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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 with God.”


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 Devotional themed 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 Father possible.


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 book,


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 and unknowingly


“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 with impudence


“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


Non-Jewish Celebrations


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.


Hybrid Celebrations


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 aesthetically attractive.


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 Jonah.










Message ideas



Topic: Fasting


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 booklet Jewish 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.



Topic: Repentance


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 day.




Ideas for Bible Studies and Discussion Sessions




What does the term “atonement” mean?


What separates us from God?


What separates us from other people?


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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