Laws of the Days of Awe

03. The Mitzva of Confession (Vidui)

Yom Kippur is a time of forgiveness and atonement, 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). Therefore, a mitzva is incumbent upon every individual to repent and to confess his sins on this day (MT, Laws of Repentance 2:7).

The process of repentance is completed when a person explicitly verbalizes a confession. As is the case with our mission in this world in general, here too, we must actualize the good intentions present in our thoughts and hearts. Explicit, verbal confession clarifies and crystalizes the thoughts and emotions accompanying repentance. Regret is deeply and keenly felt, and the penitent’s resolution to refrain from sin is reinforced. This is why the Torah commands those bringing an offering to confess their sins, as we read, “Speak to the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done” (Bamidbar 5:6-7). Similarly, we read, “When he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned” (Vayikra 5:5). Just as someone offering a sin offering must confess, so too, any penitent must confess. This is the final step of his repentance (MT, Laws of Repentance 1:1).

Confession should also be practiced all year round. If one sinned unknowingly, he should say “I have sinned” (ḥatati); if he sinned knowingly, he should say “I have done wrong” (aviti); and if he sinned spitefully, he should say “I have rebelled” (pashati). By doing so, he has fulfilled the mitzva of confession, even though he has not detailed specific sins. In general, it is preferable to specify sins, although there are some situations where it is preferable not to do so (SA 607:2; MB ad loc. 5; SHT ad loc. 11; see sections 4-6 below for details).[1]


[1]. Many authorities consider vidui to be the primary element of repentance, for it completes the process of repentance (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:40; Ramban; Smak; Sefer Ḥaredim). Ramban explains that repentance must be expressed in thought, speech, and action. “Thought” refers to regret for past misdeeds. “Speech” refers to vidui. “Action,” in Temple times, referred to leaning on a sacrificial animal before offering it (Ramban on Vayikra 1:9; Sefer Ha-ikarim 4:26). Nowadays, when there are no sacrifices, the verbal confession, which involves moving the lips, is considered to be action as well as speech (Yad Ketana). The customary bending over and striking the heart while reciting vidui (SA 607:3; MB ad loc. 10) is also a type of bodily action.

Rambam writes, “When a person repents and turns away from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be He” (MT, Laws of Repentance 1:1). Many understand Rambam to be saying that repentance is not a positive mitzva per se, as the necessity for it goes without saying; rather, the mitzva is vidui which is part of the process of repentance (Pri Ḥadash; Minḥat Ḥinukh; Mishpat Kohen §128). Others maintain that Rambam considers repentance to be a mitzva, whereas vidui is a necessary part of that mitzva (Mabit, Kiryat Sefer).

04. The Laws of Vidui

During Temple times, the Kohen Gadol confessed on Yom Kippur on behalf of the entire Jewish people, as we read, “Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins” (Vayikra 16:21). According to the maḥzor, this was the formula of the vidui:

Please, Lord, Your people, the house of Israel, have sinned, have done wrong, have rebelled before You. Please, by Your name, grant atonement for the sins and for the wrongs and the rebellions that they have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before You – Your people, the house of Israel. As it is written in the Torah of Moses Your servant, at the word of Your glory, ‘For on this day, you will be atoned for and made pure of all your sins before the Lord.’”

“Sins” are unknowing, “wrongs” are knowing, and “rebellions” are spiteful. This order is logical, as it is reasonable to ask for forgiveness beginning with the less serious offenses (Yoma 36b; SA 621:5).

With this vidui, the Kohen Gadol fulfilled the mitzva of vidui on behalf of all Israel, even though presumably it was still valuable for each individual to confess his personal sins. An advantage of the Kohen Gadol’s vidui was that it allowed the entire nation to participate in repentance. This made the repentance deeper and more comprehensive. For this reason, after the Temple was destroyed, the Sages ordained that every Jew confess in the plural. During this recitation, each individual should keep in mind his personal sins as well (Yere’im; R. Sa’adia Gaon).

The minimum mandated vidui on Yom Kippur is: “But we have sinned, wronged, and rebelled” (Yoma 87b; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:8; Pri Ḥadash; MB 607:12). Common practice is to add a more extensive list of sins in alphabetical order (R. Amram Gaon):

We have sinned (ashamnu), we have acted treacherously (bagadnu), we have robbed, we have spoken slander. We have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly, we have acted presumptuously, we have been violent, we have framed lies. We have given bad advice, we have deceived, we have scorned, we have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have committed iniquity, we have transgressed, we have persecuted, we have been obstinate. We have done wrong, we have corrupted, we have acted abominably, we have strayed, we have led others astray.

We continue with another list of sins, each of which is introduced by the phrase “For the sin we have sinned before You” (al ḥet she-ḥatanu lefanekha). Taking these as a starting point, each ethnic/geographical community has its own version.[2]

One might ask: How can a righteous person declare, “We have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have committed iniquity,” when clearly he did not sin knowingly or rebelliously? How can someone who is careful with other people’s money declare, “We have robbed”? The answer is that the mitzva of vidui on Yom Kippur is communal. Therefore, the Sages ordained that every individual recite his vidui in the plural on behalf of the entire nation, just as the Kohen Gadol confessed on behalf of the entire nation.

Additionally, even if a person himself did not sin, it could be that he bears some responsibility for the sins of family members or friends. Sometimes he was in a position to object to their behavior but did not do so. Other times, he could have inspired them to repent, had he made the effort. It is also possible that had he been a better role model, he would have positively influenced them, so they would not have sinned. Finally, all Jews bear responsibility for one another. We are like one body made up of many parts. Therefore, the sin of any Jew is the responsibility of all. Thus, even the righteous must confess. It cleanses them of their share in the sin and inspires others to repent (Sefer Ḥasidim §601; Arizal; Ben Ish Ḥai, Ki Tisa).

One must stand for the entire vidui, until, “And for the sins for which we incur the four types of capital punishment…King who pardons and forgives” (SA 607:3; MB ad loc. 10). It is proper to bow the head or bend over a little during vidui, to show humility. Some are meticulous and bow more deeply, like we do when reciting the prayer of Modim (Shlah). Others who want to do so but find it difficult to stay bent over for a long time should bow deeply when reciting Ashamnu but just bend slightly when reciting Al Ḥet. It is customary to beat the chest during the recitation of vidui, as if to say, “My heart caused me to sin” (MB 607:11).[3]


[2]. Some maintain that one does not fulfill the obligation of vidui simply by reciting “I have sinned, I have wronged, I have rebelled.” Rather, one must specify the sins, and so one must recite “Ashamnu, bagadnu, etc.” (Shlah; Perisha). Even though this list, too, is not specific, since it specifies more types of sin in alphabetical order, it includes, explicitly or implicitly, all sins.

It is proper to confess for our ancestors’ sins as well (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:40). Therefore, our vidui includes the line, “For in truth, we and our fathers have sinned” (Shlah). There is a profound wisdom here. Alongside the mitzva to honor one’s parents, one must also repair his family’s bad habits. When one confesses his ancestors’ sins, he can free himself of them and repair them. If he does not confess them, we are afraid that he will repeat them inadvertently. This vidui is also fulfilled with the general formula (“we and our fathers have sinned”); but if someone feels it will facilitate his repentance, he should specify the sins, as explained below in section 6.

[3]. One should make sure to stand from the beginning of vidui, meaning from “Our God and God of our fathers” (prior to “Ashamnu”) through the concluding words. In congregations where the congregants are not required to recite vidui during the repetition of the Amida, one must stand only when the ḥazan recites the crux of vidui: “But we and our fathers have sinned” (SAH 607:8). However, in practice, all communities recite vidui during the repetition, so everyone must stand for the entire recitation (MB 607:10). One who finds it difficult to stand should stand for the crux of vidui. If he can, it is preferable that he stand for the recitation of Ashamnu as well.

Many bend over slightly or bow their heads while reciting vidui. Others bow more deeply, as when reciting Modim (Shela). One who has difficulty bowing but wants to be stringent should bow deeply during the recitation of the crux of vidui, and if possible also for the recitation of Ashamnu. The rest of the time, it is enough just to bow the head a bit.

Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim customarily beat their chests during the recitations of Ashamnu and Al Ḥet. However, in the section listing the sacrifices relevant for different sins, many do not bow or beat their chests because these statements are general and do not include the phrase “For the sin we have sinned before You.” Many Yemenites do not strike the chest at all during vidui.

