mistakes again and pray the Lord’s help by His spirit to
enable me to overcome.
...I am surrounded by people of my own nation who do not have the atonement provided
by God in the Messiah because of their unbelief. I feel that on the day of Atonement
of all days of the year, it is the opportunity to fast and pray before the Lord on
behalf of those who are lost and perishing all about me. Of course I can and do pray
that way many times. But on Yom Kippur I am impressed with the fact that Jewish people
all about me are fasting and praying in a hopeless effort to tip the balance of judgment
in their favor by amassing good works and prayers. This fact is heart rending and
for me a clear reason to humble myself before the Lord in prayer and fasting. There
is no better day of the year given to our people by God for fasting and praying for
the atonement of our people and individual Jewish people than the Day of Atonement.
The following Orthodox Jewish site has a number of excellent essays from an Orthodox
perspective on the topic of repentance during the Days of Awe and on the Day of Atonement.
With an added emphasis on the role of Jesus in the forgiveness of the sins for which
we are repentant, this material could provide useful insight for messages for this
Why was the death of Jesus necessary in the scheme of things?
Does God sometimes seem very far away to you? Why do you think you feel that way?
When you feel guilty about doing something you knew was wrong at the time, do you
ever try to “get right with God” by doing “good things” ... without ever really facing
up to and confessing to Him about the thing that made you feel guilty in the first
place? How well do you think this method works?
Discuss the parable of the Prodigal Son. How might this relate to the themes of the
Day of Atonement?
How would you go about explaining the significance to Christians of the Day of Atonement
to a friend who’d never heard of it?
Have you ever had a disagreement with a friend that made you so mad that you decided
to quit being friends? How did you feel the next day? What did you do about it? What
do you think Jesus would advise you to do about the situation?
What does the word “repent” mean? (discussion of the difference between real repentance
and just feeling “sorry you got caught”)
What does the word “redeem” mean? (discussion of someone paying a debt you owe, so
that you don’t have to suffer the consequences)
Crafts, Games, and Other
Special Activities for Children
Buy or make Bible character and modern character puppets and accessories: Muppet-style
puppets, finger puppets, shadow puppets on sticks, sock puppets, paper bag puppets.
And then brainstorm with children of different ages how these can be used in plays
to portray Bible stories or modern stories that will help bring to life Bible principles.
For the Day of Atonement, this could include a Bible-times puppet character discussing
with his puppet friends what he saw on the Day of Atonement at the Temple ceremony.
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