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06 – Yom Kippur

01. The Gift of Atonement

In His great love for the Jewish people, God took us out of Egypt, forged an eternal covenant with us, and designated and sanctified a special day each year for us, to atone for our sins. Thus, we read: “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30). Purity and atonement are from God. Without them, no matter how much a person regrets past actions, he can only improve his actions in the future, but can never annul what he did in the past. Yet God, in His abundant mercy and kindness, established the Day of Atonement and the mitzva of repentance to allow us to actually erase previous sins, transgressions, and misdeeds. Thus R. Akiva proclaims:

Fortunate are you, Israel – for before Whom do you purify yourselves and Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as we read: “I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you shall be pure” (Yeḥezkel 36:25), and “God is the hope (mikveh) of Israel” (Yirmiyahu 17:13). Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so too, God purifies Israel. (Yoma 85b)

Throughout the year, there are barriers that block the revelation of God’s light in the world. However, on Yom Kippur the gates of heaven open, and a beam of divine light shines at the roots of Jewish souls, purifying them. The elevated souls immerse themselves in this light as if it were a mikveh, and they are purified from the filth of sin.

Since atonement, in its essence, is granted by God and at His will, even when Israel does not repent, Yom Kippur illuminates their inner goodness and thus cleanses the roots of their souls. However, the sins remain, so in order to neutralize their effects, suffering is necessary. This is the purpose of suffering in this world and the next. The more people regret their sins and return to God, the more effectively Yom Kippur purifies even the ramifications of sins, rendering further suffering unnecessary. This is reflected in the central berakha in the Yom Kippur Amida:

And You, Lord our God, have lovingly given us this Yom Kippur for pardoning, forgiving, and atoning – to pardon all our iniquities – a sacred occasion commemorating the exodus from Egypt…. Our God and God of our forefathers: pardon our iniquities on this Yom Kippur; wipe away and remove all our transgressions and sins from before Your eyes, as it is said: “I, I am the One Who shall wipe away your transgressions for My sake, and I shall not recall your sins” (Yeshayahu 43:25). And it is said: “I have wiped away, like mist, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins; return to Me, for I have redeemed you” (ibid. 44:22). And it is said: “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30). Sanctify us through Your mitzvot and grant that our lot be in Your Torah. Satisfy us with Your goodness, delight our souls with Your salvation, and purify our hearts to serve You in truth. For You are the Forgiver of Israel and the Pardoner of the tribes of Yeshurun in every generation, and without You we have no king who pardons and forgives but You. Blessed are You, Lord, King Who pardons and forgives our iniquities and those of all His people the house of Israel, and removes our guilt each year, King of all the earth, Who sanctifies Israel and Yom Kippur.

02. Mitzvot of the Day

The special nature of Yom Kippur is expressed through the mitzvot of the day. Three of its mitzvot are shared by other holy days:

  1. Making it a sacred occasion, by designating it for holy purposes and honoring it with nice clothes and a clean house. As we read: “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you” (Vayikra 23:27). This is explained further in 7:1 below.
  2. Abstaining from melakha, just as we abstain on Shabbat. As we read: “You shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which atonement is made on your behalf before the Lord your God…. And whoever does any work throughout that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people. Do no work whatsoever; it is a law for all time, throughout the ages, in all your settlements” (ibid. 28-31). This is explained further in 7:2 below.
  3. Offering musaf sacrifices, like other holidays and Rosh Ḥodesh, as we read: “You shall present to the Lord a burnt offering of pleasing odor: one bull of the herd, one ram, seven yearling lambs; see that they are without blemish…. And there shall be one goat for a sin offering, in addition to the sin offering of expiation and the regular burnt offering with its meal offering, each with its libation” (Bamidbar 29:8-11).

Additionally, three mitzvot are unique to Yom Kippur:

  1. Fasting, as we read: “The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord…. Indeed, any person who does not afflict himself throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin…. It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Shabbat” (Vayikra 23:26-32; also see Vayikra 16:29; Bamidbar 29:7).
  2. Repenting and confessing our sins, as we read: “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30). The meaning of “You shall purify yourselves” is “You shall repent” (MT, Laws of Repentance 2:7; Sha’arei Teshuva 4:17).
  3. Offering a special set of sacrifices to atone for the sins of Israel, climaxing with the Kohen Gadol entering the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, where he offered incense and sprinkled blood from the sin offerings. The special offerings of Yom Kippur included: a bull as a sin offering, atoning for the Kohen Gadol and the other kohanim; a ram as a burnt offering; and two goats as sin offerings, one for God and one for Azazel. The Kohen Gadol sprinkled blood from the bull and from the goat designated for God, first inside the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, and then on the parokhet and the golden altar. The goat of Azazel carried the sins of Israel to an appropriate place in the desert. (See chapter 10 below.)

Nowadays, with the Temple laid waste, Yom Kippur itself atones for Israel, together with fasting and repentance. To a certain extent, the prayers of the day, especially the Musaf prayers, take the place of the sacrifices (MT, Laws of Repentance 1:3; below 10:18).