05. The Times of Vidui

Since Yom Kippur is the time of forgiveness, atonement, and acceptance of the Jews’ repentance, and since repentance requires vidui, it is a mitzva to confess as soon as Yom Kippur begins, meaning, at Ma’ariv. However, the Sages were concerned that something might go wrong at the pre-fast meal – someone might get drunk and be unable to confess during Ma’ariv or might choke during the meal and die before confessing. Therefore, they ordained that each person confess at Minḥa, prior to the pre-fast meal. Nevertheless, vidui must be repeated at Ma’ariv on Yom Kippur, as that is still the primary time for vidui and atonement. Despite having confessed at Ma’ariv, we confess again at Shaḥarit, Musaf, Minḥa, and Ne’ila (Yoma 87b). Given that we have just confessed and have not had time to sin, this would seem to be unnecessary. Nevertheless, whenever we stand in prayer before God on Yom Kippur, it is appropriate to confess, as repentance is the mitzva of the day. (This is different from the rest of the year, when even those who confess every day do not do so during the Amida.) Additionally, it is possible that one sinned after Ma’ariv, so he must confess again at Shaḥarit. Similarly, he may have sinned after Shaḥarit, so he must confess during Musaf, and so on. For Yom Kippur continues to atone until the end of the day, when it gets dark (Levush, SAH 607:1).

During each silent Amida, vidui is recited after the conclusion of the berakhot and before the recitation of Elokai Netzor. During the repetition of the Amida, it is recited within the middle berakha (the sanctification of the day). Technically, an individual is not required to confess during the repetition, though he must stand (SA 607:3). However, in practice, the Rishonim write that it is proper for the members of the congregation to recite vidui together with the ḥazan (Ran; Rema) so that everyone recites vidui ten times over the course of the day, corresponding to the ten times that the Kohen Gadol uttered the Tetragrammaton (10:15-16 below). The ten confessions are: one before the fast during the silent Amida of Minḥa, one at night during the Amida of Ma’ariv, and eight more during the four prayer services of the day: Shaḥarit, Musaf, Minḥa, and Ne’ila. In each of these four services, one vidui is recited during the silent Amida and a second is recited during the ḥazan’s repetition. The vidui that we recite during the Seliḥot after the Amida of Ma’ariv does not count, as it is not recited within an Amida (Tur 621; MB ad loc. 2).

According to Ramban, in addition to the confessions recited on Yom Kippur, one must recite the vidui after the pre-fast meal, before dark, so as to start Yom Kippur in a state of repentance. Aḥaronim write that it is proper to follow this stringency (Shlah). However, there is concern that some people will not be able to recite it because they drank during the meal. Therefore, they ordained the recitation of vidui at Minḥa as well, before the meal. The main purpose, however, is to enter Yom Kippur with the right mindset. One may fulfill this vidui by reciting the minimum: “But we have sinned, done wrong, and rebelled.” In practice, two customs have developed to fulfill the stringency right before Yom Kippur: Ashkenazim recite Tefila Zaka, which contains detailed confessions (MB 607:1), while Sephardim recite the poem Lekha Keli Teshukati, which includes confessions. There is an opinion that these prayers must be recited while standing, since they are a type of vidui (Pri Ḥadash). Nevertheless, the custom is to recite them while seated, as be-di’avad one may confess while sitting.

Those who will not attend the synagogue are not obligated to recite ten confessions. During each Amida that they pray, they should recite the appropriate vidui. At least one vidui must be made, as this is an obligation of the day. If at all possible, two confessions should be made, one at the beginning of Yom Kippur and another one at the end, at the time of Ne’ila. (See 6:3 n. 1 above.)

06. Specifying Sins in Vidui

It is better for one to express specific sins he committed, as doing so deepens regret and strengthens repentance. This is the opinion of R. Yehuda b. Bava in the Gemara. He bases it on the confession of Moshe Rabbeinu following the sin of the Golden Calf: “Moshe went back to the Lord and said, ‘Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold’” (Shemot 32:31). At the same time, specifying one’s sins, on some level, impinges on the honor of heaven, for the goal of repentance is to minimize the importance of sins, and speaking about sins grants them significance. Additionally, shame over one’s sins is fundamental to repentance, as the Sages say, “If one sins and is ashamed of it, he is forgiven for all his sins” (Berakhot 12b). One who specifies his sins may seem as though he is not ashamed of them. Thus, R. Akiva maintains that one who confesses need not specify his sins, as it says, “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over” (Tehilim 32:1).

In practice, one can fulfill his obligation to confess without specifying his sins. He can simply declare, “I have sinned, I have wronged, I have rebelled.” Certainly, then, reciting Ashamnu fulfills the obligation. One who knows that specifying his sins will deepen his repentance should specify them silently. For example, if he ate non-kosher food, he should say, “I have eaten non-kosher food” (SA 607:2; Vilna Gaon ad loc.; SHT ad loc. 3).[4]

There is a disagreement among the Sages as to whether one who confessed his sins the previous Yom Kippur should confess the same sins again (Yoma 86b). Some say, “Of him, Scripture says, ‘As a dog returns to his vomit, so a dullard repeats his folly’ (Mishlei 26:11).” In contrast, R. Eliezer b. Yaakov says, “He is certainly praiseworthy, as we read, ‘For I recognize my transgressions and am ever conscious of my sin’ (Tehilim 51:5).” Shulḥan Arukh rules that one may confess again for sins to which he confessed the previous year (SA 607:4).

Perhaps we can suggest a guideline: If one feels that his repentance is incomplete, and that he has not yet managed to erase the sin from his heart completely, it is better for him to confess again. But if one feels that his repentance is complete and the sin is erased from his heart, it is not appropriate to confess, as doing so displays a lack of faith in the power of repentance. Sometimes a person repents completely and erases a sin from his heart, but a few years later suddenly thinks about it again and is distressed by it. This happens because his repentance was sufficient for his former spiritual stature; no trace of the sin was discernible. However, after he attains a greater, more illuminated spiritual stature, his previous repentance is no longer sufficient to cleanse him of any trace of sin. Therefore, he must confess again to erase the faint but lingering impression of his sin (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik 134:67).


[4]. Beit Yosef infers from Rif and Rosh that the halakha follows R. Akiva, and one who confesses need not specify his sins. Itur, Or Zaru’a, Me’iri, and Tur seem to rule this way as well. However, Rambam follows R. Yehuda b. Bava and requires that the sins be specified (MT, Laws of Repentance 2:3). This is also the position of Smag, Raavya, Roke’aḥ, and Sefer Ḥasidim. Moreover, there is disagreement about how to understand R. Akiva’s view. Some take it to mean that specifying one’s sins is actually forbidden (Pri Ḥadash), while others say that it is permissible to do so silently, and sometimes even preferable (Beit Yosef). It would seem that R. Akiva himself would agree that there are two sides of this: On the one hand, it expresses profound regret; on the other hand, it indicates shamelessness and impinges on the honor of heaven. Therefore, R. Akiva says that it is not necessary to specify sins, but he would agree that when specifying sins will enhance one’s repentance, he should do so silently. This understanding accords with the ruling of Shulḥan Arukh (607:2). Halakha accords with R. Akiva that one is not required to specify his sins, but it is proper to do so silently.

But how can we accept the ruling of Shulḥan Arukh when several Rishonim say that one must specify his sins? It could be that we fulfill both views by reciting Ashamnu. On the one hand, it is quite specific and thus meets the requirements of R. Yehuda b. Bava (Tosfot Yeshanim, Yoma 86b). On the other hand, since everyone recites the same list, there is still an element of the individual covering up his sins and showing that he is ashamed of them (Rema in Darkhei Moshe 607 and on Shulḥan Arukh 607:2). I therefore wrote above that it is not necessary for an individual to detail his sins, but that it is good to do so if it will help him repent. See Harḥavot.

07. Public Vidui

The Gemara (Yoma 86b) raised another important question in the context of vidui: Is it proper for a sinner to confess publicly? On the one hand, we have seen that a person should be ashamed of his sins and not confess them in the presence of others, as it says, “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over” (Tehilim 32:1). On the other hand, we have learned that a sinner should not try to cover up his crimes. Rather, he should publicly confess them, as it says, “He who covers up his faults will not succeed; he who confesses and gives them up will find mercy” (Mishlei 28:13).

