Laws of the Days of Awe

03. The “Standing” and “Sitting” Shofar-blasts

Our Sages ordained that the mitzva of hearing the shofar is integrated into the special berakhot added in the Amida of Musaf on Rosh Ha-shana: Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot. This enhances both the shofar-blowing and the prayers. This is not a prerequisite for fulfilling the mitzva, though; when the shofar-blowing cannot be integrated into the prayers, prayers and shofar-blowing may be separated. Moreover, the integration of the berakhot and the shofar-blowing was ordained only for communal prayer; someone praying alone may not blow the shofar during the Amida (Rosh Ha-shana 32a, 34b; SA 592:1-2).

Originally, the shofar was blown and the special berakhot were recited during Shaḥarit, for those who are enthusiastic perform a mitzva at the earliest opportunity (“zerizim makdimim le-mitzvot”). Later, at a time of anti-religious persecution, shofar-blowing was outlawed by the government. Enemy soldiers would try to catch Jews blowing shofar on the morning of Rosh Ha-shana. So the Jews instituted that the shofar be blown, and the special berakhot recited, at Musaf, which can be prayed in the afternoon. Even after the ban on shofar-blowing ended, the time did not revert back, out of fear that the persecution would be renewed. Eventually the custom of blowing the shofar during Musaf took root (Rosh Ha-shana 32b; Tosafot and Ritva ad loc.). Some maintain that it is actually preferable to blow during Musaf, since the Musaf offering was a central mitzva of the holiday, and the Musaf prayer corresponds to it (one view in y. Rosh Ha-shana 4:8).

The Sages also instituted shofar-blowing before Musaf and permitted sitting for these blasts; they are therefore known as teki’ot di-meyushav (sitting teki’ot). Even though le-khatḥila it is preferable for both shofar-blower and listeners to stand while the mitzva is being fulfilled, the Sages permitted the listeners to sit before Musaf in order to show that the teki’ot blown later, during Musaf (teki’ot di-me’umad), are the primary ones, for which one must stand. Indeed, the custom of Sephardim and Yemenites is to sit for the teki’ot before Musaf. Nevertheless, Ashkenazim commonly stand for these teki’ot because they are the first shofar blasts and one fulfills his basic obligation with them (SA 585:1; MB ad loc. 2).

According to the Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 16a-b), the reason the Sages instituted shofar-blowing while sitting before Musaf and then again while standing during Musaf is “to confound the accuser (satan).” Rashi explains that when the satan sees that the Jews love the mitzvot so much that they blow even more blasts than the Torah requires, he is silenced. Ramban explains that the shofar blasts have the special power to bind the Jews to their Father in Heaven. This confounds the satan during the first teki’ot, and thus he is unable to prosecute during the Amida. Others say that the prosecutor can prosecute only once. When the shofar-blowing starts before the Amida, he lays out his case, so he has nothing left to say during the Amida (Raavad). Still others say that the primary manifestation of the satan is as the evil inclination. This inclination is thwarted by the many shofar blasts, which inspire us to repent (Ran). Perhaps during the first set of blasts, one is so excited that he is unable to focus properly; later, after he has heard thirty blasts, he is calmer and can focus properly.

04. The Custom of Blowing One Hundred Blasts

There is an ancient custom, dating back to Geonic times, to blow a hundred blasts. During the times of the Rishonim, most communities did not follow this practice. Rather, they blew thirty blasts before Musaf, and during Musaf itself, some blew an additional ten blasts, while others blew an additional thirty. During the time of the Aḥaronim, following Arizal’s prescription of mystical meditations (kavanot) for each of the hundred blasts, the custom of blowing a hundred blasts spread, and today it is almost universal.[2]

The hundred blasts are arranged as follows. Before Musaf, we blow thirty blasts: three sets of tashrat, three sets of tashat, and three sets of tarat. During the repetition of the Musaf Amida, another thirty blasts are blown: one set each of tashrat, tashat, and tarat after each of Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot.

Regarding the silent Amida, there are different customs. Some blow the shofar during the silent Amida as they do during the repetition. By integrating the blasts and the prayers, both are more readily accepted. This is the custom of Sephardim and Ḥasidim. For those who follow this custom, the shofar-blower sets the pace of prayer, and worshippers do their best to pray at his pace so that they hear the blasts at the proper place, at the end of a berakha. To that end, the shofar-blower must pray at a steady pace. Anyone who finishes a berakha before he does should wait for him to blow the shofar before continuing, but those who wish to pray a bit faster or slower may do so. Those who choose to do this recite the paragraph “Ha-yom Harat Olam” following their conclusion of each berakha. Then, when the shofar is blown, even if they are in the middle of a different berakha, they stop to listen to the blasts and then continue with their prayers. (See Mateh Ephraim 592:13.)

Others do not blow during the silent Amida. (This is the custom of Ashkenazim.) They feel that the primary ordinance is to blow the shofar during the communal prayer, i.e., during the ḥazan’s repetition. Additionally, the need for the individual to coordinate the pace of his prayer with that of the shofar-blower is likely to distract the focus of the worshipper.[3]

Those who blow the shofar during the silent Amida will have blown ninety blasts by the end of the ḥazan’s repetition; they blow the last ten during the full Kaddish. Those who do not blow during the silent Amida are still forty teki’ot short at the end of the ḥazan’s repetition. They blow thirty blasts after Aleinu and another ten following An’im Zemirot (MB 592:4).

[2]. In the times of the Rishonim, there were four different customs regarding the shofar-blowing during Musaf: A) to blow tashrat for Malkhuyot, tashat for Zikhronot, and tarat for Shofarot (Rif; Rambam; Tosafot, Rosh Ha-shana 32b; Rosh; SA 592:1, first opinion). This is still the custom of Yemenites and a few Ashkenazic communities; B) to blow tashrat for each section (Rabbeinu Tam, as cited in Tosafot, ibid.; Rema 592:1); C) to blow tashrat three times for Malkhuyot, tashat three times for Zikhronot, and tarat three times for Shofarot (according to SA 592:1, this was the prevalent practice); D) to blow tashrat, tashat, tarat after each section, to incorporate all three types of teru’a in each berakha (Arukh; Or Zaru’a; Radbaz). This last custom is the one that prevails today.

The first two customs are problematic for, as we have seen, the teki’ot blown during Musaf are primary, and due to uncertainty, we must blow three sets of each of the three types of teru’a. Yet, according to the first custom, each type of teru’a is sounded only once, and, according to the second custom, only one type of teru’a is blown three times. Two possible arguments in support have been suggested. Rabbeinu Ḥananel explains, based on the view of R. Hai Gaon, that even nowadays one fulfills the Torah obligation with any type of teru’a. Rif and Rambam explain that once all three types of teru’ot were blown three times each before Musaf, fulfilling the Torah obligation, it is not necessary to burden the congregation by requiring them to hear them all again during Musaf (cited in Beit Yosef 590:2). The custom to blow a hundred blasts is cited by Arukh (s.v. “erev”) in the name of the Yerushalmi, which in turn is cited by Tosafot (Rosh Ha-shana 33b), Raavya, and Shibolei Ha-leket. Arizal bases his kavanot on this, and this is also the opinion of Shlah.

[3]. Ashkenazic custom is not to blow the shofar during the silent Amida (MA; MB 592:1; Avnei Nezer OḤ §445). The reason is that since people do not pray at the same pace, it is distracting and difficult for them to try to adjust their pace to that of the ḥazan. According to the Geonic custom (of R. Sherira and R. Hai) that only seven berakhot are recited in the silent Amida, the shofar clearly was not blown then. Even among those who follow the majority opinion (of R. Yitzḥak ibn Gi’at, Tur, and SA 591:1) that nine berakhot are recited in the silent Amida, many do not blow during the silent Amida, as is explained in SA 592:1-2. This is also the position of Radbaz and Knesset Ha-gedola. However, among those who blow a hundred blasts (following Arukh), many do blow the shofar during the silent Amida. This is what Arizal and Shlah recommend, and this is the custom of Sephardim and Ḥasidim.

05. The Berakha, the Mitzva, and the Intent

Before the shofar-blowing is begun, two berakhot are recited: A) “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar” (“asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu lishmo’a kol shofar”). B) “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time” (“she-heḥeyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higi’anu la-zeman ha-zeh”). While Sephardim do not recite She-heḥeyanu on the second day, Ashkenazim do. If possible, it is preferable that the shofar-blower wear a new item of clothing and have that in mind as well when he recites the berakha (SA 500:3; MB ad loc. 7).

Our Sages were precise in formulating the berakha which concludes “to hear the sound of the shofar,” as the mitzva is to hear the shofar, not to blow it (SA 585:2). Thus, a deaf person is exempt from the mitzva even though he is capable of blowing the shofar. One who is hearing impaired but can still hear the blasts is obligated in the mitzva and may even blow on behalf of others. One who wears an electronic hearing aid should remove it so that he hears the unmediated sound of the shofar.[4]

Since the mitzva is to hear the sound of the shofar, if one blows the shofar into a pit or a bomb shelter so that he hears the sound of the shofar together with its echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation, because the sound he hears is not that of the shofar alone. However, those who are in the pit or bomb shelter, since they do not hear an echo, have fulfilled their obligation (Rosh Ha-shana 27b, 20a; SA 587:1-2; MB ad loc. 10).

One who is mute but can hear is obligated in the mitzva and can fulfill it on behalf of others. One of the listeners should recite the berakhot. One who is mentally incompetent is exempt from all mitzvot, including shofar (SA 589:2; MB ad loc. 4).

If the shofar-blower already fulfilled his obligation and is now blowing for people who did not yet fulfill their obligation, it is preferable for one of them to recite the berakhot. Nevertheless, when this situation arises in practice, it is common for the shofar-blower to recite the berakha, and there are grounds for this practice (Beit Yosef and Rema 585:2; MB ad loc. 5).

Mitzvot require intent. Therefore, one who is practicing shofar-blowing does not fulfill his obligation, even if he blows the requisite blasts. Similarly, if one is at home and hears the shofar being blown at a nearby synagogue but does not have in mind to fulfill his obligation, he does not fulfill it. In order for a listener to fulfill his obligation, both he and the shofar-blower must have this in mind. The shofar-blower must have in mind to fulfill the obligation for anyone who hears him, not just those he can see, because there may be people outside the synagogue or in nearby homes who want to fulfill their obligation. If the shofar-blower has in mind only to fulfill the obligation of those he sees, these additional people will not fulfill their obligation (SA 589:8-9). Le-khatḥila, the shofar-blower must explicitly have in mind to fulfill the obligation of all listeners, and listeners must explicitly have in mind to fulfill the mitzva. However, be-di’avad, even if they did not have this in mind explicitly, as long as they had latent intent, they fulfilled their obligation. Latent intent means that if one were to ask the shofar-blower why he blew, he would answer: to fulfill the obligation of all the listeners. And if one were to ask a listener why he came to hear the shofar, he would answer: to fulfill the mitzva (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 15:8).

[4]. According to Rabbeinu Tam and Smag, the formulation of the berakha is “al teki’at shofar” (“on the blowing of the shofar”). However, Rosh, following Behag, writes that the mitzva is to hear the shofar, which is why the berakha is “lishmo’a kol shofar” (Rosh Ha-shana 4:10). This is also the position of Raavya, Or Zaru’a, and many others, as well as the ruling of SA 585:2.

One who hears the shofar by means of an electronic hearing aid does not fulfill the mitzva according to most poskim. Some say that this is because the sound produced by the device is not the sound of the shofar. Rather, the device receives the sounds as electronic signals and then translates them into a new sound – the sound of the device, not the sound of the shofar (Mishpetei Uziel¸ Mahadura Kama OḤ §21 and Mahadura Tinyana, OḤ §34; Terumat Ha-goren 1:22; R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Minḥat Shlomo 1:9). Others say that one may fulfill other mitzvot that require listening by means of an electronic hearing aid, but when it comes to shofar, one should be stringent, because if one heard the echo of the shofar, he did not fulfill his obligation (Rav Kook, Oraḥ Mishpat §48; R. Frank writes accordingly in Mikra’ei Kodesh, Purim §11, with regard to hearing the megilla; Beit Avi 3:92; Igrot Moshe EH 3:33). However, some are lenient and consider hearing the shofar by means of a device to be the equivalent of regular hearing (Rav Orenstein, Assia 77-78; Yabi’a Omer OḤ 7:18; this is also the inclination of Minḥat Yitzḥak 3:11; see Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 12:9).