03. The Atonement of Yom Kippur

In Biblical Hebrew, the Day of Atonement is called “Yom Ha-kippurim”; colloquially, we call it “Yom Kippur.” The root of “kippurim,” K-P-R, has many meanings, all of which are relevant to Yom Kippur. First, “kapara” can indicate covering. This was the function of the kaporet, the lid that covered the ark in the Temple; likewise, kapara covers up sins. A second meaning of “kapara” is an exchange or ransom (kofer). Sin, which originates in impure forces, is “exchanged” and returned to its place via the goat of Azazel. Third, “kapara” can mean cleansing or wiping clean. Atonement wipes us clean of the foulness of sin. Fourth, “kapara” can indicate neutralization or renouncement. As Yaakov says, “I will neutralize (akhapra) [Esav’s anger]” (Bereishit 32:21); Yaakov sought to counter Esav’s wrath with gifts (Rashi ad loc.). Fifth, “kapara” indicates appeasement. Neutralizing a sin can appease an injured party or heavenly accuser. (See Rashi, Mishlei 16:14.) Finally, “kapara” can connote fragrance, as one might understand the phrase “eshkol ha-kofer” (Shir Ha-shirim 1:14) to mean “a spray of fragrant blooms.” So too, repentance out of love transforms unknowing sins into merits, releasing a pleasant scent.

Commenting on the verse, “Days will be created, and one of them will be His” (Tehilim 139:16), our Sages suggest that “one of them” refers to Yom Kippur, the most unique day of the year:

For it is a happy time for God, Whose word brought the world into being, Who lovingly gave [Yom Kippur] to the Jewish people. This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood whose servants and household members collected the palace garbage and threw it in front of his doorway (in order to remove it from the city). When the king saw the garbage, it made him very happy. Similarly, God gave Yom Kippur to the Jews out of love and with great joy…. When He forgives the sins of Israel, He is not sad, but rather very happy. He tells the mountains and hills, the rivers and valleys: “Celebrate with Me! Let all rejoice, for I am forgiving Israel’s sins!” (Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba 1)

Our Sages tell us that Yom Kippur’s special power is hinted at in the name of the accusing angel – ha-satan – whose name has the numerical value of 364. For 364 days of the year, the prosecuting angel is permitted to block the divine light from manifesting in the world and to prosecute the Jewish people. But a year has 365 days, so there is one day a year on which the satan may not prosecute Israel: Yom Kippur, when root of the sanctity of Israel, connected with God, is revealed (Yoma 20a). Had God not established a day of atonement and forgiveness, sins would accumulate year after year. Eventually, Israel and the whole world would deserve destruction. (See Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §185.)

The entire day of Yom Kippur atones. Therefore, even if someone dies during Yom Kippur, his sins are forgiven (Keritot 7a). However, atonement is completed at the end of Yom Kippur, when the fast reaches its peak and all the prayers and meditations of Yom Kippur merge together (y. Yoma 4:7). This accounts for the intensity of Ne’ila, the closing prayer.[1]

[1]. Keritot 7a explains that each and every hour of Yom Kippur atones. Rashba, Rash Mi-Shantz, and Gevurat Ari all cite this. According to Keritot 7a and Shevu’ot 13a, the atonement is limited to the daytime. Rashi explains that this is derived from the verse, “For on this day atonement shall be made for you” (Vayikra 16:30). Additionally, the fast is not really felt at night. In contrast, the Yerushalmi (Yoma 8:7) records two other opinions: R. Zeira says that from the start of Yom Kippur at night, every single minute atones, and R. Ḥananya maintains that atonement is achieved at the end of the day. Even according to R. Ḥananya, though, when the scapegoat was cast into the wilderness during Temple times, it atoned even though it was cast off before day’s end. The Yerushalmi’s conclusion is in accordance with R. Ḥananya; Ramban and Ran write this as well. Since we are speaking of spiritual matters (which do not require specific actions to be taken), we can easily apply the principle that “these and those are the words of the living God” and harmonize the different opinions by saying that there are different stages of atonement. At night, the process of atonement begins, as preparations are undertaken for it. The atonement takes place primarily during the day. With each passing hour, the atonement intensifies. It is completed at the end of the day, when the fast is at its peak. Itur states this explicitly, saying that the whole day atones, but the completion of the atonement is achieved during Ne’ila.

04. Atonement on Yom Kippur and the Covenant with Israel

Yom Kippur is founded upon the covenant that God forged with our forefathers Avraham, Yitzḥak, and Yaakov, sustained through the mitzva of circumcision, strengthened when God delivered Israel from Egypt, and sealed when God gave us the Torah. The continued existence of the world depends on this covenant, as the Sages say, “God made a condition with creation and said, ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will return the world to chaos’” (Shabbat 88a). This is because the entire purpose of creation is for Israel to reveal God’s word, as we read, “This people I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise” (Yeshayahu 43:21). Similarly, the Sages say, “The heavens and the earth were created only in the merit of Israel” (Vayikra Rabba 36:4).

This covenant was revealed to the Jews on Yom Kippur, when God completely forgave the sin of the Golden Calf and renewed His covenant with Israel by giving them the second set of Tablets and commanding them to build the Mishkan so that His presence could dwell in their midst (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46; Tanḥuma, Teruma §8 and Ki Tisa §31).

This covenant is not dependent upon the deeds of Israel. Rather, it is linked to the unique soul with which God endowed Israel, a soul that, at its root, longs to improve the world by revealing divine light. This is the meaning of the verse, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; of all the peoples on earth, the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people” (Devarim 7:6). Similarly, we read, “For the Lord has chosen Yaakov for Himself, Israel, as His treasured possession” (Tehilim 135:4). Therefore, no matter how much Israel sins, the covenant will never be invalidated, as we read, “For the Lord will not forsake His people; He will not abandon His very own” (ibid. 94:14), and “For the sake of His great name, the Lord will never abandon His people, seeing that the Lord undertook to make you His people” (1 Shmuel 12:22).