The Gemara records two views. Rav explains that if a sin was committed in private, it should be confessed in private as well, as public confession impinges on the honor of heaven and publicizes that some people brazenly violate Torah commandments. However, if the sin was committed in public, it was a desecration of God’s name. The sinner can only rectify this by confessing publicly, so that the masses know that he repented. This will sanctify God’s name (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:18).

  1. Naḥman explains that one should confess interpersonal sins publicly, so that everyone sees that his friend’s honor is important to him, which will also help his efforts to placate his friend. However, one who proudly hurts his friend publicly but asks for forgiveness privately has not repented adequately. In contrast, when sins are between man and God, generally it is preferable to confess privately, to avoid further desecration of God’s name.

In practice, one should consider both factors, namely, God’s honor and his friend’s honor and appeasement. In general, sins between man and God should preferably be confessed privately, though if the sin was committed publicly, in a way that desecrated God’s name, the confession should be public as well, as this restores divine honor. In contrast, interpersonal sins should generally be confessed publicly, as this is a better way for the offender to placate the injured party. However, in cases where a public confession would make things worse (for example, when only the two of them are aware of the offense, or when the injured party would prefer that the whole embarrassing incident be forgotten), clearly it is forbidden for the offender to confess publicly.[5]


[5]. Some say that Rav and R. Naḥman disagree (Leḥem Mishneh, based on its understanding of Rambam, Laws of Repentance 2:5), while others maintain that they generally agree, except in rare cases (Kesef Mishneh). Still others argue that their views are complementary (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:18; this would seem to be the position of Raavad as well). This last approach is the one I present above, because each position has merit, and many poskim understand them this way. Additionally, even according to those who maintain that there is a disagreement between Rav and R. Naḥman, in most cases they still agree with one another. For example, they may disagree about an interpersonal sin that was committed in public (when Rav says it is preferable to confess in public, while R. Naḥman maintains it is preferable to do so in private – Kesef Mishneh). But when the sin involves a desecration of God’s name, even R. Naḥman agrees that the vidui should be public. Similarly, they may disagree when an interpersonal sin was committed in private (when Rav says it is preferable to confess in private, while R. Naḥman maintains it is preferable to do so in public). But when a public confession could further hurt the injured party, it is clear that R. Naḥman would agree that the confession should not be public. Therefore, I focus on the cases where both agree. In a case where they might disagree, the offender must weigh the factors and determine which approach is better in the particular instance.

The Sages say that one who tells others of a sin he committed in private is called brazen, as he desecrates God’s name. They then ask: How could Reuven have confessed to changing his father’s sleeping arrangements? They answer that a sinner must confess when there is a possibility that not doing so will result in someone else being wrongfully suspected (Sota 7b). With this precedent, some Aḥaronim say that it is permitted to publicly admit to one’s sins when there is a legitimate need to do so (Pri Ḥadash; Sha’arei Teshuva 607:2).

08. The Beginning, End, and Other Relevant Times of Yom Kippur

For all Torah matters, night precedes day, so Yom Kippur begins at night and concludes at the end of the following day. However, it is unclear as to precisely when day ends and night begins. Does the day end when the sun sets and is no longer visible, or when it gets dark enough to see three medium-sized stars? In Eretz Yisrael, the difference between these times is about twenty minutes, with some seasonal variation. The twilight period between shki’a (sunset) and tzeit ha-kokhavim (nightfall) is referred to as bein ha-shemashot. Since the mitzva to refrain from work on Shabbat and Yom Tov is of Torah origin, we are stringent about the timing, in accordance with the well-known principle, “We are stringent in cases of uncertainty about Torah law.” Thus, Shabbat and Yom Tov begin at shki’a and end at tzeit.

There is also a mitzva to extend Shabbat and Yom Tov, meaning to accept the sanctity of the day a little before its starting time and extend it a little past its ending time. Accordingly, it is a mitzva to accept the day’s sanctity a few minutes before shki’a, and to end it a few minutes after tzeit. The custom is to wait about ten minutes past tzeit (SA 608:1; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:1-2). Adding time shows that these days are beloved and very precious to us. Furthermore, by taking mundane moments and transforming them into sacred ones, we show the potential of the mundane. This transformation extends the day’s holiness to all the weekdays and elevates them.[6]

It is a mitzva to verbally accept the holiness of the day. Women generally accept the sanctity of Yom Kippur when they recite the berakhot over candle lighting, when the day is invoked (see the next section). Men accept the sanctity of the day either upon reciting the berakha of She-heḥeyanu in the synagogue or by verbally accepting Yom Kippur (section 10 below).

One who concludes his pre-fast meal early may continue eating and drinking until he accepts upon himself the holiness of the day. If he was negligent and did not accept it upon himself before shki’a, all the Yom Kippur prohibitions nevertheless go into effect at shki’a (SA 608:1-3). One may accept the holiness of the day as early as plag ha-minḥa, which is about an hour and a quarter before shki’a (MB 608:14; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:2 n. 2).


[6]. The halakha that requires adding time from the weekday to sacred occasions is derived from a verse about Yom Kippur: “It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you, and you shall deprive yourselves; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Shabbat” (Vayikra 23:32). The Sages expound: On the one hand, it is impossible that we are meant to fast on the day of the ninth, as the verse says “at evening.” On the other hand, it cannot be that the fasting begins only at night with the onset of the tenth, as the verse clearly prescribes deprivation on the ninth. Rather, the verse is teaching us that we must add from the mundane to the holy, accepting Yom Kippur upon ourselves while it is still day. We also lengthen Yom Kippur at its departure, since “from evening to evening” implies that the holiness of the day is to be extended into the night. The fact that the verse says “observe this your Shabbat” (tishbetu Shabbatḥem) teaches us that on all the days we desist from labor – Shabbat and holidays – we must extend the day’s sanctity (Rosh Ha-shana 9a).

09. Accepting Yom Kippur: Candle Lighting

There is a mitzva to light candles to honor Yom Kippur, just as there is a mitzva to light candles to honor Shabbat. Though the main reason for lighting Shabbat candles is to enhance and honor the festive meal (which is why the candles are lit where we eat), nevertheless, even on Yom Kippur when eating is forbidden, lighting candles still honors the day. Additionally, it helps promote a peaceful household, as it allows the household members to see where things are and to avoid tripping over them.

In the past, there were places where people did not light candles on Yom Kippur. Since people dress nicely in honor of Yom Kippur, there was concern that candlelight might create a romantic ambience and arouse sexual desire (and sexual relations are forbidden on Yom Kippur). Others said that, on the contrary, it is better to light candles, since sexual relations are forbidden where there is light; the candles actually deter sin. The Sages declared that each community should follow its custom: Where the custom is to light, one should light, and where it is not to light, one should not light (Pesaḥim 53b; SA 610:1). The Sages added that the custom to light is more praiseworthy, so where there is no custom, it is better to enshrine the custom to light (y. Pesaḥim 4:4). This is the longstanding widespread custom.

All the laws that apply to lighting Shabbat candles apply to lighting Yom Kippur candles as well. The usual berakha recited is “Barukh ata Hashem Elokeinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu le-hadlik ner shel Yom Ha-Kippurim” (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to light Yom Kippur candles”). If Yom Kippur is on Shabbat, the berakha ends “le-hadlik ner shel Shabbat ve-shel Yom Ha-Kippurim” (“to light Shabbat and Yom Kippur candles”).[7]

Women generally accept the sanctity of the day with candle lighting. Therefore, those who recite the berakha on the candles should recite She-heḥeyanu immediately afterward. Those who recite the berakha before lighting the candles should recite She-heḥeyanu when they finish lighting, because once they have recited She-heḥeyanu they may not perform any further melakha, including candle lighting.

If a woman wishes to drive to synagogue after lighting candles, she should have in mind that she is not accepting the sanctity of the day with her candle lighting. Instead, she should accept the sanctity of the day in the synagogue when the congregation recites She-heḥeyanu (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:3; SSK 44:14).[8]


[7]. Some say that no berakha should be recited upon lighting Yom Kippur candles (Mordekhai; Maharil; Pri Ḥadash; Vilna Gaon), since Shabbat candles were instituted for the meal, and because lighting candles before Yom Kippur is only a custom (and not even a universal one, as we saw). Nevertheless, in practice we do recite the berakha, since lighting candles on Yom Kippur is a mitzva in honor of the day and to maintain domestic tranquility (Rosh, Yoma 8:9 and 8:27). In some places, even though it is a mitzva, people did not light out of concern that it would result in sexual relations. But everywhere else, the halakha reverts to the original practice, as it is a mitzva to light and recite the berakha. Indeed, this is the practice today (Rema 610:2; Levush; Baḥ; SAH; Ben Ish Ḥai, Vayelekh §9; Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 256; SSK 44:13).

