Kippur, the Day of Atonement
-- Yom Kippur is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year.
Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast
and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th day
of Tishri. The holiday is instituted at Leviticus 23:26 et seq.
"Yom Kippur" means "Day of Atonement," and that pretty much explains what the
holiday is. It is a day set aside to "afflict the soul," to atone for the sins
of the past year.
The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with
Yom Kippur are commonly known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) or the Days of
Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins
of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. 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). On Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in these books is
sealed. This day is, essentially, your last appeal, your last chance to change
the judgment, to demonstrate your repentance and make amends.
atones only for sins between man and G-d, not for sins against another person.
To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with
that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible. That
must all be done before Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no
work can be performed on that day. It is well-known that you are supposed to refrain
from eating and drinking (even water) on Yom Kippur. It is a complete, 25-hour
fast beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after
nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. The Talmud also specifies additional restrictions
that are less well-known: washing and bathing, anointing one's body (with cosmetics,
deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas
sneakers under their dress clothes on Yom Kippur), and engaging in sexual relations
are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.
As always, any of these restrictions
can be lifted where a threat to life or health is involved. In fact, children
under the age of nine and women in childbirth (from the time labor begins until
three days after birth) are not permitted to fast, even if they want to. Older
children and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted
to fast, but are permitted to break the fast if they feel the need to do so. People
with other illnesses should consult a physician and a rabbi for advice.
of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, services
begin early in the morning (8 or 9 AM) and continue until about 3 PM. People then
usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5 or 6 PM for the afternoon
and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services end at nightfall,
with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar. See Rosh Hashanah
for more about the shofar and its characteristic blasts.
It is customary
to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise
that our sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18). Some people wear a kittel,
the white robe in which the dead are buried.
Yom Kippur Liturgy
also Jewish Liturgy generally.
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is much more
extensive than for any other day of the year. Liturgical changes are so far-reaching
that a separate, special prayer book for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. This prayer
book is called the machzor.
The evening service that begins Yom Kippur
is commonly known as Kol Nidre, named for the prayer that begins the service.
"Kol nidre" means "all vows," and in this prayer, we ask G-d to annul all personal
vows we may make in the next year. It refers only to vows between the person making
them and G-d, such as "If I pass this test, I'll pray every day for the next 6
months!" Click the speaker to hear a portion of the traditional tune for this
prayer. This prayer has often been held up by anti-Semites as proof that Jews
are untrustworthy, and for this reason the Reform movement removed it from the
liturgy for a while. In fact, the reverse is true: we make this prayer because
we take vows so seriously that we consider ourselves bound even if we make the
vows under duress or in times of stress when we are not thinking straight. This
prayer gave comfort to those who were converted to Christianity by torture in
various inquisitions, yet felt unable to break their vow to follow Christianity.
In recognition of this history, the Reform movement restored this prayer to its
There are many additions to the regular liturgy. Perhaps the most
important addition is the confession of the sins of the community, which is inserted
into the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah) prayer. Note that all sins are confessed in the
plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility
There are two basic parts of this confession: Ashamnu, a shorter,
more general list (we have been treasonable, we have been aggressive, we have
been slanderous...), and Al Chet, a longer and more specific list (for the sin
we sinned before you forcibly or willingly, and for the sin we sinned before you
by acting callously...) Frequent petitions for forgiveness are interspersed in
these prayers. There's also a catch-all confession: "Forgive us the breach of
positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act, whether
or not they are known to us."
It is interesting to note that these confessions
do not specifically address the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are
the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism. There is no "for the sin we have sinned before
you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat"
(though obviously these are implicitly included in the catch-all). The vast majority
of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech
(offensive speech, scoffing, slander, talebearing, and swearing falsely, to name
a few). These all come into the category of sin known as "lashon ha-ra" (lit:
the evil tongue), which is considered a very serious sin in Judaism.
concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne'ilah, is one unique to the day.
It usually runs about 1 hour long. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of the
Torah are kept) is kept open throughout this service, thus you must stand throughout
the service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this service. The
service is sometimes referred to as the closing of the gates; think of it as the
"last chance" to get in a good word before the holiday ends. The service ends
with a very long blast of the shofar. See Rosh Hashanah for more about the shofar
and its characteristic blasts.
After Yom Kippur, one should begin preparing
for the next holiday, Sukkot, which begins five days later.
of Yom Kippur
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai said concerning a king, "Should
he fine me, his penalty is not eternal" for I would be able to earn more money.