In practice, since most poskim maintain that one does not fulfill his obligation by hearing through an electrical device, one who has such a device must remove it, for as long as it is in his ear, he cannot hear the original sound of the shofar. However, one who cannot hear the shofar without the device should leave it in, because according to some poskim he fulfills the mitzva in this way. He cannot be the shofar-blower, though, because according to most poskim he is not obligated in this mitzva.

The same applies to someone with cochlear implants. It would seem that when hearing by means of implants improves to the point that it is really like hearing normally, we will accept the view of R. Orenstein that hearing in this way is considered hearing normally.

06. The Time of the Mitzva and the Obligation of Women and Children

The shofar must be blown during the day, as the verse states, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month…you shall observe it as a day of blasts” (Bamidbar 29:1). Therefore, the time to fulfill the mitzva begins at sunrise. If one blows it from the time of dawn (when the first light is visible in the east), he fulfills his obligation. If he did not blow the shofar before sunset, he should do so during twilight (bein ha-shmashot), but without a berakha (Megilla 20b; SA 588:1; MB ad loc. 1-2; for more about these times, see Peninei Halakha: Prayer 11:1 and Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:1).

As we have seen (section 3), the Sages instituted that the communal shofar-blowing take place during Musaf. The poskim write that if one is unable to pray with a congregation, and so is unable to blow the shofar during Musaf, he should blow the shofar after the first three hours of the day, as judgment is more benign later in the day (Mateh Ephraim; MB 588:2; 3:10 above).

Men are obligated in the mitzva; women are exempt since it is a time-bound positive mitzva. Women who nevertheless wish to hear the shofar fulfill a mitzva and will be rewarded for it. The custom of most women is to voluntarily fulfill this mitzva. The Rishonim disagree as to whether women hearing the shofar should make a berakha (Peninei Halakha: Women’s Prayer 2:8, 23:2). Some say that the berakha was instituted only for men, who are obligated in the mitzva, but a woman who blows the shofar for herself should not recite a berakha. Similarly, if a man blows the shofar for women, he should not recite the berakha. This is the Sephardic practice. Others say that even though women are exempt from the mitzva, those who choose to hear the shofar should make a berakha because they are indeed fulfilling a mitzva. Thus, if a woman blows the shofar for herself, she recites a berakha, and if a man blows the shofar for women, one of them should recite the berakha on behalf of all the women present. This is the Ashkenazic practice.

There is a mitzva to train a child who has reached an educable age – that is, a child who can understand that there is a mitzva to hear three sets of tashrat, tashat, tarat – to hear the shofar. If he is too young to understand this, there is no mitzva to train him. Nevertheless, as long as a child can stand quietly and not disturb the worshippers, it is good to bring him to hear the shofar. It is an opportunity for children to gain memories of the holy atmosphere. However, a child who has trouble sitting quietly during teki’ot or prayer and is likely to disturb other worshippers may not be brought to services (MB 587:16).

After fulfilling the mitzva to hear the shofar, blowing it unnecessarily is prohibited, as it is considered a weekday activity, like playing a musical instrument. However, the prohibition does not apply to children. On the contrary, children who are of an educable age should be encouraged to blow the shofar all day long, so that by the time they reach halakhic maturity (at the age of bar or bat mitzva), they will know how to do it (Rema 596:1). Nevertheless, they must be careful not to blow the shofar while people are sleeping.

07. Shofar-Blowing: Laws and Customs

The custom is to appoint a righteous, benevolent, Torah-oriented person to blow the shofar for the community, but it should not become a matter of contention (MB 585:3). If possible, it is better to place the shofar on the right side of the mouth. It is also customary for the wider opening of the shofar to face upward, as it is written, “God ascends with a blast; the Lord, with the sound of a shofar” (Tehilim 47:6).

In the past, when people recited the prayers by heart, the custom was to make sure that the ḥazan for Musaf would not blow the shofar during the Amida, lest he become confused and lose his place. Nowadays, though, when people pray from maḥzorim, we are not concerned about this issue, so the ḥazan may blow the shofar as well (SA 585:4; MB ad loc. 14).

The shofar-blowing is not divided among several people. Rather, one person blows all the shofar blasts, as “one who begins a mitzva should be encouraged to complete it” (Rema 585:4). However, where dividing it up is an established custom, the congregation may continue doing so, as it shows how much people love the mitzva (MB ad loc. 17).

Since the berakha recited on the blasts before Musaf also covers the blasts during Musaf, one must make sure not to talk until all the blasts have been sounded (SA 592:3).

In many places, the rabbi or another Torah scholar quietly prompts the shofar-blower, telling him which blast to blow, to make sure that he does not get confused (Rema 585:4). The custom is to prompt even for the first blast. Although there is no concern for mistakes, some maintain that the prompt also helps focus (Shlah; see SHT 585:31).

One must hear every blast from its beginning to its end. If someone heard only part of a blast, he has not fulfilled his obligation. Therefore, the congregation must be totally silent during the shofar-blowing. One who needs to cough should suppress it until after the blasts (MB 587:16).

Ashkenazic custom is to conclude the set of the first thirty blasts as well as the last of the hundred blasts with an extended blast, called a “teki’a gedola.” It alludes to our great and never-ending faith. Sephardic custom is to blow an extended teru’a at the end of the service, to confound the satan (SA 596:1). The subtle message is that while we may still experience crises and “breaks,” they are ultimately transformed for the better.

If the shofar-blower feels weak and is unable to continue, someone should take over from him. If the substitute heard the earlier berakhot, he does not need to recite new berakhot, as he has already fulfilled the obligation with the berakhot of the first shofar-blower (SA 585:3).

Many shofar-blowers take two shofarot with them, so if they have difficulty blowing one, they can switch to the second. In such a case, a new berakha need not be recited, since the original berakha applied to both. Be-di’avad, even if someone started out with only one shofar and was given a different one because he had difficulty blowing the first, he need not recite another berakha (MB 585:4).[5]

One may rinse the shofar with water, or even wine, vinegar, or arak, to improve its sound quality. This is not considered a weekday activity that is forbidden on a holiday (SA 586:23).

Some people, following Arizal and Shlah, offer various confessions and prayers after every three sets of shofar blasts. Where a congregation follows this custom, the shofar-blower stops blowing in order to accommodate them. However, many poskim rule that no prayers should be inserted during the thirty blasts. Both practices can be justified. In contrast, it is never permitted to insert a prayer between the recitation of the berakha and the beginning of the teki’ot (MB 592:12; SHT ad loc. 15).[6]

[5]. Sometimes a shofar-blower cannot continue blowing the original shofar because saliva has accumulated in it, making it difficult to blow. Sometimes a shofar-blower’s lip muscles are weak and get tired during the blowing, making him unable continue to purse his lips in the way necessary to continue blowing. A different shofar, with a differently shaped mouthpiece, requires him to change how he purses his lips and use slightly different muscles, which are not tired yet.

[6]. It is preferable to pray with a minyan where he will definitely fulfill the obligation to hear the shofar, even though the prayers there are not particularly dignified and it will be difficult to concentrate, than to go where the prayers are dignified and he will have proper focus, but the shofar-blower is so inept that it is not certain that he will fulfill the mitzva. This is because shofar is a Torah obligation, while prayer is a rabbinic one (Rosh Ha-shana 34a; SA 595:1). The same applies to the second day, since the basis of the obligation to hear the shofar is from the Torah.

08. Kiddush Before Shofar-Blowing and Musaf

Some congregations have the custom of making kiddush and having something to eat after Shaḥarit, before shofar-blowing and Musaf. This custom is especially prevalent in yeshivot, where the prayers last until midday or later, and having something to eat enables them to continue praying joyfully and with concentration.

At first glance, this custom is surprising. We know that once the time has arrived to fulfill a mitzva, it is forbidden to eat. For example, on Sukkot we do not eat in the morning before fulfilling the mitzva of lulav. Moreover, on the first day of Sukkot (when the mitzva of lulav is Torah-mandated), if one did not have a lulav available and started to eat, and then a lulav was brought to him, he must stop eating and do netilat lulav immediately (Sukka 38a; SA 652:2). Given this, how is it possible le-khatḥila to permit eating before shofar-blowing?

In truth, the prohibition is to sit down to a proper meal before performing the mitzva, lest one becomes so absorbed in the meal that he forgets the mitzva. When one makes kiddush and eats only a bit, there is no concern that they will forget to return to the synagogue to hear the shofar. Certainly, there is no such concern about a mitzva that everyone anticipates and that people remind one another to fulfill. Moreover, even those who are stringent and avoid all eating may be lenient when necessary. Accordingly, where the prayer service is not lengthy, it is preferable not to stop for kiddush before shofar-blowing.

Le-khatḥila, one should not eat more than and egg’s-bulk (ke-beitza) of mezonot at the kiddush, so that it is not considered a proper meal, but if one is lenient and eats a little more than this, he has an opinion to rely upon. As for fruits, dairy products, and other light foods, more may be eaten. However, a person should avoid eating heavily, as this may make him tired and hinder his concentration. In such a case, eating does him more harm than good.[7]

[7]. Terumat Ha-deshen §109 prohibits eating anything at all on Purim before hearing the megilla. Similarly, several Aḥaronim write that only if necessary may one eat on Sukkot before netilat lulav (MA 692:7; MB 652:7). Eating before shofar-blowing would fall into the same category (Mateh Ephraim 588:2; Sho’el U-meshiv, Mahadura Telita’a 1:120). Some maintain that even if there is no necessity, one may eat before shofar-blowing, since the reason for the prohibition is the concern that people will become involved in the meal and forget. However, here people will remind each other, and the normal practice is to go back to pray, so there is no reason for concern (Tzitz Eliezer 6:7).

Many forbid eating more than a ke-beitza because that is the definition of “akhilat keva” (“established eating”) in the sukka (Halikhot Shlomo 2:1; Rav Eliyahu; Ḥut Shani, p. 54). My master and teacher R. Avraham Shapira (cited by R. Harari, Mikra’ei Kodesh: Rosh Ha-shana ch. 7, n. 26) permits eating up to approximately three eggs, which is the amount of a proper meal (kevi’ut se’uda). There is no concern that someone will become preoccupied by his meal if he eats less than the volume of three eggs of mezonot. However, to preserve the solemnity of the day, one should not eat too much.

09. Rosh Ha-shana on Shabbat During Temple Times

According to Torah law, even if Rosh Ha-shana is on Shabbat the shofar is blown. However, the Sages ordained that the shofar is not blown on Shabbat, because while everyone is obligated in shofar, not everyone is knowledgeable about the laws pertaining to carrying in the public domain. The Sages were concerned that people who did not know how to blow the shofar might take one to an expert to teach them. If they were to carry the shofar four amot within the public domain, they would transgress the Torah prohibition of carrying on Shabbat (Rosh Ha-shana 29b; SA 588:5).

Nevertheless, in the Temple they blew the shofar even on Shabbat, as rabbinic ordinances did not apply within the Temple. In fact, they blew in Jerusalem and its environs as well as long as the Sanhedrin was situated there, because due to the influence of the court, residents of Jerusalem and its environs were careful to avoid carrying on Shabbat (MT, Laws of Shofar 2:8-9).[8]

Although the ordinance to refrain from blowing the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana on Shabbat is rabbinic, the Torah alludes to it: One verse says, “a day of blasts (yom teru’a)” (Bamidbar 29:1), while another says, “a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts (zikhron teru’a)” (Vayikra 23:24). The Gemara explains that when Rosh Ha-shana is on a weekday it is a day of teru’a, while when it is on Shabbat it is a commemoration (zikhron) of teru’a, when we mention the teru’a without actually sounding the blasts (Rosh Ha-shana 29b).[9]

Kabbalists explain that when Rosh Ha-shana is on Shabbat, blowing the shofar is not necessary because the holiness normally achieved by blowing the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana is largely achieved on Shabbat by virtue of its intrinsic holiness. True, shofar blasts would add even more holiness, but on such an exalted plane that it would be almost impossible for us to perceive or absorb it. However, in the place of the Temple and Sanhedrin, people were able to absorb it. Therefore, in those places the shofar was blown even on Shabbat (R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Likutei Torah, Devarim 56ff).