Since one of the reasons for the custom to light Yom Kippur candles is to prevent a couple from engaging in sexual relations, it would seem that the candles should be lit in the bedroom (Rema 610:1) and that they should burn all night. Yet no one seems to be concerned about these issues (Shulḥan Gavo’ah 610:1). I would like to offer two possible explanations for this. First, most people in the past lived in small houses without separate bedrooms; everyone ate and slept in the same room. Those who felt that having light would prevent them from being tempted to sin could have made sure that their oil or candles would last until they fell asleep. Nevertheless, the concern about intimacy is not the primary reason why the Sages instituted lighting Yom Kippur candles. Lighting has intrinsic value, namely honoring Yom Kippur (as we indicate by reciting a berakha). Therefore, even people who have large homes with bedrooms (as most people do nowadays) are not obligated to light additional candles in their bedroom. A second reason that there is no custom to light in the bedroom is that it was customary on Shabbat and Yom Tov to fulfill the mitzva of marital intimacy. The nice clothes and candles in the main room contributed to a celebratory atmosphere and facilitated intimacy. However, in later years when it became apparent that candles do not really lead to marital intimacy, it was deemed unnecessary to light a candle in the bedroom on Yom Kippur, just as it is unnecessary to light a candle when the wife is a nidda at other times of the year. Nevertheless, many Aḥaronim write that it is a good idea le-khatḥila to have a little light in the bedroom on Yom Kippur night, as a subtle reminder of the prohibition of sexual relations.

[8]. Many women recite She-heḥeyanu when lighting candles for any holiday. In truth, kiddush is a better time for this berakha, but those who wish to recite it when lighting may do so (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 2:2). On Yom Kippur, though, kiddush is not recited, so the assumption is that women accept the sanctity of Yom Kippur when they light candles, and they recite She-heḥeyanu at that point (Ben Ish Ḥai, Vayelekh §9). However, one who wants to drive to the synagogue after lighting candles may have in mind that she is not yet accepting the sanctity of the day, as she can do on any Shabbat (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:3). She then recites the berakha of She-heḥeyanu in the synagogue, for if she recites it at home after lighting the candles, she has accepted Yom Kippur and must refrain from any further melakha (MB 619:4; Ben Ish Ḥai, Vayelekh §9; SSK 44:14).

As we explained in Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 4:4, Ashkenazim and some Sephardim light Shabbat candles first and then recite the berakha, because some say that with the recitation of the berakha, they have accepted Shabbat and are no longer allowed to light the candles. It follows that on Yom Kippur, after reciting the berakha over the candles, they should recite She-heḥeyanu and accept all the Yom Kippur prohibitions upon themselves. Many Sephardim recite the berakha over Shabbat candles before lighting them, as they do not intend to accept Shabbat until after they light. On Yom Kippur, though, since they are accepting the sanctity of the day with the recitation of She-heḥeyanu, they should recite it only after lighting the candles (Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 257).

10. Accepting Yom Kippur: Kol Nidrei

As we have seen, there is a mitzva to add from the mundane to the sacred and to accept the holiness of the day before shki’a. This acceptance needs to be verbalized. There are two customs regarding when this is done in synagogues, based on when Kol Nidrei is finished.

Some congregations make sure to finish Kol Nidrei before shki’a, as there is a principle that we do not annul vows on Shabbat unless doing so meets some Shabbat need (Shabbat 157a). Since this principle applies to Yom Kippur as well, Kol Nidrei should not recited on Yom Kippur itself. True, some maintain that Kol Nidrei is primarily meant to neutralize future vows (5:12 above) and thus is not considered nullification of vows; nevertheless, others maintain that it is similar to the annulling of vows, and therefore should not be recited once the day has begun (Rema 619:1; MB ad loc. 5). These congregations should accept the day’s holiness with the recitation of She-heḥeyanu at the conclusion of Kol Nidrei. Since this berakha expresses our thanks for this day, it is an appropriate time to accept the day’s sanctity. Even though on other holidays we recite She-heḥeyanu over wine at kiddush, on Yom Kippur, when we do not recite kiddush over wine, we recite She-heḥeyanu at its onset (Eruvin 40b; SA 619:1).

Most congregations, however, finish Kol Nidrei after shki’a, with some even starting it after shki’a. Even though the halakha is that we do not annul vows on Shabbat, when it meets a Shabbat need it is permitted. Since the recitation of Kol Nidrei is meant to cleanse us of the sin of unfulfilled vows, it meets a Yom Kippur need. (See Shabbat 157a; SA 341:1.) These congregations must accept the day’s holiness before shki’a to fulfill the mitzva of extending the day’s sanctity. To ensure that people do not forget to fulfill the mitzva, the gabbai should announce: “We hereby accept upon ourselves the sanctity of Yom Kippur.” Sometimes the ḥazan thinks he will reach She-heḥeyanu before shki’a, but during the recitation of Kol Nidrei it becomes clear that he will not. In such a case, he should pause before shki’a to announce that the holiness of the day is being accepted, and then continue his recitation.[9]


[9]. According to Rabbeinu Tam, the recitation of Kol Nidrei is meant to disclaim future vows; annulling past vows requires that they be specified before a “court.” In contrast, Rosh maintains that Kol Nidrei nullifies past vows, but does not disclaim future vows, because that would lead people to stop taking vows seriously. In practice, we nullify past vows and disclaim future vows, as explained above in section 5:11-12. Kol Nidrei may be recited during twilight (after shki’a) and even after tzeit, since it serves a Yom Kippur need – cleansing people of the sin of unfulfilled vows. See Responsa Rivash §394; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 619:25; Yeḥaveh Da’at 1:59. An additional reason to permit annulling vows on Yom Kippur can be extrapolated from the laws of Shabbat. After an individual has accepted Shabbat, the Sages permit him to disregard rabbinic decrees for the sake of a mitzva (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:4). Some maintain that this permission applies even after the entire community has accepted Shabbat upon itself (ibid. n. 4). Since the prohibition of nullifying vows on Shabbat and Yom Kippur is rabbinic, and Kol Nidrei’s nullification is being done in the service of a mitzva, it is permissible.

11. Ma’ariv

The Yom Kippur prayers begin with the removal of two Torah scrolls from the ark. Two prominent members of the congregation carry the scrolls to the bima. The ḥazan stands between them and declares, “With the agreement of God and of the community, in the heavenly council, and in the council of man, we permit praying with transgressors.” Some congregations take out only one Torah scroll, while others take out more than two. There are also slight variations in the formulation of the declaration. Each congregation should follow its custom (SA 619:1 and commentaries).

This opening declaration expresses a theme of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the holy soul within each Jew is manifest. Even people who act sinfully all year long – pariahs in the eyes of both heaven and earth, with whom it is inappropriate to pray – are invited to join the congregation. Just as we judge these sinners favorably and treat them with benevolence and love, so we hope that God judges us favorably and showers us with His love and benevolence.

The Sages state, “Any fast in which the sinners of Israel do not participate is not deemed a fast. For though galbanum smells bad, it is nonetheless listed by Scripture as one of the spices of the incense” (Keritot 6b). Every Jew has his own divine spark, so if even one Jew is missing, the entire nation is lacking. Therefore, when sinners join the prayers, sanctifying God’s name, the Jewish people are united and become rooted in the land.

Following the declaration, Kol Nidrei is recited. It releases us from the chains of vows or obligations that we were unable to fulfill and ensures that they will not impede our repentance on Yom Kippur.[10]

We then recite verses about forgiveness, expressing the theme of the day. This is followed by She-heḥeyanu and the return of the Torah scrolls to the ark.

When the Torah scrolls are carried, first to the bima and later back to the ark, many people lovingly kiss them, intending this to serve as a request for forgiveness and atonement for any disrespect they may have shown to the holy Torah or its mitzvot.

In many congregations, the rabbi delivers a Kol Nidrei sermon before Ma’ariv that focuses on character development, inspiration, and repentance (Mateh Ephraim 619:9).

Even though normally a talit is not worn at Ma’ariv, on Yom Kippur it is customarily worn by all who wear a talit for Shaḥarit daily. When putting on the talit, one should focus on remembering all the mitzvot through the tzitzit, on how they shield every part of our souls from external evils, and on how God will spread divine peace upon us. The talit should be put on before shki’a so that the berakha may be recited over it. One who puts on a talit after shki’a should not recite the berakha (SA and Rema 18:1; MB ad loc. 7).