However, if Israel sins they are punished with terrible suffering, and the more they sin the more terrible and severe the punishments are. This is in order to purify them and lead them to repent. But the Jews will never be able to abrogate the divine covenant. As we read:

And what you have in mind shall never come to pass – when you say, “We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands, worshiping wood and stone.” As I live – declares the Lord God – I will reign over you with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm and overflowing fury. With a strong hand and an outstretched arm and overflowing fury I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered, and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples; and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face…. I will make you pass under the shepherd’s staff, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. (Yeḥezkel 20:32-27).

In general, the world is governed by the principles of justice, for God ordained at the time of the world’s creation that the world would be governed according to people’s actions. When they choose good, goodness is increased; when they choose evil, goodness is minimized and suffering increases. Based on this, it would seem that if sin were to increase beyond a certain point, it would destroy the world. Yom Kippur precludes this; the gates of heaven are opened, supernal divine rule is revealed, the sins of Israel are forgiven at their roots, and the world endures and progresses toward its ultimate redemption. Nevertheless, the rule of justice is not abrogated. Any sin or iniquity that was not corrected through repentance is punished. If the sins are great and many, the punishments will be very hard to bear, but they will improve and refine Israel. This is explained in the Torah, Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Sages: Even if Israel does not repent, the promised redemption will arrive. The choice is ours whether it will arrive speedily and joyfully or (God forbid) at the end of a long, hard road of terrible suffering.

Since the atonement of Yom Kippur is rooted in the uniqueness of Israel, all the prayers and confessions we recite are in the plural. They are collective, asking God to forgive our sins, draw us closer to His service, and reveal His presence to us so that we can reveal His glory and guidance to the world. As a result, blessing flows in the world to the Jewish people, to each individual Jew, and to all the earth’s inhabitants.

05. The Power of Yom Kippur to Atone for the Individual

A spirit of purity and atonement extends to every Jew through the general holiness and atonement of Israel on Yom Kippur, enabling him to cling to God more strongly, free himself from the impurity of sins and iniquities, and repent. Accordingly, there is a distinct mitzva for each and every individual to repent on Yom Kippur, as we read, “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30). The repentance and atonement of each individual is an extension of the collective atonement that this verse describes (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:17; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:7).

On Yom Kippur, repentance is more readily accepted than it is during the rest of the year. The severity of a sin depends upon the degree of wantonness with which it was done, which indicates how distant a person is from God and Torah. On Yom Kippur, when the gates of heaven are open, the covenant between God and the Jews is revealed, and the soul’s light shines brightly, it becomes clear that fundamentally every Jew wishes to be close to God, do His will, observe His mitzvot, be good, and study Torah. When he stumbles and sins, it is due to the seductions of the evil inclination, the daily grind, and material needs, all of which hide the divine light. Even if someone sins knowingly, the knowledge is not absolute, as he lacks awareness of his innermost desires. The more a person connects with the sanctity of the Jewish people as a whole on Yom Kippur, the more he uncovers his innermost desires, flowing from the root of his soul. This lessens the severity of his sins, iniquities, and transgressions. Knowing sins are reclassified as unknowing, and unknowing sins as though committed under duress. Therefore, it is easier for him to regret his sins and repent, undertaking to be better.

While the primary focus of Yom Kippur and its prayers is the Jewish people as a whole, this does not detract from the individual’s repentance. On the contrary, by tapping into the sanctity of klal Yisrael, the individual is able to fully repent. Similarly, the individual’s repentance for his sins need not detract from his prayers for the revelation of the Shekhina and the well-being of klal Yisrael, as each individual who returns to God increases the holiness and blessing of klal Yisrael.

Based on this, we can understand why the confessions we recite on Yom Kippur are in the plural even though no one has committed all the sins mentioned. For Yom Kippur is a day of atonement for the entire people. While each individual becomes closer to the root of his soul, he also becomes more connected with klal Yisrael, asking that everyone be granted atonement and forgiveness for their sins. Thus he repents for his personal sins (7:4 below).

06. The Meaning of Fasting

It is a mitzva to fast on Yom Kippur. This fast is connected to atonement for sins, as we read:

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deprive yourselves; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you. For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord. (Vayikra 16:29-30)

A question arises. If the Torah wanted to establish a day for repentance and atonement, wouldn’t it have made more sense to allow us to eat and drink a little, so that we would be clear-headed and able to concentrate on prayer and repentance?

In fact, however, fasting discloses something deeper. Throughout the year, the soul is enveloped by a cloak of physicality, of various bodily desires, which make people forget their inner aspirations and sin. God commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur so that our soul can disconnect itself somewhat from the bonds of the body and materiality, thus allowing its true, noble aspirations to be free and to express themselves. Through this sublime connection to the root of our souls, our sins fall away and are cast into Azazel (Derekh Hashem 4:8:5).

True, fasting and the other deprivations make it harder for us to focus. However, they allow us to come to the profound realization that our true desire is to cling to God. Deep down, we want to improve the world by following the Torah’s instructions and living by its light. This leads to a higher quality of repentance, each person on his own level.

Therefore, even if one needs to lie down in order to continue fasting, he should not be discouraged, because he has internalized the most basic element of Yom Kippur. Even while lying in bed, he can think about self-improvement and resolve to increase his Torah study, his mitzva observance, and his commitment to his family.

Fasting also serves a purpose akin to that of sacrifice. During Temple times, when a person offered an animal sacrifice, its blood and fat were burnt on the altar, bringing him atonement. Likewise, when we fast on Yom Kippur, our blood and fat, which decrease with the fast, bring us atonement. We should therefore imagine that we are sacrificing ourselves on the altar. Our blood and fat decrease, ascend to God as a sweet-smelling fragrance, and atone for us. Thus, one ascends to the highest level, beyond thought and comprehension, where there is only the desire for and simple awareness of doing the will of our Father in heaven. (See Berakhot 17a; Recanati, Vayikra 16:29; Zohar Ḥadash, Ruth 80a.)