[8]. The Mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 29b) states, “When Rosh Ha-shana occurs on Shabbat, in the mikdash they would blow the shofar as usual. However, they would not blow it in the rest of the country (medina).” Rambam understands mikdash to include all of Jerusalem, while Rashi maintains that Jerusalem is part of medina.

[9]. As stated above, according to Torah law the shofar is blown on Rosh Ha-shana even on Shabbat (Rosh Ha-shana 29b). True, playing musical instruments on Shabbat is prohibited rabbinically, and this prohibition includes blowing the shofar (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 22:17), but this rabbinic prohibition cannot supersede a Torah commandment. Rather, the reason that blowing the shofar on Shabbat is prohibited is because the Sages were worried that people would carry the shofar in the public domain. This is also why a lulav is not taken on the first day of Sukkot if it is on Shabbat, and why the megilla is not read on Purim if it is on Shabbat. See MT, Laws of Shofar 2:6.

In contrast, the Yerushalmi (Rosh Ha-shana 4:1) maintains that according to the Torah itself the shofar is not blown on Shabbat, i.e., that the derivation from the verses is not a mere allusion but a bona fide inference. The Yerushalmi then asks how they could blow the shofar in the Temple and answers (based on a close reading of the verses) that wherever people know exactly when the first of the month is and they offer the daily sacrifice, they blow the shofar even on Shabbat. Additionally, it offers a derivation from what is said regarding the Jubilee year, “Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land” (Vayikra 25:9). We see that it is specifically on Yom Kippur that a shofar is blown throughout the land. In contrast, if Rosh Ha-shana is on Shabbat, the shofar is blown only at the Sanhedrin. This answer also appears in Sifra, Behar §2.

It should be noted that in the Rosh Ha-shana prayers we refer to the day as yom teru’a when it is on a weekday, and as zikhron teru’a when it is on Shabbat (SA 582:7). This is opposed to Seder R. Amram Gaon, Rambam, and other Rishonim, who maintain that yom teru’a is always said.

10. Rosh Ha-shana on Shabbat Post-Destruction

Following the destruction of the Temple, R. Yoḥanan b. Zakkai ordained that the shofar be blown on Shabbat wherever there was a sitting beit din. He was referring to the main beit din of the time, where the new moon was sanctified, and whose judges had been ordained in an unbroken chain since the times of Moshe Rabbeinu. Wherever such a court was located, whether in Yavneh or elsewhere, the shofar was blown. If the court was no longer sitting there, it was prohibited to blow the shofar on Shabbat (MT, Laws of Shofar 2:9).

Rif, one of the greatest Rishonim, maintained that even after the chain of ordination was broken, the shofar should be blown in any important beit din. In fact, Rif followed this practice himself. In his beit din, the shofar was blown on Rosh Ha-shana even on Shabbat. However, the rest of the Rishonim disagreed with him, maintaining that the shofar was only to be blown in a beit din composed of those ordained in an unbroken chain from the time of Moshe. Therefore, there is no longer any beit din in whose presence the shofar can be blown. Furthermore, even the most devoted disciples of Rif did not follow his practice.[10]

About a hundred years ago, after the rebuilding of Jerusalem had begun, R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger wanted to blow the shofar in Jerusalem when Rosh Ha-shana was on Shabbat. His rationale was that the original law permitting shofar-blowing in Jerusalem and its environs was still in effect even after the destruction. Additionally, we saw that the Sages did not wish to put an absolute end to blowing the shofar when Rosh Ha-shana was on Shabbat. Thus, he felt that in his time, when there were no ordained judges, the shofar must be blown in the beit din of Jerusalem. Furthermore, since the mitzva of blowing the shofar is from the Torah, and the prohibition of blowing on Shabbat is rabbinic, whenever doubt arises we should blow the shofar, thus fulfilling the Torah commandment. R. Schlesinger also took great pains to explain how to implement shofar-blowing in a way that would eliminate the risk of people carrying on Shabbat. Although several rabbis expressed limited support for his position, those who disagreed prevailed, and the shofar was not blown on Shabbat. The main reason is as we established: License to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana which is on Shabbat is limited to a beit din of ordained judges that is the central court of the time. The fact that none of the Torah greats who have lived in Jerusalem since the destruction have blown the shofar on Shabbat supports this understanding (Ir Ha-kodesh Ve-hamikdash 3:20).

[10]. There is a dispute among Tanna’im (m. Rosh Ha-shana 4:1) as to the nature of the beit din before which the shofar is blown on Shabbat after the destruction of the Temple. According to Rif (as understood by Ran), R. Elazar says this refers to the Great Sanhedrin of seventy-one, while others disagree with him and say it refers to a court of twenty-three. The tanna kama (the first, anonymous opinion in a mishna) says it refers to any beit din of three, whether or not they are ordained. Rif rules in accordance with the tanna kama. Rambam (MT, Laws of Shofar 2:9) maintains that the shofar is blown only in a beit din that sanctifies the new moon, meaning the most important beit din of the time, composed of ordained judges. Several Rishonim explain that according to the tanna kama, the beit din does not need to be the most important one, where the new moon is sanctified, but it does need to be a beit din of twenty-three ordained judges (who are empowered to judge capital cases). This is the position of R. Ḥananel and Rashi, as understood by Ramban and Rosh. See further Mo’adim Le-simḥa §5-6.

11. Teru’a and Shevarim Defined

The teru’a is made up of a series of short, broken-off sounds, like a sob. In halakha, these sounds are referred to as “tromitin.” Some maintain that a teru’a is made up of three tromitin (Rabbeinu Ḥananel; Rashi), while others maintain that it is made up of nine (Rivam; Riva; Smag). In practice we blow nine, but be-di’avad the obligation is fulfilled with three. One may blow more than nine tromitin for a teru’a, as long as the sounds are continuous, with no break (SA 590:3; MB ad loc. 12; for the Yemenite custom, see the note).[11]

The shevarim is made up of three medium-length blasts, like a sigh or groan. Each individual blast (shever) is about the length of three tromitin. Le-khatḥila, we do not add to the three blasts, but bedi’avad, one who does has fulfilled his obligation (SA 590:3; MB ad loc. 11). Some blow each shever with a rise, like a sigh in a broken voice. This is the Lithuanian custom.

If one blows a shever which is the length of two tromitin, he fulfills his obligation, for it is clear that the blast is similar to sighing rather than crying, since it is still twice as long as a teru’a’s tromit. If, however, a shever lasts for less than the length of two tromitin, he has not fulfilled his obligation. One who blows each shever for four tromitin fulfills his obligation, as this is very similar to the normal shever. Even one who extends a shever up to six tromitin fulfills his obligation be-di’avad.[12]

[11]. The generally accepted teru’a is reminiscent of sobbing: short, cut-off sounds. However, the Yemenite custom is to blow a wailing sound. It is not comprised of distinct, cut-off blasts but is rather one long wavering blast. In other words, the teru’a of Ashkenazim and Sephardim is reminiscent of crying that is fitful and uncontrolled, like someone wracked with sobs, while the teru’a of Yemenites is reminiscent of wailing in a controlled fashion, like someone ululating. In practice, every community should continue its custom. Those who are especially meticulous make efforts to listen to the shofar-blowing of all the different communities.

[12]. Some say that a shever that is 3 tromitin long is invalid. Why? Because a shevarim is a type of teru’a, and we know that the teki’a and the teru’a must be the same length. According to Rabbeinu Ḥananel and Rashi, a teru’a of 3 tromitin is acceptable. Therefore, 3 tromitin is the length of a teki’a within the set of tarat. True, within the set of tashrat, the teki’a is longer, to match the length of the shevarim-teru’a. Nevertheless, since a teki’a within tarat is 3 tromitin, a shever that is 3 tromitin can be confused with a tekia (Tur’s understanding of Tosafot and Rosh; first opinion in SA 590:3). According to Rivam, Riva, and Smag, a teru’a is 9 tromitin (as is a teki’a). Accordingly, be-di’avad, a shever can be longer or shorter than the prescribed 3 tromitin, as it will not be confused with a teru’a or tekia (second opinion in SA).

Others maintain that there is no connection between the different sets; in each set, each teki’a must be the same length as the adjacent teru’a. Thus, within the set of tashrat, the teki’a must be the length of a shevarim-ter’ua, while within tashat it must be the length of a shevarim. Since there is no connection between the different sets, even according to Rabbeinu Ḥananel and Rashi a shever that is longer than 3 tromitin is acceptable (Mordekhai; Hagahot Asheri; Rema). This is the common practice (MB 590:15).

Some maintain that we must take into account the first opinion of SA, so for at least thirty blasts we should make sure that each shever is less than 3 tromitin (MA ad loc. 2; see Kol Teru’a 8). In my humble opinion, this is not necessary. First, it is a case of a triple doubt, where we can be lenient: (a) It may be that those who maintain that a teru’a is 9 tromitin are correct; (b) even among those who believe that it is 3 tromitin, it is possible that Mordekhai and Hagahot Asheri are correct that there is no connection between the different sets; (c) there are other opinions as to the length of a teki’a: Rambam says that it is half the length of a teru’a, while Raavad says that a teki’a is always 9 tromitin. Second, it is very difficult to guarantee that each shever be less than 3 tromitin, as the difference between a shever of 2 tromitin and 3 is approximately a quarter of a second. It is next to impossible to discern this difference, and we have a principle that the Torah was not given to the ministering angels (who have superhuman capabilities). Third, if the shofar-blower tries to blow a shever of 2 tromitin, he may in fact end up blowing it a little shorter. That would make the shever into a teru’a sound, which all would agree does not fulfill the obligation. Therefore, it would seem that as long as the shever sounds like a sigh, it is acceptable le-khatḥila. Some say that people who follow the Lithuanian custom when blowing have removed themselves from any doubt; since the blast they blow has a rise, there is no way to confuse it with a teki’a. (See Hilkhot Ḥag Be-ḥag 12:64.)

How long may a shever be? Those who say that a teru’a is 9 tromitin say that a teki’a is the same length, and a shever must be shorter than this (SA 590:3, second opinion). However, this requires further inquiry, because if a shever is too long, it approximates the joyful sound of a teki’a. I therefore wrote that a shever, to be acceptable be-di’avad, must be no longer than 6 tromitin. (See Mateh Ephraim ad loc. 11; Elef La-mateh ad loc. 14.) According to Rambam’s view that a teki’a is half as long as a teru’a, after 4.5 tromitin a shever cannot be distinguished from a teki’a. Thus, a shever must be less than 4 tromitin. Le-khatḥila, one should defer to Rambam’s view.

12. Teki’a Defined

A teki’a is a long, smooth sound which must be at least as long as a teru’a. But we blow three types of teru’ot: shevarim-teru’a, shevarim, and teru’a. The halakha mandates that within each set of blasts, the teki’a must be the length of the teru’a of that set.[13] Therefore, when tashrat is blown, the teki’a must be the length of eighteen tromitin, as a shevarim is about nine tromitin and the length of the teru’a is nine tromitin. Even if someone extends the teru’a or blows additional teru’ot, the teki’a does not have to extend beyond eighteen tromitin, as everyone agrees that this length fulfills the obligation. When blowing tashat or tarat, the teki’a must be the length of nine tromitin, as both the shevarim and the teru’a on their own are nine tromitin long.

As we have said, a tromit is a short blast of the shofar. The combination of many short blasts makes a teru’a. How long this takes depends upon the shofar-blower and the shofar. The faster ones blow nine tromitin in 1.25 seconds, while the slower ones take 2.5 seconds. Each shofar-blower must calibrate his teki’a and shevarim based on the length of his tromitin. If one wishes to meet the criteria of all the opinions, he should take five seconds to blow tashrat and 2.5 seconds to blow tashat and tarat.[14]

Even if the quality of the sound changes several times during one teki’a, as long as the teki’a is continuous, it is acceptable, as any type of blast is acceptable. Those who are meticulous try to blow stable, continuous notes with no rises, falls, or other variations.[15]

[13]. “The teki’a should be the length of three teru’ot” (m. Rosh Ha-shana 4:9). The Gemara (33b) asks: “Didn’t we teach that the teki’a and teru’a are the same length? Abaye replied: ‘Our Tanna was referring to all the teki’ot in all the sets; the other Tanna was considering only one set but no more.’” Most poskim explain this to mean, as I wrote above, that the length of the teki’a is the same as that of the teru’a. This is the opinion of Rashi, Tosafot, Rosh, Tur, SA 590:3, and MB ad loc. 15. However, Rambam (MT, Laws of Shofar 3:4) maintains that the length of the two teki’ot is equal to that of the teru’a between them, meaning that a teki’a is only half as long as a teru’a. We must say that in his opinion a teru’a is 9 tromitin and not 3, since it is inconceivable that a teki’a would be only 1.5 tromitin. Alternatively, if Rambam’s teru’a is that of the Yemenites, then each tromit is much longer than the generally accepted length of the tromit, which would make his position more understandable. Raavad maintains that a teki’a is always 9 tromitin.