It is proper to study Torah after Ma’ariv. There is a special mitzva to learn Torah on every holiday, and certainly on Yom Kippur. People should make every effort to set aside time to study then. Since the vast majority of the day is dedicated to prayer, the best time to study is after Ma’ariv (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:5-6; MB 619:16).

We will not go into detail here about the different prayer formulations, as these can be easily found in the maḥzorim of the various communities. We will focus on prayer laws and customs which express the meaning of the day.


[10]. Repentance is linked to freedom. Therefore, “freeing” a person from the chains of all the vows with which he has bound himself is appropriate on this day. This is reflected in the law which frees slaves and returns fields to their previous owners on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee (6:11 above).

12. Barukh Shem Kevod Malkhuto

The daily mitzva of accepting the yoke of heaven is fulfilled primarily by declaiming the verse, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Devarim 6:4). We immediately follow this with the quiet recitation of the sentence, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever (Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed).” Even though this sentence does not appear in the portion of Shema, or in the Torah at all, the Sages ordained its silent recitation (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 15:7 n. 1). The Talmud recounts the origin of this sentence: Before our patriarch Yaakov died, he gathered all his sons around him and wanted to reveal to them the end of days, but the Divine Presence left him. He said to his sons, “Perhaps one of you is not worthy. After all, Avraham had Yishmael, and Yitzḥak had Esav. Is that why I cannot reveal the end to you?” They responded by declaring unanimously, “‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.’ Just as the one God alone is in your heart, so too, the one God alone is in our heart.” At that point Yaakov said, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” This story posed a dilemma to the Sages: What to do? Should we recite the sentence? It does not appear in the Torah! Yet how can we not recite it? Our patriarch Yaakov said it! Therefore, they ordained that it be recited quietly. “This is like a princess who smelled food stuck to the bottom of the pot (and craved them). If she were to admit to the craving, she would embarrass herself; if she were to say nothing, she would miss out. So her servants started sneaking them to her” (Pesaḥim 56a).

Another tradition maintains that Moshe Rabbeinu ordained this recitation. When he ascended to heaven, he heard the ministering angels praising God by saying, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” Upon his descent, Moshe ordained that the Jews recite it quietly. The question was raised: Why did he not ordain that they recite it aloud? A parable was offered in response: To what can this be compared? To a confidant of the king who stole a very nice cloak from the royal palace and gave it to his wife, saying, “Do not wear this in public; only at home.” Only on Yom Kippur, when Israel is as pure as the ministering angels, may they recite it aloud (Devarim Rabba 2:36).

To understand the meaning of these ideas, we must first explain two levels of faith in one God. The first statement, the Shema, expresses the highest level of absolute unification, referred to as yiḥud elyon (“higher unification”). At this level, every aspect and detail unites to reveal God. The second statement, Barukh shem kevod, expresses the plane which came into being after the world’s creation, referred to as yiḥud taḥton (“lower unification”). This involves acceptance of the yoke of heaven based on God’s manifestation in this world, where every creature and every aspect has a real place; God gives them all life and rules over them in accordance with their deeds. This is called the revelation of His name (shem) and kingship (malkhut). That is, His name and His governance are manifest in the world, but not His essence. If He would reveal His essence, all of creation would be annulled and melt away before His great light. (See Tanya, Sha’ar Ha-yiḥud Ve-ha’emuna.)

The higher level of faith is extremely lofty, revealed only at the root of the soul and only at times of self-sacrifice. Accordingly, we are commanded to tap into yiḥud elyon only twice a day, with the recitation of Shema. The Sages ordained pairing it with yiḥud taḥton, which acknowledges God’s manifestation within this diverse world. (See Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 3.) Yiḥud taḥton is very precious to God, as the purpose of creation is for God to be recognized within this material world, with all its beauty and glory, colors and sounds, urges and inclinations. Thus, the ministering angels praise God with the amazing paean, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” However, saying it out loud is improper, because alongside the positives of revealing the Divine Presence in this world, there are also negatives – evil impulses that can draw us to sin. Therefore, one must first connect to yiḥud elyon and only then quietly recite the praise of yiḥud taḥton, to avoid the temptations of this world.

Only on Yom Kippur, as we fast and desist from occupation with our bodily needs, to the extent that we become like ministering angels, impervious to the evil inclination, can we utter Barukh shem kevod aloud, knowing that we are privileged to sanctify His name in this world. Even though we sometimes stumble into sin, on Yom Kippur it is revealed that ultimately, we draw down His light into this world, in all its complexity. As a result, God judges the Jews with love and mercy. (See Derekh Hashem 4:4:6-7.)

13. Torah Reading and Pledges

After Shaḥarit, two Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. From the first scroll we read the description of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda on Yom Kippur, which is found in the portion of Aḥarei Mot (Vayikra 15). Six people are called up to the Torah. The number of people called up to the Torah for an aliya changes in accordance with the holiness of the day. On Yom Tov, when melakha is forbidden but food preparation is permitted, five people are called up. On Yom Kippur, when all melakha is prohibited, six people are called up. On Shabbat, when all melakha is prohibited and the punishment for desecration is greater, seven people are called up. If Yom Kippur is on Shabbat, seven people are called up (Megilla 21a, 22b; SA 621:1).[11]

The maftir is read from the second Torah scroll. It is taken from the portion of Pinḥas and deals with the additional (“musaf”) sacrifices offered on Yom Kippur (Bamidbar 29:7-11). The haftara is from Yeshayahu (57:14-58:14), which is an appropriate choice because the prophet exhorts the people to repent, and the verses mention resting on Shabbat and Yom Kippur.

At Minḥa there are three aliyot, and we read a section of the Torah dealing with prohibited sexual relations (Vayikra 18). It is meant to inspire the people to repent for and refrain from these extremely tempting but very serious transgressions that impair our holiness. The haftara is the Book of Yona, which teaches us about divine providence, from which no one can hide. It also teaches us about the great power of repentance, which is effective even when incomplete, as God does not wish to punish sinners (Megilla 31a; SA 621:1).

On Yom Kippur, it is customary to pledge money to the poor and to those dedicated to Torah study, in order to elevate the souls of parents and family members who have passed away. For the dead also achieve atonement on Yom Kippur when charity is given on their behalf (Mordekhai; SA and Rema 622:4). This is why the day is called Yom Ha-kippurim (in the plural), as it atones for both the living and the dead. But haven’t those who have died already been judged? How can charity help them? When their children and family members are inspired to donate money and do good deeds in their memory, it shows that the departed souls continue to have a positive influence on the world. Therefore, they earn the right to be judged again in the heavenly court, taking into account the additional merits they have accrued.[12]


[11]. The punishment for knowingly performing a melakha on Yom Kippur is karet, while on Shabbat it is stoning by the beit din. The more severe punishment of the Shabbat desecrator reflects the fact that in some ways Shabbat is more exalted than Yom Kippur. However, in other ways Yom Kippur is more exalted than Shabbat. Thus, when Yom Kippur is on Shabbat we fast, as explained above in section 6:6 and n. 2.

[12]. Another answer is that in the heavenly court it is said that if the deceased were still alive, they, too, would give charity. Ashkenazim recite Yizkor, the memorial prayer, on Yom Kippur, Pesaḥ, Sukkot, and Shavu’ot. The prayer is meant to be recited with the congregation but may also be recited by an individual praying alone (Gesher Ha-ḥayim, vol. 1, 32:1). Generally, before the prayer is recited, the gabbai announces “Yizkor”, and those whose parents are both still alive leave the synagogue temporarily. Several reasons are given for this practice. The primary one is that it is unpleasant to have some members of the congregation recite the prayers while others stand silent. Additionally, there are those who are concerned about bad omens. There is a common custom that the first time one is mourning a parent, he does not recite Yizkor during the year of mourning. This is out of concern that if he did recite Yizkor, his powerful grief might make it impossible for him to fulfill the mitzva of rejoicing on the holiday. (See Peninei Halakha: Festivals 2:8; Piskei Teshuvot 621:7.)