In one sense, Shabbat is holier than Yom Kippur. The punishment for doing melakha on Shabbat is stoning, while on Yom Kippur it is “only” the less severe karet. Additionally, on Shabbat seven people are called up to the Torah, while on Yom Kippur only six are (Megilla 22b). This higher level of holiness is because Shabbat unites the body and soul, revealing the holiness of both. On the other hand, in a certain sense Yom Kippur is more spiritual, as we abstain then from all physical pleasures. Not only that, but even if Yom Kippur is on Shabbat we still fast, as fasting is necessary to achieve atonement for the Jewish people.[2]

[2]. The Gemara (Megilla 22b-23a) states that according to R. Yishmael, six people are called up to the Torah on Yom Kippur, while seven are called up on Shabbat (since stoning, the punishment for desecrating Shabbat, is more severe than karet, the punishment for desecrating Yom Kippur). R. Akiva, on the other hand, maintains that six people are called up on Shabbat while seven are called up on Yom Kippur (since Yom Kippur’s restrictions are more comprehensive, including cessation of eating, and since Yom Kippur had a special avoda). In line with this, elsewhere R. Yishmael says it is permitted to prepare for Shabbat on Yom Kippur, since Shabbat is more important. R. Akiva disagrees (Shabbat 113a). In practice, the law follows R. Yishmael regarding how many people are called up (six on Yom Kippur, seven on Shabbat), and R. Akiva regarding preparation (not preparing for Shabbat on Yom Kippur).

The kabbalists speak of two perspectives as well. On the one hand, Yom Kippur is a manifestation of the sefira of bina, from which repentance and freedom flow. This sefira is close to the seven lower sefirot, and they draw upon it for atonement and forgiveness (Sha’arei Ora, Sha’ar 8). Shabbat is a manifestation of the higher sefira of ḥokhma, through which divine unity, whose holiness is expressed in body and soul together, is revealed in the world. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is rooted in the sefira of keter, which expresses the supernal divine will, the foundation of the covenant between God and Israel. Accordingly, Yom Kippur is the day of the soul, with the power to purify and to atone for sins, which stem from the physical. In the words of Shlah (citing Tola’at Ya’akov, Sitrei Yom Ha-kippurim): “Yom Kippur is the day when the supernal light is revealed [alluding to the higher sefira of keter, which shines upon and exerts influence over everyone, and becomes known through bina…] from which all other luminaries shine, and this is the secret of the next world…” (Shlah, Masekhet Yoma, Torah Or §138). Based on this, the punishment for desecrating Yom Kippur should be more severe than for desecrating Shabbat. Nevertheless, since Yom Kippur is when the supernal light is revealed and washes clean the sins of Israel, its punishment reflects mercy as well (Magid Meisharim cited by Shlah, ibid.).

07. Sins for Which Yom Kippur Does Not Atone

As we have seen, on Yom Kippur, the holy root of the souls of Israel are revealed, and purity and atonement spread from this spiritual root to its branches. The more a person repents, the purer he becomes, and the greater the atonement granted for his sins and transgressions. However, there are sins that cannot be completely rectified by the purity of the root of the soul and the repentance of Yom Kippur. As long as these sins are not fully rectified, the person will need to be punished for them, whether in this world or the next (1:7 above).

Therefore, someone who committed a sin for which one is liable to bring a sin offering or a guilt offering must offer the sacrifice even if he fully repents and undergoes Yom Kippur (except for an asham talui; see n. 4 below). Similarly, if someone commits a sin whose punishment is lashes or death (assuming that he transgresses in front of kosher witnesses after being duly warned), he would be punished by the beit din even if he repents fully on Yom Kippur (Keritot 25b-26a; MT, Laws of Sin and Guilt Offerings 3:9). Repentance is effective in repairing his soul, but the atonement or punishment prescribed by the Torah must be upheld; if they are not carried out by the beit din, he will be punished, either in this world or the next. Nowadays, when we can neither offer sacrifices nor mete out punishments in a beit din, the way to rectify sins is to give charity and study Torah in amounts corresponding to the weightiness of the sins committed. In the past, many people also fasted for many days, commensurate with their sins, but nowadays the accepted ruling is to give charity and study Torah instead.

The Mishna states, “Yom Kippur atones for sins that are between man and God; however, Yom Kippur does not atone for interpersonal sins until the offender has placated his friend” (Yoma 85b). This is derived from the verse, “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30), which can alternatively be translated, “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins before the Lord; purify yourselves.” In other words, it is specifically sins “before the Lord” that are forgiven. Thus, when a sin is against the divine glory, complete repentance before God rectifies it entirely. But when a person is the victim of a sin, if the person has not been placated, the sin remains. Repentance on Yom Kippur helps only to mitigate its severity, transforming the sin from knowing to unknowing and from unknowing to the product of duress. This purifies the root of the soul, but the damage to the branches of the soul remains as long as one has not placated his friend.

The same mishna states, “One who declares, ‘I will sin and then repent; I will sin and then repent’ is not given the opportunity to repent. ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone’ – Yom Kippur will not atone” (Yoma 85b). The reason is clear: Repentance is meant to help a person repair what he has damaged. When a person sins because he is relying upon repenting afterward, the idea of repentance actually leads to his feeling free to sin. Therefore, “he is not given the opportunity to repent,” meaning, it will be difficult for him to motivate himself to correct his deeds. Nevertheless, if despite the difficulty, he makes every effort to repent, his repentance will be accepted.