[14]. Shulḥan Arukh describes tromitin as the shortest sounds possible, made with minimal effort (590:3). Yet not everyone’s tromitin are equal. Expert shofar-blowers can blow nine tromitin in 1.25 seconds, while it takes 2.5 seconds for slower blowers. The teki’a and shevarim must always correspond to the teru’a. In any case, even for the slower blowers, in a set of tashrat, as long as each teki’a is at least 2.5 seconds it is good enough, as be-di’avad 3 tromitin are adequate for a teru’a and 6 tromitin for a shevarim. In the sets of tashat and tarat, be-di’avad a teki’a of 1.5 seconds’ duration suffices.

[15]. “All shofar sounds are acceptable” (Rosh Ha-shana 27b; SA 586:6). This means that even if in the middle of a teki’a the sound changes, it is acceptable, as long as it is continuous. True, some interpret Ritva (33b) as saying that the sound may not change. But in fact, he simply writes that one should not intentionally insert a rise at the end of the teki’a. Indeed, some who are meticulous avoid rises in the teki’a (R. Ḥarlap). However, technically, such an irregularity does not disqualify the blast. (This is the position of all the poskim, and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach rules this way in Halikhot Shlomo 2:9.) Nevertheless, it would seem that if a teki’a rises or goes up and down repeatedly, so much so that it mimics a shevarim, it is proper to redo it.

Yemenites traditionally incorporate a rise in tone at the end of a teki’a. During the teki’a this rise expresses the heights of joy, while during the teru’a it expresses the depths of sorrow. Those who follow the Yemenite practice must ensure that there is a clear difference between the teki’a and the teru’a, making the teki’a very stable and the teru’a truly tremolo. The shofar-blower must be meticulous not to waver while blowing the teki’a, lest it sound like there is a teru’a in the middle of the teki’a.

13. Breathing

Le-khatḥila, one should blow in the order mandated by the Sages: three sets of tashrat, three sets of tashat, and three sets of tarat. Be-di’avad, one who changes the order still fulfills his obligation. For example, if he blows two sets of tashrat and then goes on to blow three sets each of tashat and tarat, he can later make up the last tashrat (SA 590:9; MB ad loc. 35).

If one makes a mistake blowing a blast, sometimes it is sufficient to simply repeat the blast. Other times the entire set of three blasts – tashrat, tashat, or tarat – must be repeated. It is never necessary to repeat an entire series of three sets, as each set stands on its own.

Within each set, the shofar-blower must take a break long enough to breathe between each teki’a and the adjacent shevarim or teru’a, and vice versa. Since the teki’a expresses joy and peace, while the teru’a expresses crying and sighing, it is proper to separate them (Levush). If the shofar-blower did not make this minimal pause between them, some say that he nevertheless fulfills his obligation, while others say that he does not. Even though the lenient position is accepted, for the first thirty blasts it is proper to be stringent and return to the first teki’a of that set (SA 590:5; SAH ad loc. 9).[16]

Each shevarim and each teru’a must be continuous. If the shofar-blower was confused and stopped for long enough to take a breath while in the middle of a shevarim or teru’a, he has not fulfilled the obligation, as he has split the blast into two distinct parts. Therefore, he must repeat it (MB 590:16; SHT ad loc. 14).[17]

The Rishonim disagree about the shevarim-teru’a in tashrat. Many maintain that it must be blown in one breath, as they are a single mitzva. Since shevarim-teru’a may be the teru’a referred to by the Torah, one may not interrupt it by breathing in the middle – and if he did, he does not fulfill the obligation. However, he should pause slightly between them, to separate the two parts of the blast (R. Yitzḥak ibn Gi’at; Rosh; Rashba; Ran; Rivash; Beit Yosef; MB ad loc. 18). Others maintain that le-khatḥila he must take a breath between them, as people breathe while sighing or sobbing (Rabbeinu Tam). However, if he does not take a breath, all agree that he fulfills his obligation be-di’avad. To fulfill every view, the custom is that for the teki’ot before Musaf, the shofar-blower does not breathe between the shevarim and teru’a, but for the thirty teki’ot during the Amida, he does (SA 590:4; SHT ad loc. 18).

[16]. One may not blow a double teki’a at the end of one set, intending for it to serve as the first teki’a of the next set as well. If one did so anyway, the blast counts as the last teki’a of the first set, but he must blow a new teki’a to serve as the first blast of the next set (Rambam; Ramban; Rashba; Rosh). Some are stringent and maintain that since he intended for this teki’a to do double duty, he has invalidated it entirely, for each teki’a needs a beginning and an end, while here his intent was for the first teki’a to have no end and the second to have no beginning. And since the teki’a is invalid, he has invalidated the entire set; he must return to the beginning of the set and redo it (Tur based on Yerushalmi). Halakha follows the lenient position (MB 590:28 based on Eliya Rabba and Vilna Gaon, though Beit Yosef maintains that it is preferable to defer to the stringent opinion).

[17]. According to most poskim – Rishonim and Aḥaronim – if he paused to breathe in the middle of a shevarim or teru’a, he has not fulfilled the obligation, as explained in SHT 590:14. However, some are lenient (Taz; MA).

14. Mistakes and Interruptions

Two types of mistakes can be made while blowing the shofar. The first type is when the shofar-blower intentionally blows a blast which turns out to be the wrong blast. In this case, he must return to the beginning of the set. The second type is when he tries and fails to blow the proper blast. In this case, he need not repeat the set. Rather, he should take a deep breath and blow the proper blast. We will now explain further.

The first type is when the shofar-blower got confused and blew a teru’a between a teki’a and a shevarim, or a shevarim between a teru’a and a teki’a. Since he intended to blow the blast that turned out to be incorrect in the middle of a set, he must go back to the beginning of the set. This is true even if he did not complete the blast, but only blew for the length of a tromit (SA 590:8). Likewise, if after completing a shevarim he took a breath and blew another shever, he must return to the first teki’a of the set. The additional shever was an alien blast in the middle of the set. Similarly, if after blowing a teru’a he took a breath and began another teru’a, he must return to the beginning of the set (SA 590:8).[18]

The second type is when the shofar-blower tries to blow the last teki’a of the set, but what comes out is closer to a shevarim or a teru’a. He should take a breath and blow a proper teki’a. He need not go back to the beginning of the set, since he did not mean to blow the wrong blast. Similarly, if he was trying to blow a teru’a or a shevarim but ran out of breath in the middle, he must blow that blast again, but he need not return to the beginning of the set. Some shofar-blowers like to extend the last tromit of the teru’a. They must be careful when doing so, because if it sounds like a shevarim, the teru’a must be repeated (MB 590:31).

If the shofar-blower blew three tromitin of the teru’a but was unable to continue, and he paused long enough to take a breath, he must return to the beginning of the set. Since some maintain that three tromitin are sufficient to fulfill the obligation, if he blows the nine blasts of a teru’a after taking a breath, it would be as though he blew two teru’ot (AHS 590:20).[19]

When there are two minyanim near each other, once the first minyan has started blowing the shofar, it is preferable for the second minyan not to start blowing until the first one has finished the initial thirty blasts. This is because some maintain that if a person hears other blasts in the middle of the shofar-blowing, even if he does not intend to fulfill his obligation through them, they invalidate the blasts he has already heard. Even though the halakha follows the view of most poskim, who reject this, it is preferable le-khatḥila to defer to those who are stringent (BHL 590:8 s.v. “ke-mitasek”).

[18]. Even though Rabbeinu Tam and Ba’al Ha-Ma’or say that no teki’a ever invalidates anything be-di’avad, Ramban and Raavan say that a teki’a which is out of place does invalidate the set. This is the ruling of SA 590:8, and it should be followed for the first thirty blasts before Musaf (because the berakhot are recited over them), as well as for the thirty blasts during the repetition of the Amida (because they are the primary blasts). However, for the blasts sounded after Musaf, one may rely on the lenient opinion (MB 590:35). Sephardim and Ḥasidim are lenient regarding the thirty blasts blown during the Amida, as well as the ten blasts at the end of the service.

[19]. If, while blowing a set of tashrat, the shofar-blower blew the first two blasts of a shevarim and then began a teru’a, he must go back and blow a shevarim-teru’a again. However, he need not repeat the initial teki’a because even if he got confused (as opposed to being unable to blow the correct blasts), since he is still in the middle of the shevarim-teru’a, and the sounds of the teru’a are part of it, he is considered like someone who is unable to blow, rather than someone who made a mistake (SA 590:7; MB ad loc. 27-28).

15. Shofar Defined

The shofar of Rosh Ha-shana is a hollow horn that grows from the head of an animal. The word “shofar” is related to the word “shefoferet” (“hollow tube”). A deer’s antlers may not be used, because they are not hollow but solid bone; one would have to drill a hole in them to use them. A cow’s horn may also not be used, as it is called “keren,” not “shofar” (Rosh Ha-shana 26a; SA 586:1). The sound comes out of the wider end of the shofar, the part that had been attached to the animal. This alludes to the idea that by blowing the shofar, we strike a blow against our animal nature, allowing us to reach a higher level of repentance.

There is a mitzva for the shofar of Rosh Ha-shana to be bent or curved, symbolizing the need for us to bend or humble our hearts before God (Rosh Ha-shana 26b). The best way to perform the mitzva is to use a curved ram’s horn. R. Abahu explains in the Gemara, “Why do we blow with a ram’s horn? God said, ‘Use a ram’s horn to blow before Me so that I will be reminded of the binding of Yitzḥak, son of Avraham, and I will consider it as if you sacrificed yourselves before Me’” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). A mature male sheep is called a ram (ayil), while a female is called a ewe (raḥel). It is best to use the curved horn of the ram for a shofar; one step below that is to use the curved horn of the ewe; since ewes, too, are sheep, their horns also bring to mind the binding of Yitzḥak.

If a person has a choice of blowing either a straight ram’s horn or the curved horn of a different animal, it is preferable to use the curved shofar, because using a curved shofar is a law mentioned explicitly in the Mishna, while using a ram’s horn is only a preference (MB 586:5).[20]

A ram’s horn is naturally curved, but if it grew straight, one may curve it by heating it up, thus making it into an ideal shofar. It is also permitted to heat a shofar and bend it for aesthetic reasons. (See Harḥavot.)

However, if someone heated it up and reshaped it so that the narrower end of the shofar became the wider end, he has invalidated the shofar. Similarly, if he turned a shofar inside out, it is invalid (SA 586:12). Such things can happen, because when a shofar is heated up it becomes very pliable; those who supply shofarot sometimes prefer to turn them inside out, because it is easier to smooth and beautify them that way. Therefore, a shofar must be bought from a trustworthy person, who can be believed when he says that he did not turn it inside out. When the wider end of a shofar has natural grooves and bumps, it is a sign that the shofar was not turned inside out.

[20]. Most of the laws pertaining to the shofar are derived from the verse about blowing the shofar in the Jubilee year (Vayikra 25:9). The Sages extrapolate from it to Rosh Ha-shana, as is explained in Rosh Ha-shana 33b.