14. Bowing During Musaf

During Musaf, it is customary to bow down at various points during the description of the Yom Kippur avoda (Temple service), just as the kohanim and the spectators in the Temple courtyard bowed and fell to the ground when the Kohen Gadol uttered the Tetragrammaton. As we will see (10:15-16), the Kohen Gadol uttered it ten times: nine of them in the course of three confessions, and the final one when he announced which goat was for God. The three confessions were on behalf of himself and his wife, on behalf of his fellow priests, and on behalf of the nation. Nowadays, the general custom is to bow four times during the prayer service. We bow once during the descriptions of each of the three confessions. The timing of the fourth bow, however, is the subject of dispute. Sephardim bow when they mention the goat for God (Beit Yosef; see 10:9 below). Ashkenazim bow when reciting “we bow” (“va-anaḥnu kor’im”) in Aleinu, preceding the description of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda (Raavya; Rivash; Rema 622:4). Yemenites do not bow at all during Musaf.

There are three types of bows: prostration (hishtaḥavaya gemura), in which a person lies flat on the ground with hands and feet outspread; kida, a deep bow in which a person remains standing but bows his head all the way to the ground; and keri’a, when one first kneels and then bends forward until his face reaches the ground (Berakhot 34b; Shevu’ot 16b). Nowadays, most people do keri’a, while some do hishtaḥavaya.

It is customary to place something on the ground as a barrier between the floor and the worshipper’s face. This is because it is forbidden to bow on a stone floor, as we read, “You shall not place figured stones in your land to worship upon” (Vayikra 26:1). The reason for the prohibition may be that idolaters would worship nature and bow to stones in an attempt to become one with them. The Torah forbids bowing on stone so that no alien ideas infiltrate our prayers. Only in the Temple, where it was clear that all creations – animate and inanimate – were subservient to God, yearned for Him, and bowed to Him alone, was it permitted to bow on a stone floor (Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §349).

The Torah prohibition applies when two conditions are met: the person is lying prostrate, and his head is on a stone floor. The Sages extend the prohibition and forbid bowing when either one of these conditions is met. Thus, hishtaḥavaya is prohibited even on a dirt floor, and even kida and keri’a are forbidden on a stone floor. For this reason, people spread something as a barrier between the floor and their heads (Rema 131:8).[13]


[13]. Both keri’a and kida are permitted on a dirt floor. Bricks, which are made of sand, cement, and the like, have the same status as dirt (MB 131:41). One may perform keri’a or kida on a stone floor as long as something separates his head from the floor. It is not necessary to have something separating the rest of the body from the floor (MT, Laws of Idol Worship 6:7; Levush 131:7; MB 621:14). Alternatively, a person may kneel and incline his head toward the ground without actually touching it. One who does not have anything to use as a barrier between his head and the floor may do this. If the floor is made of stone, Aḥaronim disagree as to whether one may fully prostrate himself if he puts something down to separate himself from the floor (SHT 131:44). This may be why many people bow rather than prostrate themselves. It is also possible that the reason most people do not prostrate themselves is because there is usually not enough room in the synagogue for everyone to do so.

If the flooring is made of a material other than stone, even if it looks like stone, all agree that one may put down a separation and then prostrate himself.

15. The Meaning of Bowing

A person’s deepest desire is to draw close to God and to thank Him for all His goodness. But since God is so exalted and mighty, great and awesome, one becomes overwhelmed and awestruck when confronting His tremendous grandeur. He naturally bows and prostrates himself in self-negation before God. As we have seen, there are three types of bowing. Each has its own significance.

Prostration (hishtaḥavaya) means lying prone with one’s hands and feet extended, expressing absolute self-effacement before God. This is not a self-effacement of non-existence, but a self-effacement born of clinging to God, through which one can draw down blessing upon himself from the Source of life. King David frequently bowed to God, thanking Him for His help, as we read, “But I, through Your abundant kindness, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy Temple” (Tehilim 5:8). And similarly, “I bow toward Your holy Temple and praise Your name for Your kindness and faithfulness, because You have exalted Your name, Your word, above all. When I called, You answered me, You inspired me with courage…. High though the Lord is, He sees the lowly…” (ibid. 138:2-8).

When performing kida, one remains standing but bends his head to the ground, indicating profound submission. Even though he remains standing, he is bent double in total submission.

Keri’a involves falling to one’s knees and bending forward so his face is on the ground. It is a combination of prostration and kida, of self-effacement and submission. As in prostration, one’s entire body is near the ground; like in kida, one bends in submission to his Creator.

The Sages tell us that good things happen as a result of prostration:

Avraham returned unharmed from Mount Moriah together with Yitzḥak only in the merit of his prostration, as we read, “We will worship (ve-nishtaḥaveh) and we will return to you” (Bereishit 22:5). Israel was redeemed from slavery only in the merit of their prostration, as we read, “When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage (ya-yikdu va-yishtaḥavu)” (Shemot 4:31). The Torah was given only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “Then He said to Moshe, ‘Come up to the Lord, with Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar’” (ibid. 24:1). Ḥanna was remembered only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “And they bowed low there before the Lord” (1 Shmuel 1:28). Only in the merit of prostration will the exiles will be gathered in, as we read, “And on that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship (ve-hishtaḥavu) the Lord on the holy mount in Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 27:13). The Temple will be rebuilt only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “Exalt the Lord our God and bow down to His footstool; He is holy!” (Tehilim 99:5). The dead will be brought back to life only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “Come, let us bow down and kneel (nishtaḥaveh ve-nikhra’a), bend the knee before the Lord our Maker” (ibid. 95:6). (Bereishit Rabba 56:6)

All who entered the Temple courtyard would prostrate themselves before God. (See m. Midot 2:3.) When the daily offering was brought and Levi’im sang and blew the trumpets, the people standing in the courtyard prostrated themselves (m. Tamid 7:3).

When a person repents and confesses before God, it is proper that he prostrate himself, following the example of Moshe who prostrated himself when he prayed to God to forgive Israel’s sins (Bamidbar 14:5, 16:22; Devarim 9:25). For this reason, the Jews standing in the courtyard would prostrate themselves when the Kohen Gadol uttered the Tetragrammaton during the Yom Kippur confessions (Yoma 66a).

Following this line of thought, the Sages ordained that people bow five times during every Amida. This bowing is done while standing but bending deeply at the waist – similar to kida (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 17:6). It was also customary to prostrate oneself after the Amida, while confessing and offering supplications to God. This became known as Nefilat Apayim (“falling on the face”) and was a precursor to today’s Taḥanun (MT, Laws of Prayer 5:1, 13-14; Tur OḤ 131; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:1).

However, several concerns led to the discontinuation of the custom of actually “falling on the face.” On the halakhic level, besides the problem of prostration on a stone floor, there is an additional concern as well. A prominent person is permitted to “fall on the face” only when he is certain that God will respond, as He did to Yehoshua bin Nun (Megilla 22b; SA 131:8), and who can be certain of this? However, the primary concern is based on Zohar. It speaks extensively about the power of Nefilat Apayim, during which the supplicant must truly devote himself to God and see himself as if he is dead. It continues:

This must be done with intense concentration; then God is merciful and forgives his sins. Fortunate is the person who knows how to appeal to and worship his Master willingly and intentionally. Woe is to one who tries to appeal to his Master when his heart is distant and unwilling. He is the subject of the verse, “Yet they deceived Him with their speech, lied to Him with their words; their hearts were inconstant toward Him” (Tehilim 78:36-37). If the person says, “O Lord, I set my hope on You” (ibid. 25:1) while his heart is distant, this will be responsible for his premature death. (Zohar, Bamidbar 121a)

Since we are concerned about not being fully focused when we petition God, and about not being deserving, we no longer prostrate ourselves during Taḥanun. Instead, Ashkenazim and some Sephardim sit, leaning forward and resting the forehead on the forearm. Other Sephardim avoid even that (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:3).

However, on Yom Kippur, thanks to the sanctity of the day and our intense devotion, we are not concerned about any of this. Therefore, the custom is to bow during the description of the avoda, as is appropriate for a penitent.

16. Birkat Kohanim During Ne’ila

In principle, the kohanim should perform Birkat Kohanim any time the ḥazan repeats the Amida. Indeed, in Eretz Yisrael, the kohanim perform Birkat Kohanim at every Shaḥarit and Musaf.[14] However, the Sages ordained that Birkat Kohanim should not be performed at Minḥa because it generally follows the afternoon meal, and there is concern that the kohanim will drink wine with the meal and then perform Birkat Kohanim under its influence, thus violating a severe prohibition. However, on fast days when Ne’ila is recited (such as Yom Kippur or fasts declared due to drought), since there is no concern that the kohanim will drink, Birkat Kohanim is performed at Ne’ila (SA OḤ 129:1; Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 7:12 n. 16).

