Nehemiah 8:2 describes the reading of the law on the New Year (Rosh HaShanah), the day of the blowing of rams' horns (NIV)

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.

and in verse 10:

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

as commanded in Leviticus 23:24:

Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts.

Following this, in Nehemiah 8:14, on the second day of the seventh month, the Levites taught the people the laws of the feast of Tabernacles (Succot):

They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month.

as commanded in Leviticus 23:34

Speak to the people of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, and lasting seven days, there shall be the festival of booths to the Lord.

Then Nehemiah 8:17 says:

The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them...

Furthermore, Nehemiah 8:18 leaves no doubt that this is the Feast of Tabernacles:

Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.

as commanded in Leviticus 23:36:

Seven days you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire; on the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation and present the Lord’s offerings by fire; it is a solemn assembly; you shall not work at your occupations.

But Nehemiah 8 makes no mention of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on the tenth of the month as commanded in Leviticus 16:27-32:

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--

Nehemiah 8 just skips from the New Year festival on the first of the month to the Feast of Tabernacles on the fifteenth of the month directly. Was the Day of Atonement cancelled this year?

3 Answers 3


Given what is said and not said, any answer of Nehemiah 8 will be conjecture. In that case, if one to attempt an answer the most reasonable is one that requires the fewest assumptions.

...And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. (Nehemiah 8:1) 1

In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the people of Israel according to all that the Lord had given him in commandment to them (Deuteronomy 1:3)

Assumption: Nehemiah 8 begins with Ezra reading only from Deuteronomy.

Supporting evidence from Nehemiah:

  1. Ezra is reading the "Law of Moses." It is reasonable to exclude the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. While these do have legal elements, they could also be considered as the historical record of Moses receiving the Law. That is in the context of all 5 books, Deuteronomy is the singular work of what the LORD commanded Israel (Nehemiah 8:1 and Deuteronomy 1:3).
  2. Ezra read from early in the morning until midday (8:3), a period too short to read all 5 books.
  3. Thirteen Levites helped the people, who remained in their place to understand what Ezra read and gave sense so the people understood what they heard (8:7-8). This is not describing a simple reading; rather it describes a time consuming process of reading and explaining: Ezra could not get very far into reading even a single book.
  4. Since the instruction is for all of the people and the Levites are assisting, it is reasonable to exclude Leviticus.

Supporting evidence from Deuteronomy:

  1. Feasts in Deuteronomy are found in Chapter 16 and only Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles are described. The people did not observe either Trumpets or Atonement which are not included in Deuteronomy.
  2. Tabernacles in Deuteronomy is described only as a seven-day feast; there is no instruction on what day or month the feast is to be observed. Since Deuteronomy identifies the time for Passover (and Weeks) and it was obvious those had been "missed" observing Tabernacles is logical and does not conflict with anything in Deuteronomy.
  3. Deuteronomy speaks to one place where the people are to worship (Chapter 12). To that place the people are to bring their freewill offerings (12:6) and in that place the people are to eat rejoicing before the LORD (12:7). That is what is described taking place before the observance of Tabernacles (8:12).
  4. Deuteronomy 16 gives attention to giving gifts (16:17) and to justice (16:18-20), the same instruction given in Nehemiah (8:10).

Evidence against the assumption:

  1. The only aspect of Nehemiah 8 that is contrary to the Deuteronomy only reading is found at 8:18: "... They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule." Deuteronomy describes Tabernacles as a seven-day event. There is no mention of the eighth day which is described only in Leviticus.

Reconciling the contrary evidence:

And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.2 (Nehemiah 8:18)

  1. Instruction continued during the seven-days of Tabernacles. It was in that period the additional requirements (in Leviticus) were read, and followed.
  2. The description of what was read initially differs from the description of what was read later:

    a. First: The Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD commanded Israel.
    b. Later: The Book of the Law of God.

If the people learned of the eighth day of Tabernacles from Leviticus during the their seven-day celebration of Tabernacles, then they would also learn Trumpets and Atonement had been skipped. Missing Trumpets could be rationalized on the grounds that all the people had assembled on the correct day. But what of the Day of Atonement which likely fell during the (premature) observance of Tabernacles? That can be reconciled by what takes place next:

Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God 3 for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God. (Nehemiah 9:1-3)

Having missed Atonement, the people did the next best thing. They observed those parts of Atonement they could, fasting and confessing their iniquities and worshiping the LORD their God.

Was the Day of Atonement (and Trumpets) skipped that year? The answer is most likely it was, especially in the sense of the ritual of entering the Most Holy Place 4 and the use of the scapegoat, and (obviously) doing things on the correct day.

As the OP notes in the comment, another possibility is at that moment in history only Deuteronomy was considered "cannon." Perhaps better, is Law for all of the people. In other words, while the first five books were the sum total of "The Law," only Deuteronomy was seen as universally applicable to all of the people. Facts in support of this premise:

  1. The eighth day was observed according to the כַּמִּשְׁפָּֽט which is not "the Law" but more "the judgment or "the custom." The language recognizes a distinction.
  2. The later readings are described differently. So the distinction between the Law of God and all that the LORD commanded Moses is not so much whether the books were accepted as cannon; rather Deuteronomy was seen as specific instruction to Israel to be followed once they entered the Land.

Therefore, I would conclude that Nehemiah 8 begins by describing what amounts to a reenactment of Deuteronomy where Moses instructs the Israelites immediately before they entered the Promised Land (not the instruction from the LORD at Mount Sinai). Nehemiah has Ezra start reading from Deuteronomy; this is a "fresh start." Just like the Israelites had Deuteronomy presented upon completion of the wilderness period, Nehemiah sees his work has progressed to the point where the period of exile can truly be placed in the past.