We learn in a mishna, “All shofarot are kosher except that of a cow, because it is a horn” (Rosh Ha-shana 26a). Later on we learn, “The Rosh Ha-shana shofar should be the straight horn of an ibex…. R. Yehuda says, ‘On Rosh Ha-shana we blow rams’ horns’” (ibid. 26b). R. Yehuda is referring to curved rams’ horns, as horns from a ram are generally curved. R. Levi in the Gemara rules that on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur the mitzva is to use curved horns, because during those days the humbler a person is, the better. Thus, the first mishna teaches us that a cow’s horn is invalid because it is called a keren and not a shofar. In contrast, all other shofarot are kosher. The second mishna teaches us that it is preferable to use a curved shofar, but that a straight one is kosher as well. From R. Abahu’s statement in Rosh Ha-shana 16a we derive that the ideal shofar to use is a ram’s horn. This is the ruling of Raavad, Ramban, Rosh, Rashba, Ran, and many others. In contrast, Rambam rules that only a curved ram’s horn is kosher (MT, Laws of Shofar 1:1). According to him, R. Yehuda disagrees with the statement in the first mishna that all shofarot are kosher, believing that only a shofar from a bent ram’s horn is acceptable. This is also the opinion of R. Levi. R. Sa’adia Gaon and Yere’im follow this as well. However, the Aḥaronim rule in accordance with the majority of Rishonim that all shofarot are kosher. Therefore, one may recite a berakha before blowing a straight ibex horn or the like. This is also the ruling in SA 586:1. Nevertheless, in light of Rambam’s position, efforts should be made to procure a curved ram’s horn.

16. Miscellaneous Laws of Shofar

A shofar must be at least a tefaḥ long, so that when the shofar-blower is holding it in his hand, both ends of the shofar can be seen (SA 586:9).

Even if the sound of a shofar is very high-pitched, very low-pitched, or very rough, it is acceptable, in accordance with the principle: “All shofar sounds are acceptable” (SA 586:6).

If one glued together pieces of several shofarot to form a new shofar, it is invalid. Even if one glued only one broken piece of a shofar onto an existing one to lengthen it, he has invalidated it, for a shofar must be a single piece as it is found naturally, with no additions. Thus, if one added to the length of a shofar with metal or plastic, it is invalid (SA 586:10-11). However, if one sawed down a shofar and as a result its sound changed, it is kosher as long as a tefaḥ of the shofar remains. Similarly, if one sanded the shofar outside and inside, making it thinner and thus changing its sound, it is kosher (SA 586:13-14).

If one coated the outside of a shofar with gold or any other material, and this changed its sound, it is invalid, because the sound is not being produced exclusively by the shofar. Therefore, one should refrain from painting a shofar, lest the paint change its sound. However, it is permitted to carve designs into a shofar (SA and Rema 586:17).

If the inside of a shofar is coated with gold or any another material, the shofar is invalid, because the blasts blown do not pass through the shofar, but rather through a different material. Similarly, if the shofar’s mouthpiece is coated with gold or another material, even if they do not add to the length of the shofar, it is invalid, because the coating separates between the shofar-blower’s mouth and the shofar (SA 586:16, 18).

If a shofar was pierced but the sound did not change, it may be used even le-khatḥila. If the sound did change, some maintain that the shofar is invalid. Le-khatḥila, one should defer to this opinion. If no other shofar is available, one may rely on the position of most poskim, that as long as the hole does not extend over most of the shofar, it is kosher, and one can recite a berakha when using it. This is true even if the length of the shofar without the hole is less than a tefaḥ.

If one plugged the hole by gluing on a piece from a different shofar, if the sound returned to what it was, and the hole does not cover most of the shofar, it is kosher. In pressing circumstances, even if the sound is affected, the shofar may be used, and the berakha may even be recited before blowing it (MB ad loc. 35).[21]

If a shofar has a crack lengthwise that was not glued or tied, some maintain that even if it is a very small crack, it invalidates the shofar, as blowing the shofar is liable to crack the entire shofar. However, according to most poskim, if the crack extends over less than half of the shofar, the shofar is kosher. If necessary, one may rely upon them and even recite a berakha. However, if the crack runs along most of the shofar’s length, the shofar is invalid (SA 586:8; MB ad loc. 43; see BHL there). If someone heated up the shofar and repaired the crack, the shofar is kosher. If the crack extends the entire length of the shofar, the shofar is absolutely invalid. There is no way to fix it, since this object no longer qualifies as a shofar (SA 586:8). If a shofar is cracked widthwise, and the crack does not extend most of the way around, the shofar is kosher even if the sound is affected. If the crack does extend most of the way around the shofar and there is less than a tefaḥ from the mouthpiece to the crack, the shofar is invalid (ibid. 9).[22]

[21]. If a shofar has a hole which has not been plugged, even if its sound has been affected, it is still kosher according to most poskim (Tosafot based on Yerushalmi; Ramban; Rosh; Ran; Rabbeinu Yeruḥam; and others). This is also the ruling of SA (586:7). Others say that if the quality of the sound has changed, it is invalid (Ritva; Kol Bo). Le-khatḥila one should defer to their opinion (Rema). However, if the sound has not changed, it would seem that all agree that it may be used (MB ad loc. 28). When we speak of its sound changing, it must be a clear difference, because a minimal change is difficult to discern.

According to the Mishna and Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 27a-b) as understood by Rambam and Ran, three requirements must be met in order for a shofar to remain kosher: A) The hole extends over less than half of the shofar’s surface; B) If the hole is plugged, it must be fixed with something of its type, meaning a piece from another shofar (or the two sides of the shofar may be stuck back together); C) Its sound must remain unchanged. If any one of these conditions is not met, the shofar is invalid. In contrast, according to Tosafot and Rosh, the shofar must meet condition A and either B or C. In other words, the area with the hole must not be more than half of the surface. Additionally, either the shofar’s hole must be plugged with something of its type (in which case it is kosher even if the sound has changed), or the sound must be unchanged (in which case it is kosher even if the hole was plugged with some other material). Pri Ḥadash and Vilna Gaon state that the latter position is accepted. Pri Megadim and MB 586:35 add that at times of necessity, the berakha may even be recited before blowing such a shofar. It is preferable, though, to remove the plug, because then, even if the sound has changed, more poskim would agree that the shofar is kosher.

[22]. Additional laws: It is forbidden to blow a stolen shofar. One who transgressed and blew a stolen shofar has nevertheless fulfilled the mitzva, because the mitzva is to hear the shofar, and it was not the sound that was stolen (SA 586:2). If the shofar’s owner has given up hope of getting it back, and the thief passed the shofar on to someone else, the shofar is no longer considered stolen, and it is permissible to blow this shofar. (The thief, though, is still obligated to pay the original owner the value of the shofar.) Nevertheless, since it was stolen, some Aḥaronim write that one may not recite the berakha before blowing it (MB 586:9; Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 4:13).

If the owner of a shofar is not present, and there is no way to ask his permission to use his shofar, one may nevertheless use it for a hundred blasts, as there is a presumption that he would want his shofar to be used for the mitzva (MB 586:9). Afterward, the person who used it must wash and clean the shofar well. If it is known that a shofar’s owner is repulsed by others blowing his shofar, then no one may do so.

One may not blow a shofar that was used for idolatry. (See SA 586:3-4.)

01. Repentance

During the ten days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, God creates life for the upcoming year. So that His kindness does not reach the wicked, He judges all His creations during these days. Since He wishes to benefit all His creatures, and especially His people, through whom He channels shefa and blessing to the world, He is close, during this period, to all who sincerely call out to Him, and He extends His hand to penitents. Therefore, though repentance is always welcome, during these ten days it is more pleasing and is immediately accepted, as we read (Yeshayahu 55:6), “Seek the Lord while He can be found; call to Him while He is near” (Rosh Ha-shana 18a; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:6). During this period, individual repentance is accepted as readily as communal repentance (Pesikta Rabbati).

Therefore, it is proper during this period for a person to examine his actions in order to repent and correct his misdeeds from the past year (Rema OḤ 603:1). One should especially make an accounting of interpersonal matters, as Yom Kippur does not atone for interpersonal sins unless one first placates the person he offended (ibid. 603:4). If one has a disagreement with another about money, he should not decide for himself that he is in the right, as self-interest may blind him. Rather, he should approach a rabbi and ask for guidance. Before going to sleep each night, the pious engage in soul-searching, confess their sins, and return to God (Zohar III, 178a). During the Ten Days of Repentance, everyone should do so (MB 603:2).

Since it is primarily at this time that the world and humanity are judged, Jews customarily take special care to avoid anything prohibited and to increase Torah study, prayer, charity, and good deeds. Additionally, it is customary to wake up early to recite Seliḥot and supplications in the synagogue (MT, Laws of Repentance 3:4).

It is said in the name of Arizal that the seven days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur contain one of each day of the week, so on each day, one should try to improve himself through repentance, Torah study, and good deeds, to rectify whatever spiritual damage he did on that day throughout the year. On Sunday he should correct his misdeeds of Sundays, on Monday of Mondays, and so on (Sha’ar Ha-kavanot 90:3; MB 603:2).

Some have a custom to be more meticulous about various areas of halakha, like kashrut, during this time period (SA 603:1 based on y. Shabbat 1:3). People who rely on a lenient minority opinion during the year, due to various pressures, observe the proper, le-khatḥila practice according to most poskim during this period. For example, during this period it is proper to eat only glatt meat and wash mayim aḥaronim before reciting Birkat Ha-mazon.

The Sages said that one should always view himself – and the world as a whole – as being halfway between guilt and innocence. Since both the world and the individual are judged in accordance with the majority of deeds, a person doing one mitzva can tip the scales toward the side of merit for himself and for the whole world. And woe unto him who does one sin; he may have tipped the scales toward the side of guilt for himself and for the whole world. We read (Kohelet 9:18), “A single sin destroys much good.” One sin can withhold so much good from the perpetrator and from the whole world (Kiddushin 40b).

02. Changes to the Amida

Since when reciting the Amida one must see himself as standing before the King, during the Ten Days of Repentance he must make mention of God’s kingship, which is manifest during these days when He judges His world. If one does not make mention of this, it is as though he is paying mere lip-service to God’s kingship, which is revealed during the Ten Days of Repentance. Accordingly, the Sages changed the conclusion of the third berakha of the Amida from the usual “ha-Kel ha-kadosh” (“the holy God”) to “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh” (“the holy King”). Additionally, the berakha of Hashiva Shofteinu (“Restore our Judges”) ends with “ha-Melekh ha-mishpat” (“the King of justice”) instead of “Melekh ohev tzedaka u-mishpat” (“King Who loves righteousness and justice”).

If someone accidentally concluded the third berakha with “ha-Kel ha-kadosh,” and did not realize his mistake almost immediately (tokh kedei dibur, i.e., within the time it takes to say “Shalom alekha rabbi”), he must begin the Amida again, because the first three berakhot are considered one unit, and one who erred in any of the three must return to the beginning of the Amida.[1] If after finishing the Amida one is uncertain about whether he said “ha-Kel ha-kadosh” or “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh,” he should assume that he said “ha-Kel ha-kadosh” out of habit and must repeat the Amida. However, if he remembers thinking just before reciting the berakha that he must say “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh,” or if he remembers that he inserted “Mi khamokha” (see below), he can assume that he recited “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh,” and need not repeat the Amida (Taz 422:1; MB 582:4).

If one mistakenly concluded the berakha of Hashiva Shofteinu with “Melekh ohev tzedaka u-mishpat” instead of “ha-Melekh ha-mishpat” and did not correct it almost immediately, then according to some Sephardic poskim he has not fulfilled his obligation. Therefore, if he has not yet finished the Amida, he goes back to Hashiva Shofteinu, concludes it correctly, and continues with the Amida. If he has already finished the Amida, he must repeat it from the beginning, but he should stipulate that if he is not actually obligated to repeat it, his prayer should be considered voluntary (SA 118:1; Yeḥaveh Da’at 1:57). In contrast, according to Ashkenazic and some Sephardic poskim, even if he mistakenly concluded “Melekh ohev tzedaka u-mishpat,” he has fulfilled his obligation be-di’avad, since the word “Melekh” is mentioned in this formulation as well. Therefore, even if he did not quickly correct himself, he need not repeat the Amida (Rema 118:1; Ben Ish Ḥai, Nitzavim §19; Kaf Ha-ḥayim ad loc. 1). Since this is the majority custom, it is the appropriate ruling for one who is unsure of his family’s custom.

In addition to the above changes, there are four insertions in the Amida during the Ten Days of Repentance: “Zokhreinu le-ḥayim” in the first berakha, “Mi khamokha” in the second berakha, “U-khetov le-ḥayim” in the berakha of Modim, and “Be-sefer ḥayim” in the final berakha. One who forgot any or all of these additions need not repeat the Amida (SA 582:5).