Similarly, when a person sins because he is relying upon Yom Kippur to atone for him, he demonstrates that he does not understand the profound holiness of the day. Yom Kippur is meant to reveal the good root of his soul. Thinking about it is supposed to prevent a person from sinning. But this person has it backward – thinking of Yom Kippur leads him to sin more. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how much he prays and cries; since he subverts the essential sanctity of the day, Yom Kippur does not atone for him. Only if he makes every effort to repent, understands the magnitude of his mistake, and resolves not to sin again, will his repentance be accepted.

08. The View of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi

As we have seen, Yom Kippur reveals the inviolable connection between God and Israel. This connection leads to communal atonement and purification, even without repentance. As a result, the world continues to exist and advances toward redemption. However, the Gemara records a dispute as to how this relates to the atonement of the individual. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi maintains that an individual is forgiven without repentance, while the other Sages maintain that repentance is a prerequisite for Yom Kippur’s atonement (Yoma 85b).

According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the fundamental atonement of Yom Kippur extends to each and every Jew, even if he neither repents nor observes the day. Since he has undergone the day, he is absolved from punishments such as karet or death at the hands of heaven. (See Keritot 7a.) This is because the atonement is the result of divine fiat, rooted in the eternal connection between God and His people Israel. Therefore, even if someone declares that he does not want Yom Kippur to atone for him, he is forgiven against his will. For a person cannot say to his king, “I do not want you to rule over me” (y. Shevu’ot 1:6). God has decided to forgive the sins of the Jews on Yom Kippur, and so it is.

However, it is clear that even according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, when a person sins, he damages his soul. This prevents him from drawing close to God and taking pleasure in the glory of the Shekhina in this world and the next. The extent of the distance depends on the extent of the damage. In the absence of repentance or suffering, this damage is not erased even after he undergoes Yom Kippur.

It is important to be aware that there are three types of suffering in this world: The first type of suffering is meant to purify a person and purge him of his sins. The second type of suffering is meant as a wake-up call, encouraging a person to repent and directing him toward the right path. Fundamentally, these types of suffering are motivated by love. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and the other Sages do not disagree about them. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi agrees that these types of suffering will not be obviated by Yom Kippur, since their purpose is to help people. The more a person purifies himself by repenting on Yom Kippur, the more able he is to avoid these, as they are rendered unnecessary.

The third type of suffering is meant to punish and stems from divine justice. God created good and evil. He created forces of good, empowering them to reward those who perform mitzvot, and He created forces of evil, empowering them to punish sinners. There are many detailed rules pertaining to the punishments, all in accordance with the severity of the sin. It is true that these punishments also purify a person and may even direct him toward the proper path. However, their primary purpose is to carry out justice, punishing sinners who damage the world and the honor of heaven. Even though sometimes a delay in punishment would allow a person time to repent and correct his failings, that is irrelevant if the rules of justice demand that he be punished. What is good for him is no longer part of the equation. Rather, he is punished in accordance with strict justice.

According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, this type of suffering is obviated on Yom Kippur even without repentance. If a person is deserving of heavenly punishment, undergoing Yom Kippur erases it. He can turn over a new leaf, and he is not held accountable for his earlier sins. He is subject only to those punishments that will be most helpful for his correction and purification – about which there is no disagreement between R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and the other Sages.

Additionally, R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi agrees that if someone denies one of the three fundamentals of faith, Yom Kippur does not atone for him and does not save him from the third type of suffering, as we read, “Because he has spurned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment, that person shall be cut off – he bears his guilt” (Bamidbar 15:31). Those deemed to be denying fundamentals of faith are: A) One who casts off the yoke of heaven, meaning he denies the God of Israel; B) one who misrepresents the Torah, meaning he dares to falsify and degrade it; C) one who violates the covenant of circumcision, meaning he does not circumcise his son or tries to hide the fact that he himself is circumcised. In other words, Yom Kippur does not atone for someone who denies God, misrepresents the Torah, or denies his Jewish identity (Yoma 85b; Shevu’ot 13a).[3]

[3]. This explanation of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi’s position is based primarily upon the discourses of my master and teacher R. Zvi Yehuda Kook zt”l and the works of R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen in his writings (for example, Resisei Laila 54:22). We should add that even R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi agrees that Yom Kippur does not atone for someone who says, “I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone,” as explained in Yoma 87a. It also does not atone for interpersonal sins (Be’er Sheva; Minḥat Ḥinukh; R. Yosef Engel).

The first two types of suffering, which come to atone, purify, and inspire repentance, are addressed in Sha’arei Teshuva 2:3-5 and Derekh Hashem 2:3, 5. It seems clear that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi would agree that Yom Kippur does not eliminate these two types of suffering, since they are meant to help people. Along these lines, Tosafot Yeshanim state that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi would agree that Yom Kippur does not bring about complete atonement if it is not accompanied by repentance (Yoma 85b, s.v. “teshuva”). R. David Pardo says something similar as well (Ḥasdei David, Tosefta Yoma 4:8). He explains that according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the atonement of Yom Kippur obviates punishment in this world, but not in the next, as punishment in the next world is necessary for purification.

The third type of suffering is the work of the accusing angel (satan) and his forces of evil, which God created in order to eliminate evil from the world. In the heavenly court, they testify to people’s evil deeds and demand that they be punished. Thus, Zohar explains that the prosecutor has the power to block the shefa at the beginning of the year and to demand justice. God provided the Jews with a strategy to combat this – blowing the shofar (Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna III 98b). Mabit in Beit Elokim (Sha’ar Ha-teshuva 9) writes something similar, as does R. Ḥayim of Volozhin in Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 1:12.

