Kippur, a Day of Joy
-- Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the
great white fast of the Jewish Year. And since there are also additional prohibitions
on that day -- no sexual relations, no anointing the body with oils, no bathing
and no wearing of leather shoes -- one might assume that Yom Kippur is basically
a day of awe and anxiety, of despair and dread -- certainly not a day of joy and
However, the last Mishna of the Tractate Ta'anit declares
that "there were no more joyous days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the Fifteenth
Day of Av." Furthermore, Yom Kippur-like all the other festivals of the Jewish
calendar-has the power to cut short and even entirely cancel the mourning period
of a mourner. In the words of the Talmud:
The rejoicing of the nation
(since the Bible enjoins all of Israel "to rejoice on the Festival") pushes aside
the mourning of the individual (B.T. Moed Katan, third chapter). And the fact
that Yom Kippur is included together with all the usual festivals which cancel
mourning is further affirmation that the deprivations of Yom Kippur are only skin-deep
-- and that somehow Yom Kippur must be seen as a day of joy.
Sabbath can never "play host" to a day of national sadness. Hence, if Tisha B'Av
(the Ninth Day of Av, memorial of the destruction of both Temples and a day marked
by the exact same prohibitions as Yom Kippur) calendrically falls out on the Sabbath,
the observance of the fast and other restrictions are delayed to the following
day. However, as this year testifies, Yom Kippur can and does fall out on Shabbat
-- and the Day of Atonement is not seen by our Sages as being antithetical in any
way to the usual Sabbath joy and celebration ! What we've been saying up to now
certainly sounds plausible, except for the simple fact that the Torah's references
to Yom Kippur usually appear in a much darker light: "It [Yom Kippur] shall be
unto you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict [v'initem] your souls..."
[Lev. 23:32] We find the same word, 'v'initem' used in Bamidbar: "And on the tenth
day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall afflict
[v'initem] your souls..." [Num. 29:7]
How are we to reconcile these two
dimensions of Yom Kippur? On the one hand, it's clear that Yom Kippur is a day
of celebration and joy -- after all, the Torah teaches that "this day shall atonement
be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins (Lev. 16:30)" -- but the notion
of "afflicting the soul" is hardly compatible with a festival. To explore this
issue, we should first take a closer look at the word 'v'initem' -- usually translated
as "you shall afflict". In fact, the three letter root is anah (ayin, nun, heh)
has two distinct meanings, virtually the opposite of each other. Early in Exodus,
we read how the Egyptian taskmasters afflicted (same root) the Israelites [Ex.
1:11-12], and indeed the Hebrew word 'oni' means poverty.
Biblical verses earlier in Parashat Ki Tavo, the same root word has nothing at
all to do with affliction. We read about the commandment to bring the first fruits:
"And you shall sing out [v'anitah] and say before the Lord your G d..." [Deut.
26:5] which our Sages interpret means to chant with a tune of cantillation. And
it is apparently on this basis that our Sages differ as to the translation -- and
therefore the major characteristic -- of the Passover matzah, Biblically referred
to as lehem oni: there are those who take the words "bread of affliction", and
there are others who insist that it is the "bread over which many words are sung."
A striking Biblical passage remarkably points out these two contradictory
meaning for the Hebrew root ani. When Moses is returning to the Israeli encampment
after having received the Torah from G-d, he is walking together with his faithful
disciple Joshua -- who has waited for him beneath the stars during the entire forty
-day period. And although G-d had apparently informed Moses of the Israelite transgression
with the golden calf -- "Go get down, because your nation is corrupted (Ex 32:7)
" -- Joshua seems to be unaware of the egregious transgression which transpired.
The Torah records how "... Joshua heard the noise of the people as they
shouted." [ibid. 17]" with b'reioh the word the Torah uses to describe the noise
that Joshua hears, being a kind of broken staccato (truah) sound, perhaps reminiscent
of the ululating sound of Sephardi women, used both at weddings as well as at
funerals. Then comes a rather cryptic verse, based upon the contradictory verb
we have been discussing, ani. "It is not the sound of them that respond (anot)
in victory, neither is it the sound of them that respond (anot) in defeat, but
it is the noise of them that respond (anot) which I hear." [ibid. 18]. Now, a
secondary meaning of the root very ani is a response - which may be positive or
negative depending on the stimulus, a cry-sob as a result of affliction (defeat)
or a laugh-song as a result of celebration (victory).
Now the line between
exultant joy and fearful panic can be very thin, so that the sounds of hysterical
laughter and hysterical weeping are virtually inter-changeable. This contradictory
emotion may be what the Israelites experienced around the golden calf. Moses is
their link to G d. But Moses is no longer there. Is he still alive? The Israelites
find themselves leaderless - bereft of their link to G-d - when they need their
leader shepherd most, when they are alone in a strange and hostile desert. Without
their philosopher -- King -- shepherd to provide the compass cloud by day and fire
by night, they become anxious and disoriented. They can only think back to Egypt
and the way the Egyptians would dance around their idolatrous calve as gods and
directors. But they realize that the calf is not powerful, that it was G d who
took them out of Egypt, that it was G d who proved the impotence of all other
deities. Nevertheless, without Moses they have nowhere else to turn. And so they
dance around the calf, and they push themselves into a frenzy of song and dance
and laughter -but deep down they're crying and weeping. It is precisely that hysterical
frenzy which Joshua hears, the contradictory anot, a song-cry a laugh -sob.
in the context of Yom Kippur, the 'v'initem et nafshotaichem' doesn't have to
mean, 'You shall afflict your souls.' As we've been demonstrating, one possible
understanding is that it's a combination word. On the one hand it's the Tenth
Day of Repentance, and I can't mask over the fact that I've looked deeply into
my soul over these last few days, I've exposed my weaknesses and shortcomings,
and that causes me to weep with anxiety and dread lest I be found wanting on the
Day of Judgment. But Yom Kippur is also the Day of Atonement, when all sincere
penitents are guaranteed absolution, the possibility of starting a new slate,
"standing pure before the Divine". It's this most comforting element of Yom Kippur
that allows me to rejoice during the Festival of Forgiveness.
I would even
like to suggest an alternative meaning, which is entirely positive. V'initem need
not mean you shall 'afflict' your souls; it can also be translated :' You shall
enable your souls to sing, to rejoice.' You shall free your souls, allow your
souls to be rid of all of the usual bodily needs, constraints and desires and
dedicate a 25 hour period to the spirit and the Divine. Indeed, Maimonides codifies
the laws of Yom Kippur as enabling our bodies to rest (lishbot) from food, drink
and sex - not in the sense of prohibition but rather in the sense of re-creation
and repair (Laws of Shvitat HaAsor 1,12). Within the comforting embrace of a G-d
of love and forgiveness on Yom Kippur, my bodily needs becomes of almost no account
as my soul takes over my personality and my person - my soul which soars, my soul
which sings. On this Sabbath of Sabbaths I feel the eternity of the world of the
spirit and this joy is greater than any other.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, dean of the Ohr Torah Institutions
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*This article was originally
published in 1978. Jews for Jesus. Used with permission.
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