Some say that Birkat Kohanim should be recited at Minḥa on Yom Kippur as well; since everyone is fasting, there is no concern about drunkenness. Moreover, on Yom Kippur, the time for Minḥa is late in the afternoon, just before Ne’ila (Behag), whereas all year long, Minḥa may take place at any point between just after midday and shki’a. Nevertheless, most Rishonim maintain that Birkat Kohanim it is not performed at Minḥa. Since, unlike Ne’ila, it is not recited at shki’a, people may erroneously conclude that Birkat Kohanim may be performed at Minḥa on weekdays as well (R. Amram Gaon). In practice, Birkat Kohanim is not performed at Minḥa. However, if a kohen ascends to perform it, he is not sent back to his seat; rather, he performs the blessing (Rambam; SA 129:1-2, 622:4; 623:5).

Ne’ila should be timed so that Birkat Kohanim is performed before shki’a, as many are of the opinion that this mitzva is analogous to the Temple sacrifices, which may be offered by day only (MB 623:8). Since Birkat Kohanim is a Torah commandment, we abbreviate, if necessary, the liturgical poems and supplications to reach Birkat Kohanim before shki’a. Be-di’avad, Birkat Kohanim may be recited during twilight, since it is uncertain that night has begun.[15]


[14]. Outside of Eretz Yisrael, the general custom is that the kohanim perform Birkat Kohanim only during Musaf of Yom Tov.

[15]. Bedi’avad it is permissible for Birkat Kohanim to be recited until tzeit. This is the ruling of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (SAH 623:8); SHT 623:10 inclines this way as well. Several uncertainties factor into this ruling: 1) According to Raavya, Yere’im, and Or Zaru’a, Birkat Kohanim may be performed at night; 2) it is uncertain whether twilight is part of the day; 3) according to Rabbeinu Tam, shki’a takes place a while after sunset, which is still definitely part of the day. This ruling is accepted by R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (as cited in Piskei Teshuvot 623:13); Yeḥaveh Da’at 6:40; and Or Le-Tziyon 2:8:13. They further write that Birkat Kohanim may be performed until 13.5 minutes after sunset. See Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:1 n. 1 and Harḥavot 3:1:14, where we explain that this period is at least 14 minutes in Jerusalem and c. 19 minutes at sea level in Tel Aviv.

Some maintain that a kohen who is not fasting should not perform Birkat Kohanim, even if he is the only kohen present (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 129:5; Torat Ha-mo’adim 3:4). Others disagree and say that this kohen should still perform it (Lu’aḥ Eretz Yisrael; Halikhot Shlomo, Tefila 10:13).

17. Ne’ila

The Sages instituted an extra prayer service near the end of the fast, for all who increase their prayers will be answered. If we have not managed to be answered through the regular prayers, perhaps an additional prayer will be answered. This service is referred to as Ne’ila because it is recited at the time when the gates of the Sanctuary were locked (ne’ulim) at the conclusion of the day’s avoda. The “locking of the gates” also corresponds to the closing of the gates of heaven. For at the end of the day, the sanctity of Yom Kippur recedes, and the gates of heaven, which were open to those who knocked through repentance, are locked.

The time of Ne’ila is when the sun can be seen in the treetops in the west, approximately forty minutes before sunset. Those who wish to begin as much as an hour before sunset may do so. The ḥazan must time his prayers so that Birkat Kohanim can be completed before sunset (as explained in the previous section).

Even though the gates of the Sanctuary were locked at sunset, the gates of heaven are locked only at the end of the day, after all light has vanished. Therefore, we continue reciting prayers and supplications until tzeit. A ḥazan who extends Ne’ila past tzeit is not to be reprimanded.[16]

The Ne’ila prayers differ from all other prayers recited during the Days of Awe; wherever we ask to be “inscribed” for good, we now ask to be “sealed,” because now, at the end of Yom Kippur, our verdicts are being sealed. Nevertheless, someone who accidentally invoked “inscribing” instead of “sealing” need not repeat the prayer.

One should marshal all his strength for Ne’ila, for Yom Kippur is the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance, and Ne’ila is the culmination of Yom Kippur. Everything leads up to the final verdict, so if not now, when? Therefore, even someone who is weak from fasting should summon his strength to pray with clear and pure focus, to resolve to repent and to increase his Torah study and mitzva observance (MB 623:3). Because Ne’ila is so important, it is customary to leave the ark open from the beginning of the repetition of the Amida until the Kaddish at the conclusion of the service (Mateh Ephraim 623:7).


[16]. Ne’ila was added whenever the Sages declared a fast due to drought or other calamities. However, Ne’ila was never recited on Tisha Be-Av, as Tisha Be-Av was instituted by the prophets.

The Yerushalmi explains that according to Rav, Ne’ila refers to the locking of the gates of heaven and may be recited until dark. Moreover, according to Rav, one who recited Ne’ila need not recite Ma’ariv (Yoma 87b). According to R. Yoḥanan, though, Ne’ila refers to the locking of the gates of the Sanctuary and may be recited only until shki’a (y. Berakhot 4:1). Most understand this to be because he maintains that one may recite Ne’ila at night. In practice, some rule in accordance with Rav that Ne’ila may recited until night (Roke’aḥ, Or Zaru’a, and Raavya), while many others rule in accordance with R. Yoḥanan and limit the time to shki’a (R. Ḥananel, R. Yitzḥak ibn Gi’at, Rambam, Maharam of Rothenburg, Ritva, and Mordekhai). This is also the ruling of SA 623:2. Nevertheless, we do not object to a ḥazan who extends the repetition of the Amida of Ne’ila past tzeit, as he has an opinion on which to rely (MB ad loc. 2). See 6:3 n. 1 above, about how Ne’ila completes the atonement of Yom Kippur.

18. Declaring Faith and Blowing the Shofar

At the conclusion of Ne’ila, before shutting the ark, as the gates of heaven, which had been open throughout the Days of Awe, are about to close, when there is no more time to confess or to add more prayers and supplications, the custom of all Israel is to accept the yoke of heaven together. During the course of the Days of Awe, we have sharpened our awareness that faith is the foundation and purpose of everything and that every Jew wants to cling to God and to perfect the world under His kingship. The stronger our faith, the more complete our repentance, and the better and more blessed the upcoming year. Therefore, we spend the last moments of this holy day reinforcing our faith.

The primary acceptance of the yoke of heaven is expressed in the verse of “Shema Yisrael” and in “Barukh shem kevod.” We then recite “The Lord is God” (“Hashem Hu Ha-Elokim”) seven times, alluding to the seven levels of heaven through which the Divine Presence withdraws and returns to the loftiest realms, having been so close to us during the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur, enabling our repentance (SA 623:6; MB 623:11-12).[17]

Immediately after this, at tzeit or slightly before, we blow the shofar in accordance with the instructions in the maḥzor. These blasts signal the end of the day and the ascent of the Shekhina, as we read, “God ascends with a blast; the Lord, with the sound of a shofar” (Tehilim 47:6). They commemorate the blast sounded during the Jubilee; with that blast, slaves went free and the fields returned to their original owners (6:11 above). By extension, our shofar-blowing on Yom Kippur symbolizes the emancipation of the soul, freed of the chains of sin and restored to freedom. It also hints at redemption and freedom from any form of subservience, as we read, “And on that day, a great shofar shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount in Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 27:13).

Following these blasts, the tremendous tension of the Days of Awe dissipates, and all Israel experience a great, spiritual catharsis and freedom. Their hearts are filled with joy (3:5 above). Thanks to the profound immersion in repentance and faith, all of Israel knows that God loves them and accepts their repentance, and that they can continue ascending and improving throughout the coming year. Thus, at this point, many congregations dance and sing, “Le-shana ha-ba’a bi-Yerushalayim ha-benuya” (“Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt”).

Where there is concern that people might eat or drink immediately after the shofar blasts, care should be taken not to blow before tzeit. Where there is no such concern, the blasts may be sounded during twilight (MB 623:12).


[17]. The seven-fold recitation also alludes to a mystical meditation (kavana): We enthrone God in His most illuminated manifestation, as expressed by the Tetragrammaton, over the seven manifestations that are revealed in the world, as expressed by the name “Elokim.”