On the collective level, it would also seem that everything that happens to the holy Jewish people always serves to purify them and improve the world. This is true even when the Jews are being tormented and it seems that God has deserted them. This is true even when the suffering seems like vengeance being exacted by a very unforgiving justice that does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. All of it is rooted in mercy and compassion; its goal is to purify and improve. This idea can explain the root of the suffering of an individual Jew as well.

09. The View of the Sages

According to the other Sages, even though Yom Kippur atones for the Jewish people as a whole, it does not exempt individuals from the punishment they deserve. Even if it is possible that a delay in the punishment would allow a person time to repent and correct his deeds, if he fails to repent on Yom Kippur, he will feel the full force of the law. However, even these Sages agree that a person does not have to achieve perfect repentance for Yom Kippur to atone. The fact that on Yom Kippur he refrained from melakha, fasted, prayed, and showed his inner wish to be good and not sin, is enough to protect him from the punishment due to him according to the letter of the law (3:5 above, based on Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Torah Or §17).

The Rishonim rule that the halakha follows the Sages, and Yom Kippur atones only for those who repent. Nevertheless, if we truly internalize R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi’s words concerning the inviolable connection between God and the soul of each and every Jew, Yom Kippur will inspire us to repent out of love.[4]

[4]. The law is in accordance with the Sages, as we see in Rambam (MT, Laws of Repentance 1:3), Tosafot (Keritot 7a, s.v. “u-veplugta”), and Rema (OḤ 607:6). Initially, we might ask: Why is it necessary to rule here at all? Do we not say, “These and those are the words of the living God”? Only when there are practical ramifications is it necessary to hand down a ruling. Nevertheless, this ruling is of critical importance. A person should not rely upon Yom Kippur alone to atone for him, but rather must repent. (Although Rambam rules in accordance with the Sages, he adds that the scapegoat atones for minor sins even without repentance.)

Everyone agrees on the following. If someone was obligated to offer an asham talui (as he was uncertain about whether he had committed a sin requiring a sin offering), Yom Kippur wiped out this obligation. Even if he did not repent, and even if he desecrated Yom Kippur by working and eating then, simply undergoing the day exempted him from bringing the offering (Keritot 25b; MT, Laws of Sin and Guilt Offerings 3:9).

10. Levels of Atonement

Achieving complete atonement, the type that cleanses a person of sin, leaving no trace, is a complex matter that depends on the severity of the sin and the quality of the repentance. For example, complete repentance on its own can fully atone for failure to fulfill a positive mitzva. However, for serious transgressions that involve desecration of God’s name, atonement requires a combination of repentance, Yom Kippur, suffering, and death.

Regular repentance is motivated by fear – fear of being punished or fear of losing one’s reward, in this world or the next. This type of repentance transforms knowing sins into unknowing ones. However, in order to erase the impression left by unknowing sins, atonement must include regret, sorrow, and suffering in accordance with the severity of the sin. In the times of the Rishonim, many people would undertake fasts and ascetic practices to ensure complete atonement. The more a person studies Torah diligently, gives charity, and performs acts of kindness, the fewer tribulations he must undergo to cleanse himself of sin (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:11). One who desecrated God’s name must make a point of sanctifying it and bringing greater glory to God (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:47 and 4:16).

A higher level of repentance is motivated by love. It is done out of love for God, identification with divine ideals, and concern for the Jewish people. This repentance is accomplished by studying Torah in order to repair the world by its light; giving charity and acting kindly in order to enable the poor to be self-reliant; settling Eretz Yisrael; sanctifying God’s name; and doing everything possible to draw the Shekhina and redemption closer. When one repents from love, even his unknowing sins become merits, so his atonement is complete. As a rule, though, even someone who repents from love does not attain its highest level, so he must still repent out of fear, which involves some mortification. It is better for one to accept upon himself that these mortifications will come through toiling in Torah and making do with little, in order to give more charity.[5]

[5]. Tosefta Yoma 4:6-8 (and Yoma 86a) states:

  1. Yishmael says: There are four grades of atonement. If one fails to perform a positive mitzva and later repents, he is forgiven on the spot, as we read, “Turn back, O rebellious children, I will heal your afflictions!” (Yirmiyahu 3:22). If one transgresses a negative mitzva and later repents, repentance holds his punishment in abeyance, and Yom Kippur atones, as we read, “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you…” (Vayikra 16:30). If one committed sins that incur karet and the death penalty and repented, repentance and Yom Kippur hold the punishment in abeyance, and suffering during the rest of the year cleanses, as we read, “I will punish their transgression with the rod, their iniquity with plagues” (Tehilim 89:33). If, however, one knowingly desecrates the name of God, repentance does not hold the punishment in abeyance, nor does Yom Kippur atone. Rather, repentance and Yom Kippur atone for a third, suffering atones for a third, and death cleanses (together with the suffering). This is the meaning of “This iniquity shall never be forgiven you until you die” (Yeshayahu 22:14). We see that the day of death cleanses.