"Should he imprison me, his imprisonment is not eternal" for he might die and
his successor will release me. "Should he kill me, my death is not eternal for
he can only affect my body, but my soul returns to G-d." Yet despite this, how
great is the fear a person has of law and authority in this world. How much more
so should one fear the judgment of the King of Kings, whose verdict is eternal.
Yom Kippur is a day designed to bring Jews closer to G-d and encourages
return to him through the process of Teshuvah. Though the Yom Kippur service was,
during the times of the Temple, focused around the Kohen Gadol, today each individual
focuses on himself and his personal Avodah, service to G-d.
Known as a
day of prayer, Yom Kippur does have numerous prayers associated with it. Most
revolve around the central theme of repentance and return. Apparently, Jews everywhere
find a connection to Judaism through Yom Kippur. Indeed, Yom Kippur brings more
Jews to shul than any other holiday.
The laws for Yom Kippur include all
of the work restrictions found on Shabbos. In addition, there are 5 ennuim, afflictions,
which a person is also not allowed to do on Yom Kippur. These are eating or drinking,
washing one's body, anointing one's body, wearing leather shoes and marital relations.
The most famous restriction of Yom Kippur is, of course, fasting. The intention
of fasting is not to torture ourselves or to punish ourselves for the sins we
have done. Rather, fasting help us to transcend our physical natures. Praying
without concern for food allows us to completely focus on the prayers.
have the purpose of focusing a person on the task at hand for Yom Kippur. The
Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, points out that, "the fast of the pious man is such
that eye, ear and tongue share in it, that he regards nothing except that which
brings him near to G-d. "For through this day, He will atone for you, to cleanse
you; from all your sins before Hashem you will be cleansed." (Vayikra 16:30) May
we all emerge from Yom Kippur with a Teshuvah Gamura, complete repentance and
merit a year filled with happiness, health and Yirat Shamayim, fear of Heaven.
Customs of Erev Yom Kippur
The day before Yom Kippur is considered
to be a quasi-festival day.
Traditionally, "all who eat on the ninth are
considered to have fasted on the ninth AND the tenth." It is thus a mitzvah to
eat and drink Erev Yom Kippur. This both gives us strength for the fast and substitutes
for the usual Yom Tov meals, which cannot be eaten on Yom Kippur because of the
It is customary to give increased charity on Erev Yom Kippur as charity
helps to repeal any evil decrees.
Sins committed against another person
cannot be atoned for until one has first sought forgiveness from the person he/she
has wronged. Even the great day of Yom Kippur or death cannot atone for sins against
Thus - it is customary to go visit (or at least call) friends,
family, associates and any person whom one may have somehow wronged or spoken
ill of in the past year and ask forgiveness. For example, any stolen objects must
be returned to their rightful owners. Any person you have spoken Loshen Hara,
evil gossip, about, should be asked for their forgiveness.
It is a mitzvah
to immerse oneself in a mikvah (ritual bath) on Erev Yom Kippur. This symbolizes
a person's rebirth associated with the doing of Teshuvah, return. Men have this
custom universally, and women have different customs concerning mikvah Erev Yom
Kippur. Kaparot - An ancient and mystical custom designed to imbue people with
a feeling that their very lives are at stake as the holy Yom Kippur approaches.
The kaparot ceremony symbolizes our sins crying out for atonement, and
as a reminder that our good deeds, charity and repentance can save us from the
penalty our many sins deserve. In its original form, a chicken (a white rooster
for a male, hen for a female) was taken and waved over one's head while reciting
proscribed verses which can be found in the Yom Kippur machzor (special prayer
book). It was customary to then redeem the kaparot for money, which was given
Today though, most communities prefer to place the chosen sum
of money in a white cloth napkin and give it to charity following the ceremony.
Viduy, confession, is recited at mincha, the afternoon service, during
the silent Amidah. In case a person should choke and die during his pre-Yom Kippur
meal, he will have least said one viduy.
It is customary to wear white
on Yom Kippur. This is symbolic of the angels and of spiritual purity. Many married
men wear a kitel, which is also worn upon burial (and by many men at their wedding)
as a reminder of the day of death and repentance.
Though not usually worn
at night - the talit (prayer shawl) is worn for Kol Nidre, is kept on for the
entire evening service, and is left unfolded at the synagogue to be adorned again
the next morning.
The Prayers of Yom Kippur
On the eve of Yom Kippur while there is still daylight, Jews congregate
all across the globe wearing white. They don their tallitot (prayer shawls) and
Kol Nidre is chanted with a sense of emotional anticipation and a centuries-old
feverishly moving melody.