During the Ten Days of Repentance we recite Avinu Malkeinu during Shaḥarit and Minḥa, as explained in section 6 below.

[1]. Some say that as long as one has not yet begun the next berakha, he may correct himself, even if it is no longer “tokh kedei dibur” (Eshel Avraham [Buczacz]; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 582:9). However, the accepted ruling is that of SA, which states that one who did not realize the mistake almost immediately must repeat the prayer.

03. Torah Study and Acts of Kindness

Torah study is an important basis for repentance, for as a result of Torah study, one comes to observe mitzvot, as the Sages said: “Study is greater, for study leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b). The Sages further said (Berakhot 16a) that just as a stream elevates one who immerses in it from a state of impurity to a state of purity, so too, one who enters the tent of Torah to study diligently is elevated from guilt to innocence.

Study must begin with fear of God, as we read, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Tehilim 111:10). Our Sages similarly state, “The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds” (Berakhot 17a). Therefore, it is proper for every person to set up a time each day to study works of musar, dedicated to self-improvement and character development (Arizal; Vilna Gaon; MB 603:2). During the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, it is particularly appropriate to intensify musar study and to resolve to continue it all year long.

In addition, the mitzva of Torah study is the equivalent of all other mitzvot, because it elevates a person more than other mitzvot. All other mitzvot are performed with body or soul, but Torah study occurs in the most elevated parts of a person – mind and soul. One who studies Torah becomes one with God’s will. Since Torah study is the most sublime of all mitzvot, it has a special power to atone for sins. Thus, our Sages say that even if a person has transgressed a prohibition whose punishment is death at the hands of heaven, he can save himself by increasing Torah study. If he was accustomed to study one page, he should study two; if he usually studied one chapter, he should study two. If he does not know how to study, he can help himself by becoming involved with charitable causes (Vayikra Rabba 25:1).

The Rishonim list regimens of fasting and mortifications in penance for specific sins. Aḥaronim explain that these fasts and mortifications are for those who do not toil in Torah study. Those who study Torah assiduously and whose fear of God is greater than their wisdom find atonement and correction through diligent Torah study (Arizal; Sefer Ḥaredim ch. 65; Shlah; BHL 571:2; Noda Bi-Yehuda OḤ 141:35; below 6:7).

  1. Ḥayim of Volozhin also writes that Torah study atones for all sins, including very serious ones for which even sacrifices cannot atone (Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 4:31). The midrash states: “If a person committed many sins and was condemned to death [in the heavenly court]…but repented, read from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, studied Mishna, Midrash, halakhot and aggadot, and apprenticed under the sages – even if a hundred evil decrees had been made against him, God nullifies them” (Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba 5). This accords with what our Sages tell us about the children of Eli. As a punishment for desecrating God’s name in the Mishkan at Shilo, they and their descendants were condemned to die young. No offering could atone for their offense. Nevertheless, when their descendants studied Torah, they lived longer. When they also performed kind deeds, they lived even longer (Rosh Ha-shana 18a).

Jewish custom is to be especially charitable during the Ten Days of Repentance, as the verse states, “Charity saves from death” (Mishlei 11:4). During this period, it is proper for everyone to engage in soul-searching, particularly with regard to kindness and charity. People should recommit to tithing their earnings to support Torah study and the poor. Those who are well-off should extend their charity and give a fifth of their earnings.

04. Interpersonal Sins

One who wrongs his friend should make up with him as soon as possible, as the longer the friend stays hurt, the greater the sin. Nevertheless, if one did not do so because he was negligent, embarrassed, or unable to placate his friend, he must make a special effort to do so before Yom Kippur. The Mishna states, “Yom Kippur atones for sins that are between man and God; however, Yom Kippur does not atone for sins which are interpersonal, until the offender has placated his friend” (Yoma 85b). Even if he were to sacrifice all the animals in the world, and pray and fast extensively, he would be not forgiven until he appeased his friend (Bava Kama 92a).

One who damaged his friend’s goods or his friend’s honor has sinned against both his friend and heaven. Therefore, not only must he placate his friend, he must also confess his transgression to God and resolve not to repeat it. So if a person injured his friend, stole something from him, or damaged his property, he should first pay his friend what he is owed and ask forgiveness for having hurt him. Only afterward should he confess his sin before God. Similarly, someone who embarrassed his friend or spoke of him in a belittling manner must first placate his friend and only then confess before God. If he confessed first, his confession is inadequate. He must confess again after he has made things right with his friend (Rabbeinu Yona, Sha’arei Teshuva 4:18).[2]

Let us say that a person insulted someone or spoke ill of him in front of others, who might now treat him poorly as a result. The offender must make a point of speaking highly of this person in front of the same people. He must correct himself and explain why he was mistaken when he spoke badly of him (for example, he did not have the complete picture). This is to negate any damage he may have done. Similarly, it is proper for someone who insulted another publicly to ask for forgiveness publicly as well (MT, Laws of Repentance 2:5).

[2]. R. Kook writes extensively about teshuva. Here are a few powerful quotes from his works:

One must deeply believe in the possibility of teshuva and be certain that even just thinking about repentance rectifies much of what is wrong with him and with the world. Every thought of repentance increases the happiness and satisfaction in his soul…. If he has committed interpersonal sins but is not strong enough to ask forgiveness from his friend and correct them, he should not be discouraged from repenting altogether. After all, the sins relevant to his relationship with God, for which he has repented, are forgiven. The remaining sins that he has not yet corrected are only a small minority in comparison…. Nevertheless, he should continue to try very hard to avoid sinning within the interpersonal realm and make every effort to rectify what he can with wisdom and great courage… (Orot Ha-teshuva 7:6)

If one makes a serious resolution to avoid future sins in the interpersonal realm and does his best to rectify what was already done…spiritual light will continue to illuminate his soul. Eventually his spiritual courage will present him with many ways to complete the practical aspect of teshuva, so that spiritual light, in all its grandeur and goodness, will be able to dwell in his soul, which yearns for it. (Ibid. 10:6)

Even though one must do complete teshuva for any sin…even more so for interpersonal ones including theft and the like…nevertheless even if he was unable to do complete teshuva, even in the interpersonal realm…because something prevents him, he should not let it confound his expanded consciousness and the spiritual joy of understanding the supernal light and clinging to it. He should always think that he is benefiting the whole world by increasing divine light in his soul, which is a part of all the worlds and all the souls in general, and all the Jewish souls in particular. If so, he illuminates and benefits them, even those he hurt, and this is also a type of rectification of interpersonal harm, even though it is not enough… (Shemona Kevatzim 1:827)

05. Placating and Asking Forgiveness

Someone who is asking for forgiveness must specify his offense. If the wronged party was not aware of the offense, the person requesting forgiveness must confess it to him and ask his forgiveness (Baḥ). However, if he knows that detailing the sin will cause the wronged party pain and embarrassment, it is better that he not specify it (MA; MB 606:3). He should also do his very best to neutralize the impact of the negative things he said. He should make a point of speaking highly of this person to counteract the earlier disparaging things which he said.[3]

Le-khatḥila, one who has hurt another should ask forgiveness himself. However, if he is too ashamed, or if he thinks that the injured party is more likely to be receptive to someone else, he should ask forgiveness through a middleman (Mateh Ephraim 606:1; MB ad loc. 2).

If the injured party initially refuses to be placated, the penitent should approach him in the company of three people and request forgiveness in front of them. If forgiveness is again withheld, he should try again (with three people). If it is still withheld, he should try yet again (with three people). If the injured party still refuses to forgive, the original offender does not have to do anything further. The unforgiving party is now the sinner. However, if the person hurt was his Torah teacher (even if not his primary one), he should keep going back, even a thousand times, until he attains forgiveness (Yoma 87a; MT Laws of Repentance 2:9; MB 606:7; BHL ad loc.).

The injured party should not be cruel and refuse to forgive. As our Sages state, “If one foregoes injustice [done against him], heaven will forego punishment due to him” (Rosh Ha-shana 17a). If he does not grant forgiveness, his sins will not be forgiven in heaven. However, if his intention is to help the offender by teaching him to be more careful in the future, our Sages allow him to make the sinner request forgiveness several times. Even when the offended party officially refuses to grant forgiveness, in his heart he should immediately stop hating or being angry at the person who hurt him (Rema 606:1; MB ad loc. 9).

If one is concerned that if he forgives, the offender will repeat his offense, he is not required to forgive. Similarly, if one spoke badly of another and seriously damaged his reputation, the injured party is not required to forgive the offender, since some people will have heard the slander and not the retraction. Even so, if the offender truly regrets his action, publicly apologizes, retracts what he said, and does his best to undo the damage he caused, it is proper for a pious and humble person to forgive him. (See Rema 606:1; MB ad loc. 11.)

If the injured party has died, the person who hurt him must bring ten people to his graveside, specify his sin, and confess that he sinned against the God of Israel and this individual. They then declare three times, “You are forgiven” (Yoma 87b; SA 606:2; MB ad loc. 15).

Some people ask forgiveness from all their friends and acquaintances before Yom Kippur. However, this practice is almost meaningless. People fool themselves into thinking that because they are so careful to ask forgiveness from all their friends, this makes them pious. In fact, though, they are acting wickedly, because they are not asking forgiveness from the people they actually hurt. Rather, the main idea is to do soul-searching before Yom Kippur and recall those whom one may have truly hurt. He should then request forgiveness from them (Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Derekh Ḥayim §151).

[3]. According to Ḥafetz Ḥayim 4:12 (based on Sha’arei Teshuva 3:207), if one spoke badly of another, even if the person is unaware of this, he must tell him of the sin, specify what he said, and beg forgiveness. R. Yisrael Salanter objected strongly to this ruling; because of it he refused to give his approbation to the book. His reasoning was that the wronged party might be hurt by this revelation, in which case the offender will have compounded his sin. Rather, according to R. Salanter, the person should ask forgiveness without detailing what he said, in order to avoid adding to his victim’s pain. R. Ahron Soloveichik agrees with this (Paraḥ Mateh Aharon, p. 187), as does R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhot Shlomo 3:6). It seems that all would agree that if the offended party is liable to suffer harm as a result of not knowing what had been said about him, the offending party would be obligated to tell him. Perhaps Ḥafetz Ḥayim refers to such a case (Az Nidberu 7:60). Be that as it may, the deciding factor in practice is what is best for the victim.

06. Customs During the Ten Days of Repentance

Avinu Malkeinu is customarily recited during Shaḥarit and Minḥa, following the ḥazan’s repetition of the Amida. This prayer is very powerful, as in it we turn to God from within two different types of relationships with Him: as children to their father and as servants to their king. The Gemara tells us that a fast was once declared because of drought. Many people’s prayers went unanswered. Rain did not fall until R. Akiva led the prayers, declaring: “Our Father, our King, we have no king but You. Our Father, our King, have mercy on us for Your sake.” To emphasize the importance of this prayer, it is customarily recited while standing. Many also open the ark during its recitation. Avinu Malkeinu is recited even when Taḥanun is omitted, such as in the presence of a newlywed or of a father on the day of his son’s brit (Rema 602:1). Even someone praying on his own may recite Avinu Malkeinu (Be’er Heitev 602:1; see Da’at Torah 584:1).

After Pesukei De-zimra and before Barkhu, most communities, following Arizal, add the psalm “Shir ha-ma’alot mi-ma’amakim” (Tehilim 130). It is not recited in Yemenite (Baladi) communities, and several Ashkenazic communities omit it as well, so as not to interrupt between Pesukei De-zimra and the berakhot preceding Shema. (See MB 54:4.)

It is permitted to get married during the Ten Days of Repentance. True, some great Ashkenazic rabbis maintain that weddings should not take place then, as it is meant to be a somber time (Mateh Ephraim 602:5; Kitzur Shulḥan Arukh 130:4). However, Sephardic communities do not share this concern, and even some Ashkenazim get married during this period. Therefore, weddings may be scheduled for the Ten Days of Repentance. There is even a certain advantage in entering Yom Kippur having just done this great mitzva (Sdei Ḥemed, Aseifat Dinim, Ma’arekhet Ḥatan Ve-kalla, klal 23; Melamed Le-ho’il EH §1). However, they should be pay special attention to ensuring that the wedding does not include immodest mingling of men and women.