There are many disagreements about the details of these levels of atonement. The Rishonim debate whether atonement for transgressing a positive or negative mitzva is complete or not (Tosafot, Shevu’ot 12b, s.v. “lo”; Roke’aḥ, Hilkhot Teshuva §28; Sha’arei Teshuva 4:6). They also disagree about the Sages’ statement that the transgression of a negative mitzva is not atoned for by repentance alone, but requires Yom Kippur as well. According to Rambam (in his Commentary to the Mishna), this refers specifically to knowing transgressions, but according to Minḥat Ḥinukh, it applies to unknowing transgressions as well. There are other mitzvot whose level is debated by the Rishonim, for example, the punishment for transgressing a positive mitzva that entails karet. (See MT, Laws of Repentance 1:4; Tosefet Yom Ha-Kippurim 85b.) According to a student of Rashba, these distinctions are not absolute, as some positive and negative mitzvot are severe – publicly embarrassing someone, for example – and atonement for them is as difficult to achieve as for a transgression whose punishment is karet. Other severe sins, such as abrogating the covenant of circumcision or misrepresenting the Torah, do not involve the public desecration of God’s name, yet are as severe as sins that involve the desecration of God’s name (Ḥidushei Talmid Ha-Rashba, Inyanim Shonim §2). Rosh adds that numerous mild transgressions have the status of a severe transgression (Rosh, Yoma 8:17). Me’iri suggests that in certain circumstances it is possible to achieve atonement without going through all of the stages delineated above (Me’iri, Yoma 86a). Mabit writes that since the destruction of the Temple, transgressions are considered less severe than they were. Since the Divine Presence is in exile, less damage is done to the honor of heaven when someone sins (Beit Elokim, Sha’ar Ha-teshuva, end of ch. 2).

It is important to know that repentance, at the most basic level, takes place in the mind. The Sages therefore ruled that if a man betroths a woman “on condition that I am righteous,” they are considered betrothed even if he is wicked, as he may have entertained thoughts of repentance (Kiddushin 49b). This means it is uncertain whether they are betrothed, as we do not know whether he considered repentance (MT, Laws of Marriage 8:5).

All of the above ways of achieving atonement (repentance, Yom Kippur, suffering, and death) are relevant to repentance from fear; but when repentance is motivated by love, atonement is achieved more easily. This is mentioned by R. Elazar Azikri (Sefer Ḥaredim, ch. 65); Ḥida in many places; and our master Rav Kook (Olat Re’iya, vol. 2, p. 357). Rav Kook adds that repentance emerging from “eternal love” transforms unknowing sins into merits, but the sin still leaves an impression; in contrast, repentance which arises out of “great love” uproots the sin retroactively (Me’orot Ha-Re’iya, Yeraḥ Ha-eitanim, p. 73). It is further said that increasing one’s Torah study as well as giving charity and performing kind acts can be very helpful in achieving atonement for sins (Rosh Ha-shana 18a; Vayikra Rabba 25:1; Sha’arei Teshuva 4:11). Similarly, studying the offerings takes the place of sacrificing them (Menaḥot 110a).

Many Torah giants in recent times have encouraged repentance out of love. Accordingly, I did not go into details about all the gradations of atonement when repenting out of fear. Not only are there many such details, but they depend on a variety of factors, including the severity of the sin, the degree of wantonness, the intensity of the regret, the degree of suffering, and the state of the generation. Even though each of these factors is very important, they are not connected with the atonement of Yom Kippur, which is primarily about communal atonement. As a collective, we pray for the world to experience God’s glory and for its repair at the hands of Israel. This extends to the repentance of the individual, who accepts the yoke of Torah and mitzvot generally and repents from, and experiences regret over, his personal sins.

11. The Jubilee, Repentance, and Freedom

Repentance frees a person from the chains that bind him, allowing his soul to express itself freely. For repentance is a striving for divine freedom and liberation that is free from any enslavement (Orot Ha-teshuva 5:5 and 7:4).

In the natural way of things, a person follows his evil inclinations – pursuing lust and arrogance, anger and jealousy, sloth and fame – because they offer him quick gratification. Once he starts being drawn to them, he becomes enslaved to them. True, his inner self still longs for truth and goodness, but it is very difficult for him to actualize them, because he is already addicted to fulfilling his urges. His soul is chained and made to suffer.

By repenting, one is liberated, one can express his true desires. The soul is freed from the bonds of the evil inclination and begins to illuminate his path. His life force is strengthened. This is what our Sages mean when they say, “The only free person is one who studies Torah” (Avot 6:2). For the Torah guides a person on the true and right path. Through it, one can actualize all his positive aspirations: the divine ideals for which his soul longs.

Thus, Yom Kippur is also a day of freedom, as we see from the mitzva of the Jubilee (Yovel). In the natural course of events, sometimes people are forced to sell their land, whether due to laziness, lust, or other troubles. Sometimes they are even forced to sell themselves into slavery. The Torah teaches people to be industrious and not allow themselves to give in to their desires and become enslaved to debt. Nevertheless, some people are overcome by their urges. They mortgage their future for a fleeting present, and ultimately, they sell their fields and enslave themselves. God has pity on them and even more so on their families, so He gave us the mitzva of the Jubilee, the fiftieth year, when all Jewish slaves go free and all fields return to their original owners. We read:

You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall blast the shofar loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall sound the shofar throughout your land, and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…. In this year of Jubilee, you shall return, each to his estate. (Vayikra 25:8-13)

The day that the Torah sets for slaves to go free and for fields to return to their ancestral owners is Yom Kippur, as we read, “Then you shall blast the shofar loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month.” Rambam codifies this:

In the period between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, slaves did not yet go home, nor were they enslaved to their owners, nor did the fields return to their owners. Rather, slaves ate and drank and rejoiced while wearing crowns (of freedom). Once Yom Kippur arrived and the beit din blew the shofar, slaves were sent home and fields were returned to their owners. (MT, Laws of Shemita and Yovel 10:14)

As a commemoration of the shofar-blasts of the Jubilee, the custom in every Jewish community is to blow the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur (R. Hai Gaon). For each year, on Yom Kippur, Israel experiences liberation, as on the Jubilee. Our freedom from enslavement to evil urges is akin to the freedom of emancipated slaves. The return of the body to the soul is like the return of a field to its owner. When a person gives in to his urges, the body disconnects from the soul, enslaves itself to foreign desires, and squanders its strength on alien transgressions. But through the repentance of Yom Kippur, the body is restored to the soul, and they can rejoice together in the joy of a mitzva as they reveal God’s word in the world. Through this, a person attains a good and blessed life.