Dating back until at least the ninth century,
Kol Nidre, at first glance, seems to have nothing at all to do with Yom Kippur.
Indeed, it appears to attempt to release one from keeping his oaths and vows.
Many commentators address this issue and their main approach seems to be that
Kol Nidre, in actuality, emphasizes the importance of keeping one's word and reaffirms
our belief of honoring our commitments. How appropiate, as we enter a day when
we will be saying over and over how we plan to change and do teshuvah.
the years various versions of Kol Nidre have been adopted in various places. Indeed,
the version found in most siddurim actually contain parts of each version. This
stems from a machlokes (halachic dispute) over whether Kol Nidre is to annul vows
from the past year (Babylonian traditional) or to declare annulled all vows of
the coming year (European tradition, tosofot).
the Shema on Yom Kippur, the second line, Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto LeOlam V'aed,
"Blessed is the Name of His Glorious Kingdom for all eternity" is read aloud.
Moshe originally heard this line from the angels when he was on Mount Sinai receiving
the Torah from G-d. Though normally said quietly, on Yom Kippur it is said out
loud. Normally, we dare not utter angelic phrases loudly, but on Yom Kippur, it
is as if we are spiritually raised to the level of angels and we say the verse
The Gemorrah in Taanis tells the
story of when there was a very bad drought in Eretz Yisrael , the land of Israel.
Public fasts were proclaimed and special prayers were said. The great Torah Scholar
Rabbi Eliezer was called upon to lead the prayers with the saying of the 24 blessing
Amidah, which is said at times of severe drought. Yet, no rain fell. His disciple,
Rabbi Akiva came to the front and said a special prayer in which each verse began
with the words, Avinu Malkenu, Our Father, Our King. Rain fell. The prayer became
a regular part of the prayer services during a time of fasting or tragedy. Today,
it is said fast days and during the ten days of repentance. On Yom Kippur, during
Neilah, the word ketiva, inscribed is replaced by chatima, sealed, because in
the Neilah prayer G-d seals our fate for the coming year.
is an essential part of repentance. Repentance cannot be just a fleeting thought
like other thoughts that come and go in a person's mind. By confessing one's sins
out loud, it becomes something much more real. A person must come to the complete
understanding that the sins he committed are wrong and cannot be rationalized
The two forms of confession, Al cheit and Ashamnu, alphabetically
list all types of sins. The Al cheit, prayer lists many sins or categories of
sins that are commonly committed. Sins are expressed in the plural not only to
save individuals from embarrassment but so that the congregation as a whole might
attain true atonement. One cannot confess only for oneself, rather one has to
beg forgiveness for all Jews who sin. As the Rav Issac Luria, 16th Century Kabbalist,
wrote that confession is written in the plural, "We have sinned' because all Israel
is considered like one body and every person is a limb of that body. So we confess
to all the sins of all the parts of our body.
If you read the Al cheit
carefully, you will see that the list of sins is not a list of the Mitzvot. Rather,
it is a list of categories of sins that are the most common. Many relate to our
misuse of speech and having the wrong type of thoughts or attitude. Some have
to do with more concrete mitzvot like shabbat or Kashrut. All relate to us in
way or another. Of course, one should not feel limited to confess only the list
of sins printed in the siddur, one should mention viduy any specific sins which
he or she may have committed. It is customary to gently beat one's chest during
the viduy, as if to say that your heart may have led you astray in the past but
hopefully, this will not happen in the future.
prays three times a day on weekdays. On Shabbat and Holidays, including Rosh HaShanah
a fourth service is added (Mussaf) in memory of the additional sacrifices given
on these days in the Temple in Jerusalem.
On Yom Kippur, yet a fifth service
(the only day of the year with 5) is added. The extra service unique to Yom Kippur
is called Neilah.
Neilah is said after Mincha as the sun is going down
and literally means closing (or locking) and refers to either the closing of the
gates of the Holy Temple at the end of the day or it refers to the closing of
the gates of prayer as Yom Kippur is ending .
The Neilah service contains
stirring pleas that our prayers be accepted by G-d before Yom Kippur ends. The
heavenly judgment inscribed on Rosh Hashanah is now sealed during Neilah. The
chazan chants the service in a special melody designed to stir the emotions and
bring the congregation to greater devotion.
There are a number of customs
that have become well accepted in connection with Neilah. Usually the Rabbi or
Rosh Yeshiva (head of Jewish studies school) or the Village Elder will speak before
the Neilah service to inspire the congregants to pray more fervently. In many
congregations he will himself lead the service instead of the cantor - again -
expressing the hightened sence of urgency.
The Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark
that contains the congregation's Torah scrolls) is kept open for the entire service.
Those able to stand up for the entire time, do so. Selichot (prayers of repentance)
are recited and Avinu Malkenu (Our Father Our King) is said even when Yom Kippur
falls out on Shabbat.
Following Neilah, the shofar is sounded with one
great and mighty long blast and the services conclude with the exclamations of
Shema Yisrael - Hear Oh Israel and Next Year In Jerusalem - LeShana Haba BiYerushalayim...
The Temple Service on Yom Kippur
"And the Kohanim and the
people standing in the Courtyard - when they would hear the glorious, awesome
Name, the Ineffable one, emanating from the Kohen Gadol's mouth, in holiness and
purity, they would kneel and prostrate themselves, give thanks and say, 'Blessed
is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.'"
In the middle of
the Mussaf service, we recite the Kohen Gadol's Seder Avodah, order of service.
This recalls in a somewhat detailed fashion, the service as performed by the Kohen
Gadol in the Holy Temple during the day of Yom Kippur. The Kohen Gadol's service
was both physically and mentally exhausting as it required both physical dexterity
(while fasting and having no sleep) and total mental concentration.
eyes of all Israel were raised towards the Kohen Gadol's order of service, which
began toward the break of dawn. On his success, the atonement of all Israel was
dependent. When the Kohen Gadol's service was performed properly, Israel's total
forgiveness was made manifest for all eyes to see. The Kohen Gadol tied a cord
of red painted wool between the horns of the scapegoat. Another such cord had
been tied by him around the neck of the goat reserved for the sin-offering, so
that it might not be commingled with the other goats held for the remaining offering
of the day. The cord used for the scapegoat was later divided in two. One remaining
between the scapegoat's horns, and the other half hung upon the opening of the
hallway leading to the Sanctuary, so that all might see it.
In years when
the avodah was accepted by G-d and atonement was granted Israel, both parts of
the cord turned white like snow, in accord with the verse, "If your sins should
be like red thread, they will turn like snow. (Isaiah Chapter 1) Thereupon all
eyes saw G-d's forgiveness and the hearts of the people rejoiced.
3 times during the Seder Avodah we prostrate ourselves on the ground as they did
in the days of the temple. (By the way, the paper towels given out are not to
keep your knees from getting dirty, but rather involve a halachic issue of keeping
a separation between you and the ground.) We try to relive and experience, as
much as possible, the feelings of inspiration and closeness to G-d that existed
On the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place on earth,
the holiest man on the planet, uttered the holiest word in the Universe.. Such
was the task of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.
May we all see the rebuilding
of Jerusalem today, here in our times.
Torah Readings for Yom Kippur
On the morning of Yom Kippur, two Torah Scrolls are removed from the
Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark).
The Torah Reading is from Vayikrah (Leviticus)
Chapter 16, verse 1-34. This portion discusses the instructions to Moshe and Aharon
concerning the procedure for the priestly service on Yom Kippur, which would enable
them to achieve atonement for Israel. The portion then details the laws of Yom
Kippur. There are six aliyahs (a number used only on Yom Kippur) and a Maftir.
When Yom Kippur falls out on Shabbos, there are 7. The Maftir is read from a second
Torah Scroll and is from BaMidbar (Numbers) Chapter 29, verse 7-11. The maftir
relates the Sacrificial Service for Yom Kippur.
Following the Maftir, the
Haftorah is read. The Haftorah is from Yeshayahu (Isaiah) Chapter 57: verse 14
until Chapter 58, verse 14. Isaiah urges the Jewish People to return to Hashem
through good deeds, kindness and sincere Teshuvah.
In the afternoon, during
Mincha, one Torah Scroll is removed from the Aron HaKodesh. The Torah reading
is from Vayikrah (Leviticus) Chapter 18, verse 1-30. The portion deals with forbidden
sexual relationships. Though the exact reason for reading this section now is
not entirely clear, here are some possible reasons. 1) They are read now because
everyone is in shul. 2) It is as if to say, "Though right now you are on a lofty
spiritual level on Yom Kippur, don't think you cannot drop down in a second to
the worst abominations. 3) The cornerstone of morality is self-control over animal
Following the three aliyahs, the Haftorah is read.
The Haftorah is the book of Yona (Jonah). Though everyone knows that a large fish
swallowed Yona, the message of Yona is actually a timeless lesson in the power
of Teshuva and G-d's desire to help man rather than punish him.
Kippur, The Day of Atonement
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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