07. Shabbat Shuva

The Shabbat during the Ten Days of Repentance is called “Shabbat Shuva” or “Shabbat Teshuva” after its haftara, which begins, “Return (shuva), O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin” (Hoshea 14:2). It is also known that Shabbat is the source of blessing, and everything that happens during the week draws its vitality from Shabbat. In a sense, then, this Shabbat can be considered the root of Yom Kippur, and thus it is proper to use it for repentance (teshuva) and Torah study.

There is a widespread custom for the rabbi to give a special sermon on this Shabbat, dealing with the relevant laws of the period and rebuking the community with the goal of inspiring them to repent from their common sins and strengthen their Torah study, charity, and mitzva observance. This sermon is one of the two most important sermons of the year (the other being that of Shabbat Ha-gadol before Pesaḥ). Therefore, even if other rabbis give lectures and sermons during the year, on this Shabbat the local rabbi should speak. Since it is his community, he knows best which issues need to be addressed and what needs to be improved. Everyone should attend this sermon, from Torah scholars to simple and uneducated people who will not fully understand the rabbi. Some rabbis wrap themselves in a talit when they speak, in honor of the audience and the sermon. (See Mateh Ephraim 602:41; Elef Ha-magen ad loc. 23.)

In the past, some communities held the sermon in the morning, between Shaḥarit and the Torah reading. In large communities with many synagogues, where it is difficult to gather everyone together in the middle of the service, the sermon is held right after Minḥa. Minḥa is scheduled for two or three hours before shki’a so the rabbi can speak at length and still leave time to eat se’uda shlishit (Mateh Ephraim 602:42). In many communities, the sermon is delivered between se’uda shlishit and Ma’ariv.

On Shabbat Shuva (and the preceding Friday afternoon), Ashkenazim, Yemenites, and some Sephardim (including many of North African descent) do not recite Avinu Malkeinu, since Shabbat is not a time for personal requests. Even if Rosh Ha-shana itself is on Friday or Shabbat, they do not recite Avinu Malkeinu (Sefer Ha-pardes; Roke’aḥ; Ran; Responsa Rivash §512; Rema 602:1; MB 584:4). Many Sephardim do say Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat during the Ten Days of Repentance, including Rosh Ha-shana. This does not show disrespect for Shabbat, since these days are designated for repentance and prayer for the upcoming year (R. Amram Gaon; Rabbeinu Gershom; Me’iri; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 584:7-8).

Many people wait to recite Kiddush Levana until after Yom Kippur, because Kiddush Levana should be recited joyfully, and only after Yom Kippur does the tension of judgment dissipate. Then people leave the synagogue feeling joyful (Maharil; Rema 602:1; Pri Ḥadash; R. Mordechai Eliyahu; 7:19 below). Others disagree, maintaining that people should recite the prayer during the Ten Days of Repentance, as doing so might tip the scales in their favor (Levush; Ḥida; Vilna Gaon). Every community should continue with its custom.

08. Kaparot

Some ritually slaughter a chicken before Yom Kippur for “kaparot” (“atonements”). The idea is that whatever was supposed to befall the person should befall the chicken instead, sparing the person. (A rooster is a “gever” in Hebrew, the same as the word for “man.”) Some say that we should not perform this ceremony, as it is considered to be “darkhei emori,” a gentile custom based on foreign beliefs, with no Torah source. Rashba writes that when he first arrived in his city, he found that kaparot was widely practiced, along with other strange customs which the Jews had learned from the non-Jews. He explained to the community that this custom was disgraceful and ordered them to stop it (Responsa Rashba 1:395). This is also the ruling of Shulḥan Arukh (605:1).

In contrast, Rema writes that the custom should not be abandoned, as it is a venerable one, dating back to Geonic times. This is also the position of Arizal. Due to his influence, many people, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, perform kaparot. This is how it is done: On Erev Yom Kippur, in the early morning, a chicken is acquired for each member of the household. It is passed over their heads, and they say, “Let this be my exchange, let this be my substitute, let this be my atonement, etc.” The chicken is then slaughtered. When possible, a rooster should be acquired for each male, and a hen for each female. A pregnant woman should use a hen for herself, and both a rooster and a hen for her fetus. If white chickens are available, they should be used, to recall the verse, “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white” (Yeshayahu 1:18). While the chicken is being slaughtered, the person should have in mind that the chicken is his stand-in; everything happening to the chicken really should be happening to him. Afterward the custom is to give the meat or its monetary equivalent to the poor, so that they will have food for proper meals before and after the fast. Someone who cannot obtain chickens can fulfill the custom using geese or fish. There are only two requirements: that the animals are kosher, and that they cannot be offered as sacrifices (so that it does not look as if one is offering a sacrifice outside the Temple precincts).

Over the course of time, as the custom became more widespread, ritual slaughterers found themselves under a lot of pressure to work very quickly on Erev Yom Kippur. This led to concern that they might not check their knives properly or slaughter correctly. As a result, poskim ruled that it was preferable either to delay the slaughter until after morning services or to have it done a day or two early, since any time within the Ten Days of Repentance is an appropriate time for the ritual.

Nowadays, many people fulfill this custom by giving charity – the value of a chicken on behalf of each family member. Those who do so because of the difficulty of ensuring proper slaughter pass the money overhead instead of a chicken. Those who do so because they feel that this ritual is non-Jewish in origin do not pass the money over their heads. They simply give it to charity, which is certainly an appropriate thing to do before Yom Kippur.

Each person can choose which custom to follow. Nevertheless, if his family has a custom, it is preferable to follow it.

09. Eating on Erev Yom Kippur

There is a mitzva to eat heartily on Erev Yom Kippur (SA 604:1), and according to most poskim, the mitzva is of Torah origin (MA and MB 604:1). The Sages said, “One who eats and drinks on the ninth [of Tishrei] – the Torah considers it as though he fasted on the ninth and tenth” (Yoma 81b). Even though fasting is harder than eating, God wants to increase our reward, so He considers our eating on the ninth as if it were fasting.[4]

The reason for this mitzva is to prepare for the fast (Rashi) and to have the strength to pray properly on Yom Kippur (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:10). Therefore, one should eat heartily especially at the se’uda ha-mafseket, the last meal before the fast. This mitzva also expresses God’s love for us. He commands us to fast only one day a year to atone for our sins, but out of His abundant concern for our well-being, He commands us to eat and drink before the fast so that we will have the strength to get through it unharmed (Rosh; Tur OḤ 604). According to another view, even though eating before the fast is helpful physiologically, it has an element of inui (affliction), as it is difficult to transition from the pleasure of eating to the challenge of fasting (Shibolei Ha-leket; AHS 604:4).

Additionally, excessive eating is indeed an inui from the perspective of human spirituality, as it places an emphasis on the body. This, then, is precisely the point of the mitzva – to purify and improve the body as well as the soul, for perfect service of God is with the body and soul together. On the one hand, we must be wary of the evil inclination, which draws a person toward physical desires. On the other hand, we should not conclude that holiness is revealed only when the soul is alienated from the body and the physical world. It is specifically by highlighting the sacred value of physical enjoyment on Erev Yom Kippur that we can wholly repent on Yom Kippur (Shlah, Masekhet Yoma, Torah Or §136).

There is another important reason for eating on the ninth. All the Torah’s commandments must be undertaken with wholehearted joy, which includes physical enjoyment. Certainly, the mitzva of repentance should be done joyfully, since through it we are purged of all our sins – sins which demean us and depress our spirits. For this reason, Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, which deserves to be celebrated with food and drink. However, while repenting, open joy is inappropriate, as one of the main components of repentance is sorrow and regret – which is why Yom Kippur is a fast day. We are therefore commanded to give physical expression to the joy of the mitzva of repentance on Erev Yom Kippur. Thus, we can repent completely on Yom Kippur, despite the somber nature of the day (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:8; R. Moshe Cordovero).

This mitzva entails eating and drinking more than usual. Some say that on Erev Yom Kippur one should eat two days’ worth of food. Lekhatḥila, one should eat at least one bread-based meal; many have two such meals. (See MB 608:18; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 604:2.) Arizal says that eating for the sake of heaven on Erev Yom Kippur allows a person to make up for any spiritual imperfection connected with his eating during the year. This eating is so important that one should study less Torah to fulfill this mitzva maximally (MA 604).

Even though there is a mitzva to eat and drink large amounts, one should eat light, easy to digest foods, rather than heavy ones. We must also be careful not to get drunk, as prayer requires sobriety (SA 608:4; MB ad loc. 18).

The primary mitzva is to eat during the day, not the preceding night (Vilna Gaon; AHS 604:5). Still, several poskim write that eating at night is something of a mitzva as well (Baḥ; Birkei Yosef).

Even if one is exempt from fasting (e.g., one is dangerously ill), there is a mitzva to eat on Erev Yom Kippur, to express the joy of the day and the joy of the mitzva (Ketav Sofer OḤ §112). If he does not have the strength to eat very much, he should at least be careful not to fast, as fasting on Erev Yom Kippur is prohibited, even for those trying to neutralize a bad dream (Rema 604:1). Someone who eats even a small amount of food (the volume of a kotevet, a large date) or drinks a small amount of liquid (a cheek-full) is no longer considered to be fasting (Minḥat Ḥinukh 313:15).

[4]. The Torah says, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement…you shall afflict yourselves” (Vayikra 23:27). A few verses later, we read, “You shall afflict yourselves on the ninth day of the month” (ibid. 32). Didn’t we just read that the fast is on the tenth? Rather, the second verse teaches that there is a mitzva on the ninth to prepare for the fast by eating and drinking. We thus learn that one who eats on the ninth in preparation for the fast is considered to have fasted on the ninth, too.

10. Erev Yom Kippur Customs

Taḥanun is not recited on Erev Yom Kippur during Shaḥarit, since the day is a quasi-holiday, and Taḥanun has an element of broken-heartedness that impairs the day’s joy (SA 604:2). Most communities also omit Taḥanun during the Seliḥot recited the preceding night, because the night, too, is somewhat festive. Nevertheless, they do recite vidui in Seliḥot. This is the custom of Ashkenazim, Yemenites, and some Sephardim (Levush 604:2; Shiyarei Knesset Ha-gedola; Shulḥan Gavo’ah; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 604:19). Some Sephardim recite Taḥanun if they are praying before dawn, but not if they are praying after dawn (Ma’amar Mordekhai, Hilkhot Ḥagim 44:4).

Ashkenazim do not recite Avinu Malkeinu on Erev Yom Kippur unless Yom Kippur itself is on Shabbat (when Avinu Malkeinu is not said), in which case Avinu Malkenu is recited at Shaḥarit of Erev Yom Kippur. Sephardim always say Avinu Malkeinu on Erev Yom Kippur, as many of them recite it even when Yom Kippur itself is on Shabbat (SA and Rema 604:2; MB ad loc.; section 7 above).

Eulogies are not delivered on Erev Yom Kippur unless the deceased was a Torah scholar. In such a case, eulogies are offered where body is present (SAH 604:4).

Some communities recite extra Seliḥot on Erev Yom Kippur, while others recite fewer (Rema 604:2). Ashkenazic practice for the past few centuries has been to recite fewer Seliḥot, in accordance with the opinion that there is a mitzva to eat and drink at night as well, which implies that it is a quasi-holiday on which Seliḥot should be kept to a minimum (Shlah). Sephardim do not shorten the Seliḥot, as they are recited at night. Nevertheless, it is good for even those who recite the full Seliḥot to eat and drink a bit extra on the night of the ninth.

Some have the custom of going to mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur, to purify themselves in anticipation of the Day of Judgment and as part of their repentance. However, no berakha is recited prior to this immersion since it is only a custom (SA 606:4). One who wishes to follow this custom but finds it difficult may wash with nine kavim (approximately 11 liters) of water instead (Rema ad loc.). That is, he should stand in the shower while nine kavim of water streams down on him without interruption. He should ensure that this water comes into contact with his entire body (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:16 and n. 8). In the past, women immersed before Yom Kippur. Nowadays, very few women do so.

Some had the custom of undergoing thirty-nine lashes after Minḥa, to inspire them to repent. The person being whipped would bend forward, and the person administering the lashes would strike him on the back while reciting the verse “Ve-hu raḥum” (Tehilim 78:38) three times. He would administer one lash with each word. The lashes were not strong. It was done with any type of string or strap and meant to recall the punishment of lashes (SA and Rema 607:6). Nowadays, very few people do this.