12. Matchmaking

The Mishna describes a remarkable Yom Kippur custom during Temple times:

There were no happier days for the Jews than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On those days, the young women of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes in order to avoid embarrassing those who did not own any…. They would dance in the vineyards, saying: “Young man! Please look and choose someone. Do not look at beauty, look at the family. ‘Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory; it is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised. Extol her for the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the gates’ (Mishlei 31:30-31).” (Ta’anit 26b)

At first glance, this seems strange. How can it be that on this awe-inspiring, holy fast day, people were matchmaking? On further reflection, it is not so strange. The marital bond is sacred. Our Sages say that the Shekhina dwells with a husband and wife who are faithful to each other (Sota 17a). Through their loyalty and love, they express God’s unity. This is why God allows His name to be erased in order to reconcile husband and wife (Nedarim 66b). Similarly, Arizal states that the mitzva to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which R. Akiva calls “a great principle of the Torah” (Sifra ad loc.), reaches its ultimate fulfillment within marriage.

Furthermore, the union of a married couple corresponds to the supernal union of God and the Jewish people, as we read, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Yeshayahu 62:5). R. Akiva said, “No other day was as precious as the day the Jews were given Shir Ha-shirim. For all of the Writings are holy, but Shir Ha-shirim is the holy of holies” (Tanḥuma Tetzaveh §5). Similarly, the keruvim (cherubim) on the top of the ark in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim were in the form of a male and female being intimate. This was to teach that holiness does not constrict life but intensifies it. When the Jews stopped doing what God wanted, the keruvim turned their backs on each other and faced outward (Bava Batra 99a).

These ideas lie at the root of the custom of young Jewish men and women seeking their match on Yom Kippur. They drew upon the unity of God and the Jewish people to find their own union and love, to create holy Jewish homes. Accordingly, married couples must repent on Yom Kippur for any failure to love and pleasure each other properly. True, on the physical level, a couple must separate on Yom Kippur, as they do when the wife is a nidda (9:7 below). Nevertheless, on the spiritual level, their connection is stronger than usual, due to the holiness of the day. This concept is reflected in the laws pertaining to the Kohen Gadol serving in the Temple on Yom Kippur. On the one hand, he was required to separate from his wife for a week before Yom Kippur. On the other hand, an unmarried kohen was not allowed to serve on Yom Kippur at all (10:4 below).

The young women would wait to dance in the vineyards until after the scapegoat was cast away. Since the sins of Israel were forgiven then, it was an especially joyous time. This custom was appropriate at a time when the Shekhina dwelled with the people, and the Temple linked heaven and earth. But since the destruction of the Temple, heaven and earth are not as close together. If people today engaged in matchmaking on Yom Kippur, they would miss out on the primary expression of the day’s holiness.[6]

Nevertheless, it is still proper on Yom Kippur for all singles to pray for a good match, as the very holiness of the day can help in their quest. Often, negative character traits such as arrogance and lust prevent people from finding their true match. On Yom Kippur, when the pure soul is revealed, a person can see his life goals more clearly. He can better determine what type of person would suit him best, and with whom he would be able to build a home of Torah and mitzvot, so that together they will add life and joy to the world.

[6]. As we cited above, the Mishna states, “There were no happier days for the Jews than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On those days, the young women of Jerusalem would go out…” (Ta’anit 26b). This clearly indicates that the custom was practiced on both Yom Kippur and the fifteenth of Av. We find statements to this effect in y. Ketuvot 2:1, Ritva (Bava Batra 121a), and Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Gittin 1:18) as well. Indeed, this is the understanding of many commentators and poskim. However, many other works cite R. Hai Gaon and R. Sherira Gaon as maintaining that while the young women danced in the vineyards on the fifteenth of Av, they did not do so on Yom Kippur. Tiferet Yisrael on Ta’anit 4:8 is one such commentary.

Perhaps we can reconcile the positions by saying that while the young women did not dance in the vineyards on Yom Kippur, people did engage in matchmaking then. Alternatively, Birkei Yosef suggests that the women danced in the fields at night right after Yom Kippur. R. Shlomo Goren presents a different approach: In the days of the First Temple, the presence of the Shekhina was palpable, and the red thread tied to the horns of the scapegoat, which indicated whether klal Yisrael achieved atonement, would always turn white (Yoma 39a). The Sages had not yet formulated the prayers, so the Kohen Gadol’s avoda and vidui atoned for everyone. Thus, the mood on Yom Kippur was one of joy, and the young women would dance in the vineyards then. In contrast, in the time of the Second Temple, the Shekhina was not perceptible, the red thread did not always turn white, and the Sages had formulated the prayer service. Thus, the mood on Yom Kippur was one of awe, emphasizing judgment, and matchmaking was not undertaken then (Mo’adei Yisrael, pp. 65-66). R. Ḥayim David Halevy says something similar, but the distinction he draws is between Temple times and post-Temple times.

The same mishna states that the phrase “His wedding day” (Shir Ha-shirim 3:11) refers to the giving of the Torah. Rashi explains that “this refers to Yom Kippur, when the second Tablets were given.” R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin elaborates: “On Shavu’ot, the [first] Tablets were given through divine initiative, and they were shattered; on Yom Kippur, the second Tablets were given through human initiative, and those tablets endured” (Pri Tzadik, Tu Be-Av §2). The central feature of this “wedding day” of Yom Kippur is that the second Tablets left space for the Sages of the Oral Torah to come up with novel interpretations and enact regulations.

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