The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple had progressed to the point where the message of Deuteronomy can now be immediately applied:

But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, then to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. (Deuteronomy 12:10-12)

The city wall has been rebuilt; the people have safety from the surrounding enemies; there is a singular place where the LORD has placed His Name; the people should rejoice before the LORD.

1. English Standard Version
2. The Hebrew is כַּמִּשְׁפָּֽט which could be rendered "according to the judgment" or "custom."
3. This third reference to the book Ezra read from differs from the first two. The books are described differently each time Ezra is reading.
4. In a legal sense two points are worthy of consideration. First, one aspect of the ritual was the cleansing of the sanctuary from the accumulated activities of the prior year. Rebuilding from scratch means there had been no actions last year, hence no cleansing was needed. More properly would be a re-dedication not a cleansing. Second, without the Ark of the Covenant a valid legal objection to entering the Most Place exists. The current situation of no Temple does not limit the Day of Atonement ritual; it is the lack of the Ark of the Covenant. If the Ark was present, the ritual could be carried out in a portable Tabernacle, as in the days of Moses.

  • 1
    I suspect that the reason was either that only the book of Deuteronomy was canonical at the time, or that Leviticus was interpreted as applying only to priests and Levites. I think that your point 4 above under "Supporting evidence from Deuteronomy" is mistaken. Neh. 8:9-10 was said on first day of the month regarding that same day, what is now rosh hashanah, not the fifteenth, Tabernacles. Hindy Najman's comment is a bit misleading. Each Hebrew word and idiom is well-known and understood. The general intent is also clear. Less clear is what form the explanations and teaching took.
    – user17080
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 12:18
  • Note that Neh. 8:1 uses the term "book of the teaching of Moses", for what was read on the first of the month, but that Neh 8:8 uses the term "book of the teaching of God", as does Neh. 8:18 for what was read on Taberbacles. Neh. 8:13-14 use just "the teaching" but mention Moses as he who received the commandment. I wonder if this is could be a justification for your comments following "The contrary evidence can be reconciled..." above for what they read on Succot. If you think so then it might be good to note this difference in terminology in your answer.
    – user17080
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 12:35
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim I have modified the answer incorporating your suggestions. Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 15:02

I don't think silence is enough to say that the Day of Atonement was skipped. Trumpets were supposed to be blown on the first day of the seventh month:

23 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. 25 You shall do no customary work on it; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord.’” -Leviticus 23:23-25 (NKJV)

and although Nehemiah doesn't specifically say that trumpets were blown, that doesn't necessarily mean they weren't. Nehemiah's focus on the Feast of Tabernacles seems to be because the Israelites had not celebrated it in that way since the time of Joshua:

So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness. -Nehemiah 8:17 (NKJV)

The Feast of Tabernacles was kept before this time as mentioned in Ezra 3:1-6, but not in the way that it was celebrated in Nehemiah 8.

1 And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. 2 Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brethren, arose and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening burnt offerings. 4 They also kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings in the number required by ordinance for each day. 5 Afterwards they offered the regular burnt offering, and those for New Moons and for all the appointed feasts of the Lord that were consecrated, and those of everyone who willingly offered a freewill offering to the Lord. 6 From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, although the foundation of the temple of the Lord had not been laid. -Ezra 3:1-6 (NKJV)

Ezra tells us that the feasts were being kept already before Nehemiah even arrived in Jerusalem. Ezra even mentions the daily burnt offerings and that all the appointed feasts of the Lord were kept, but he only specifically mentions the Feast of Tabernacles. Ezra does not mention the Day of Atonement even though chapter 3 occurs during the seventh month, but we know it was kept since Ezra says all the feasts were kept.

So there is no reason to think that the Day of Atonement, or any other feast day, was not kept after Nehemiah came to Jerusalem.

  • The day of atonement is really important. Why do you think Nehemiah 8 doesn't mention it in this account? There is almost as much that you need to know to observe it properly as for Tabernacles. It only takes a few hours to set up a tabernacle (succah). So why do they concentrate only on this from Rosh HaShanah and not even mention Yom Kippur in passing?
    – user17080
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 17:27
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim - Because since the time of Joshua the Israelites had not celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles in that way. His focus is on the Feast of Tabernacles, not on the Day of Atonement.
    – user6503
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 18:26
  • I think this is a possible answer, but less likely than the answer that I accepted. +1 for the parallel quotation from Ezra.
    – user17080
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 12:42

Is the key, perhaps?

And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and Thummim.
-- Nehemiah 7:65 (KJV)

Is it possible the day of atonement wasn't kept because there wasn't a priest raised up to perform the tasks (such as entering the holy of holies)?

  • There is no mention anywhere in the OT that the rituals of the Day of Atonement are dependent on the Urim and Thummim. Josephus (Antiquities 3:218) relates that Urim and Thummim ceased to function following the death of John Hyrcanus in about BCE 104, yet afterwards the Day of Atonement rituals were still performed in full. At the time of the events related in Nehemiah 7:65 there were other priest of verified lineage who could perform the rituals. So the question remains open. Nehemiah 7:65 pertains only to those returning priests whose lineage was in doubt at that time.
    – user17080
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 13:50
  • Welcome to BH.SE! Please take the tour to get a feel for how the site functions. I have added quote formatting ('>' as first character of quote, which you terminate with a blank line)
    – enegue
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 9:37
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim: There are many priests, but there is only one arch-priest, which is what the quoted passage seems to refer to. Secondly, the arch-priesthood and the temple continued well after 104 BC, despite the loss of the two mentioned elements.
    – Lucian
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 3:39

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