Even though the mitzva to confess is primarily on Yom Kippur, our Sages instituted the recitation of vidui before the se’uda ha-mafseket as well. This was out of concern that someone might get drunk during the meal and thus be unable to confess on Yom Kippur itself. Therefore, the custom is to recite Minḥa before the meal and to confess then, during the silent Amida (Yoma 87b; SA 607:1).

At the start of Yom Kippur, before going to synagogue for Ma’ariv, many parents bestow berakhot on their children.

11. Hatarat Nedarim (Annulment of Vows)

There is a universal Jewish custom to annul vows on Erev Rosh Ha-shana in order to enter the holiday free from the serious sin of unfulfilled vows (Shlah, Masekhet Yoma §2-4; Ḥayei Adam 138:8). Some also annul vows before Yom Kippur. The recitation of Kol Nidrei at the start of Yom Kippur is directed toward this goal as well.

This annulment is effective for vows that a person forgot having made. It is also effective in annulling the obligation to continue performing a positive custom that one performed three times without stipulating that it does not have the force of a vow. It also annuls commitments to voluntary mitzvot that one undertook without specifying that it does not have the force of a vow. In contrast, if a person remembers making a specific vow, he is not released from it until he details it before three “judges,” who can release him based on a loophole and his regret (SA YD 228:14).[5]

The annulment entails appearing before three men and asking them to release him from the vow. Even three hedyotot (regular people, non-rabbis) can release him, as long as they can understand the words of Torah and grasp the meaning of annulling vows. (See ibid. 228:1.) To release him, the three men say three times: “It is permitted to you,” “It is allowed to you,” or “You are forgiven.” Siddurim have a standard formula for requesting and granting annulment.

Since this annulment is not considered judgment, it may be done at night, and the three people on the “court” may be related to one another or to the person asking for the annulment. Accordingly, three brothers may annul the vow of a fourth brother (ibid. 228:3). However, if a woman requests a vow annulment, her husband may not be one of the three (ibid. 234:57).

The person asking for an annulment customarily stands, while the three people granting the annulment sit, as a court would. Many people may stand before the “court” at once and ask that their vows be annulled, and the annulment may be extended to the whole group at once. Nevertheless, some are careful to annul the vows of one person at a time (Mateh Ephraim 581:49).

If one dreamed that he made a vow, some say he should have it annulled. Some even say that this annulment requires a panel of ten. Though most poskim do not require any type of annulment for a vow made in a dream, as it is not real, le-khatḥila we defer to the stringent view (SA YD 210:2). If he cannot easily find a group of ten, he may request an annulment before three, as one normally does for vows (Rema ad loc.).[6]

Women effectively annul their vows with the recitation of Kol Nidrei. For this reason, they make sure to attend services on the night of Yom Kippur. A married woman can appoint her husband as her agent to annul her vows when he annuls his own. Since the two of them are like one unit, when he stands before the “court,” it is as if she is with him. However, an unmarried woman cannot appoint an agent (male or female) to act on her behalf and annul her vows (SA YD 234:56; Taz ad loc. 46; Rav Pe’alim OḤ 4:34).

[5]. According to Torah law, a vow may be annulled even if it is not specified, but the Sages instituted that one must specify the vow before it can be annulled, lest the “court” release him from a vow that is forbidden to annul (for example, a vow whose goal is to prevent one from doing something halakhically prohibited). Thus, if the person who made the vow did not tell at least one of the three people its specifics, they may not annul it (Gittin 35b; SA YD 228:14). This is why the formulation of the annulment ceremony of Erev Rosh Ha-shana is effective only for vows which one does not remember. It may not be used to annul specific vows (Tosafot Rid, Nedarim 23b; Shibolei Ha-leket §317; Derekh Ha-ḥayim; Elef Ha-magen 581:101). Others maintain that the annulment is effective even for vows that a person remembers making. Since the formula of the annulment states that the request is not being made for vows that cannot be annulled, there is no possibility of a forbidden annulment being granted (R. Shlomo Kluger, Nidrei Zerizin, responsa section, YD 228:14; Sefat Emet, Nedarim 23b; R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach inclined this way as well; see the book Kol Nidrei 79:1).

  1. Shlomo Kluger writes that the nullification works through the mechanism of ḥarata (regret). True, a petaḥ (loophole) is normally required as well. However, since the person had stated on the previous Erev Rosh Ha-shana that he was nullifying upcoming vows (as we explain in the next section), ḥarata on its own is enough. Maḥaneh Ephraim (Nedarim §16) suggests that the annulment qualifies as a petaḥ as well, for had the person known that he would regret the vow, he would not have made it (Kol Nidrei 78:7).

[6]. However, one who does not recall making a vow in a dream need not seek release in the presence of ten on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. Nevertheless, some are careful to annul their vows before a panel of ten on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, in case they made a vow in a dream and subsequently forgot (Da’at Torah 619:1).

12. Disclaiming Future Vows

Our Sages state, “If one wants to invalidate his vows for the whole year, he should stand on Rosh Ha-shana and say, ‘All vows that I make in the future are hereby void’” (Nedarim 23b). This is called “issuing a disclaimer” (“mesirat moda’a”) in halakhic parlance. When we recite Kol Nidrei at the start of Yom Kippur, not only do we nullify past vows, we also issue a disclaimer when we say, “From this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur.” Even so, the custom is to issue a disclaimer on Erev Rosh Ha-shana as well, while annulling vows, because those who are enthusiastic perform a mitzva at the earliest opportunity (“zerizim makdimim le-mitzvot”). The earlier declaration is also helpful to one who is late for Kol Nidrei or does not understand that Kol Nidrei involves issuing a disclaimer.[7]

According to most poskim, the disclaimer is effective as long as the person making the vow has forgotten that he made such a declaration. However, if he makes a vow while aware of the disclaimer, his vow takes effect, for by making the vow, he implicitly annuls his disclaimer (SA YD 211:2).

In practice, one who made a vow does not rely on the disclaimer to annul it. Rather, if he does not want to fulfill the vow, he must go to three men to annul it. There are two reasons for this: First, some maintain that a disclaimer is effective only in the unusual case where the person remembers it immediately (tokh kedei dibur) following the vow and intends for the declaration to nullify the vow. However, if the person making the vow did not recall the disclaimer immediately, the vow remains valid. In practice, we take their position into account (SA YD 211:2). Second, even though most poskim say that the disclaimer is effective and nullifies the vow, they still require the person to have the vow annulled before three men. This is because there are cases where the vow takes effect according to the majority opinion, such as if he makes it while remembering that he had issued the disclaimer, and the Sages were concerned that the seriousness of such vows would be undermined if most vows are automatically annulled by the disclaimer (Mahari Weil; Rema YD 211:1). It should also be noted that all agree that the disclaimer is not effective in the case of a vow that one person makes to another, because such a vow is not solely under his control (SA 211:4).

The disclaimer effectively ensures that good practices that one carried out three times are not considered like vows. Without the disclaimer, unless someone explicitly stipulates that he is not making a vow (e.g., he says “bli neder”), doing something three times consecutively is considered a vow. Likewise, a disclaimer is effective for one who resolves to give charity or do another mitzva and does not explicitly state that it does not have the force of a vow. Without the disclaimer, since he did not say “bli neder,” his resolution is considered a vow (Da’at Torah YD 211:2).

Technically, if one issues a disclaimer out loud, it is effective even if he is alone, and his vows are thus nullified. Nevertheless, it is better to issue the disclaimer in the presence of three men. In fact, this is how we nullify vows on Erev Rosh Ha-shana (Ritva, Nedarim 23b; Kol Nidrei 81:10).

If a woman attends Kol Nidrei and understands the meaning of the disclaimer, her vows are annulled with its recitation. If she does not attend, it is proper for her to recite the disclaimer to herself. Thinking it is not enough; she must actually verbalize it.

[7]. In the standard annulment of vows, the disclaimer explicitly excludes vows made during Minḥa to fast the next day. Without this exception, the disclaimer would annul any resolution to fast, and even if he does in fact fast, it will not have the elevated status of a fast. Yet the wording of Kol Nidrei does not mention this exclusion. We must say that the rabbi and congregants tacitly agree that the disclaimer in Kol Nidrei does not apply to fasts accepted at Minḥa.

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.

01. Honoring the Day

Like Shabbat and holidays, Yom Kippur is called “a sacred occasion” (mikra kodesh), 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). With regard to Shabbat and festivals, this means enjoying and honoring them, as our Sages say (Sifra, Emor 12:4), “How does one sanctify a festival? With food, drink, and clean clothes” (codified in MT, Laws of Yom Tov 6:16; SA OḤ 529:1). However, we cannot say the same for Yom Kippur, when we must fast. Thus, our Sages (Shabbat 119a) expound the verse “The Lord’s holy day (should be) honored” (Yeshayahu 58:13) as referring to Yom Kippur. “There is no eating and no drinking on it, so the Torah says: Honor it with clean clothes” (Rif; Rosh on Yoma 8:9).

Many people, men and women, wear fine, elegant white clothes on Yom Kippur, imitating the ministering angels. On Yom Kippur we are not seduced by temptations of the flesh; we are sin-free, like the angels. Women, even those who do not wear white, avoid wearing jewelry and fancy clothes on Yom Kippur, due to the dread of impending judgment (Mordekhai; Rema 610:4; MB ad loc. 16-17). Many Ashkenazic men wear a white cloak called a kittel, which, in addition to being angelic, is also similar to a burial shroud. The kittel reminds us of death, leaving us contrite and humble, and inspiring us to repent. A kittel must be removed before using the bathroom, unless one is only urinating (Mateh Ephraim ad loc. 12; MB ad loc. 18).

It is a mitzva to clean the house before Yom Kippur and to cover the table with a nice tablecloth, just as one does before Shabbat (Mordekhai; Rema 610:3; AHS ad loc. 2). There is also a mitzva to take a shower in honor of Yom Kippur, just as one does for Shabbat. Some immerse in a mikveh as well (5:10 above).

It is a mitzva to clean the synagogue and prepare it for Yom Kippur so that it will look its best. There is also a mitzva to leave on all the lights in the synagogue in honor of the day, as we read (Yeshayahu 24:15), “Therefore, honor the Lord with lights” (SA 610:3-4; MB ad loc. 9).

On Tisha Be-Av, which is a mournful day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, we make a point of not smelling aromatic spices (SA 559:7; SHT 556:1). In contrast, on Yom Kippur some make a point of smelling aromatic spices and reciting the berakha over them. Since Yom Kippur is a festival, there is a mitzva to honor the day in any permissible way.

02. The Prohibition of Melakha and the Mitzva to Desist from Work

There is a positive mitzva to refrain from melakha on Yom Kippur, as we read, “It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you” (Vayikra 23:32). If one works on Yom Kippur, not only is he not fulfilling the positive mitzva to desist from melakha, but he is also violating the negative mitzva, “You shall do no melakha throughout that day” (ibid. 23:28). Since Yom Kippur is referred to as Shabbat, the thirty-nine categories of melakha prohibited on Shabbat are also prohibited on Yom Kippur. It is only regarding punishment that there is a difference between Yom Kippur and Shabbat. While someone who knowingly undertakes melakha (in the presence of witnesses after being duly warned) is subject to stoning on Shabbat, he is subject to karet on Yom Kippur. (One who unknowingly does melakha on either day must offer a sin offering.) Thus we read (ibid. v. 30), “And whoever does any melakha throughout that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people” (MT, Laws of Resting on the Tenth 1:1-2; SA 611:2).

As on Shabbat, the mitzva to rest on Yom Kippur includes an obligation not to treat it as a weekday. That is, in addition to refraining from melakha, one is meant to refrain from doing burdensome activities. One must not open a store or move heavy items in preparation for weekday activities. Even though one who does so is not engaging in one of the thirty-nine melakhot, he is negating the mitzva to rest on Yom Kippur, as it is written, “It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you” (Vayikra 23:32). The mitzva is to preserve the sanctity and character of the day. One’s entire demeanor is meant to be different than on a weekday (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 22:1). In general, all laws of Shabbat apply to Yom Kippur, and there is the additional mitzva of fasting on Yom Kippur, so it involves a more complete withdrawal from mundane affairs.

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