19. The End of the Fast, Ma’ariv, and Kiddush Levana

As we have seen (above, section 8), the fast technically ends at tzeit, but since there is a mitzva to add to the sacred, we end the fast a few minutes later than that. In Eretz Yisrael, once thirty minutes have elapsed since sunset, it is already several minutes past tzeit, so one may make havdala, eat, and drink. It is not necessary to show concern for Rabbeinu Tam’s view that tzeit is seventy-two minutes after sunset (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:1 n. 1).

Ma’ariv may be started twenty minutes after sunset, but to remove uncertainty, the first paragraph of Shema should be repeated after Ma’ariv (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 25:5).

Many recite Kiddush Levana right after Yom Kippur. The days leading up to Yom Kippur are tension-filled due to the upcoming judgment. Since Kiddush Levana must be recited joyfully, it could not be recited then. With the completion of the Yom Kippur prayers, however, our joy reaches its apex; it is thus an auspicious time to praise and thank God for moonlight. Some prefer to go home and eat and drink first, and then reassemble a minyan to recite Kiddush Levana joyfully. However, if one is afraid that he will forget or have a hard time finding a minyan later, it is better to recite it right after Ma’ariv. (See 5:7 above.)

20. Havdala

Even after Yom Kippur ends, it remains forbidden to do melakha, eat, or drink until after havdala, as we take leave of the holy day through havdala. The recitation of hadvala (“Ata ḥonantanu”) in the berakha of Ata Ḥonen in the Amida of Ma’ariv permits melakha, but eating and drinking remain prohibited until the recitation of havdala over wine. If one did not pray Ma’ariv but recited the phrase “Barukh ha-mavdil bein kodesh le-ḥol” (“Blessed is the One Who distinguishes between the sacred and the mundane”), he may do melakha, but he still may not eat or drink until he hears havdala recited over wine (SA 624:1; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 8:8).

The havdala after Yom Kippur includes the berakhot over wine and over fire, as well as the berakha of havdala itself. We omit the verses that are customarily recited before havdala after Shabbat (“Hinei Kel…”) as well as the berakha over spices. The berakha over spices is included in havdala after Shabbat to comfort the soul after the departure of the neshama yeteira (lit. “expanded soul”). After Yom Kippur, however, the soul is in a state of joy, not pain, because sins have been forgiven. Even when Yom Kippur is on Shabbat, according to many authorities, the berakha on spices is omitted. One who nevertheless wishes to recite this berakha may do so after he finishes havdala and drinks a bit of wine.[18]

Unlike on Saturday night, when we recite havdala over a flame we light at that moment, after Yom Kippur we make havdala using a flame that has been burning throughout Yom Kippur. On Motza’ei Shabbat, the purpose of the berakha on fire is to thank God for the fire that was discovered by Adam on the first Motza’ei Shabbat, when he took two stones and struck them together, producing fire, for which he praised and thanked God. To commemorate this, we too thank God for fire on Motza’ei Shabbat. However, after Yom Kippur, we recite the berakha over fire because during Yom Kippur we were not allowed to utilize fire, but it is now permitted to us once again. Therefore, the berakha must be recited specifically over a flame that was burning on Yom Kippur but could not be used because of the prohibition of using fire. Therefore, it is customary to light a yahrzeit candle before Yom Kippur, for use during havdala at the end of the day (SA 624:4; MB ad loc. 7).

Although le-khatḥila the berakha should be recited over a flame that was lit before Yom Kippur, bedi’avad, one who forgot to light a candle before the fast or one whose flame was extinguished may make havdala using a flame that was lit from a flame that has been burning since before Yom Kippur. Thus, one may ask permission from a neighbor to light a new flame from a flame they lit before Yom Kippur. One takes this new flame home and recites havdala over it (Ramban; Rema 624:5).

If one has no flame from before Yom Kippur and cannot light from such a flame he should not recite the berakha over fire after Yom Kippur (SA 624:4; BHL s.v. “ve-yesh omrim”). If Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, bedi’avad one may recite the berakha over a flame lit after Shabbat (MB 624:7; SHT ad loc. 9).[19]

After havdala, we eat and drink joyfully, because it is still a somewhat festive time, and because it expresses our faith that God lovingly accepts those who return to Him. The Sages tell us that after Yom Kippur a heavenly voice proclaims, “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was already approved by God” (Kohelet 9:7, Kohelet Rabba ad loc.; Rema 624:5).

Pious people and people of action show their alacrity by beginning to build their sukkot after Yom Kippur, thus going directly from one mitzva to the next (Maharil; Rema 624:5; Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 2:12).


[18]. As we said above, the halakha is that we do not recite the berakha over spices at the end of Yom Kippur. Others say that we do recite it to comfort the soul after the departure of the neshama yeteira (Mordekhai quoting Rabbeinu Gershom). When Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, Rambam maintains that we still do not recite the berakha over spices. Ra’ah explains that the soul is comforted by the food that we may once again eat after Yom Kippur, rendering the spices unnecessary. Rashi (Beitza 16a and Ta’anit 27b, s.v. “neshama yeteira”) explains that the neshama yeteira is expressed through our increased capacity to delight in eating and drinking; therefore, following a fast, there is no need to comfort the soul. This is the ruling of SA 624:3.

Others say that we recite the berakha over spices after Yom Kippur that coincides with Shabbat, because the neshama yeteira is also expressed in an enhanced spirituality, which is now gone (Maharil; Avudraham). Others explain that we smell spices on Motza’ei Shabbat because that is when the wicked return to Gehinom, which causes a bad smell. Many authorities rule in practice that the berakha over spices is recited after Yom Kippur that coincides with Shabbat (Maharshal; Baḥ; Magen Avraham; Taz). However, if the halakha follows the view that there is no need to recite the berakha over spices, its recitation may constitute an unwarranted interruption (hefsek) during havdala (Ginat Veradim; Eliya Rabba; Maḥazik Berakha). Therefore, since the mitzva to make a berakha over spices is rabbinic, in cases of uncertainty it is not required, and therefore one should not interrupt the proper order of havdala for its sake. Thus, one who wishes to observe these halakhot most meticulously should recite the berakha over spices after completing havdala and drinking a bit of wine (Ru’aḥ Ḥayim 624:3).

[19]. If Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, lekhathila one should make havdala using a flame that was lit before the holiday. This covers both reasons for the recitation of the berakha over fire – the one relevant to Shabbat and the one relevant to Yom Kippur (Ritva). Bedi’avad, the berakha may be recited even if only the Shabbat reason applies (SHT 624:9). However, if Yom Kippur is on a weekday, one may not recite the berakha over a flame lit after the holiday, nor a flame lit from another flame that was lit after the holiday, nor even on a flame lit by a non-Jew on Yom Kippur, because the berakha must be recited over a flame that was burning on Yom Kippur but forbidden to use. However, a flame that was lit on Yom Kippur on behalf of a dangerously ill person may be used for havdala after Yom Kippur; since it was permitted to light this flame, it has the status of “ner she-shavat” – a flame that was burning on Yom Kippur but not used for any forbidden melakha (SA 624:4-5).

01. The Mitzva to Fast

It is a positive commandment to fast on Yom Kippur, 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. It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you, and you shall deprive yourselves; it is a law for all time. (Vayikra 16:29-31)

One who does not fast fails to fulfill a positive commandment and violates a negative one. Even though the mitzva of inui (deprivation) is primarily about refraining from life-sustaining food and drink, it also includes four other prohibitions, discussed in the next chapter.

The mitzva is to refrain from eating even the tiniest amount and from drinking even a drop of water. One who eats or drinks in any amount violates a Torah prohibition. One who knowingly eats the volume of a large date (kotevet) or drinks a cheek-full of water is punishable by karet (extirpation), as we read, “Any person who does not deprive himself throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin” (Vayikra 23:29). If one transgresses unknowingly, he is liable to bring a sin offering. These punishments apply only if one eats or drinks an amount large enough to put his mind at ease, as then he is no longer considered to be experiencing inui. These shi’urim (minimum quantities, namely a cheek-full of drink and a kotevet of solid food) were received by Moshe at Sinai as the amounts that put one’s mind at ease. Still, one who eats or drinks anything at all transgresses a Torah prohibition.[1]

One who eats something that is not generally considered edible – such as leaves, twigs, an extremely sharp spice, or rotten food – does not transgress a Torah prohibition, as this is not the normal way to “eat.” Similarly, one who drinks a non-potable beverage – such as an extremely bitter or rotten liquid – does not transgress a Torah prohibition (SA 612:6-8; Rema ad loc. 9). Nevertheless, all of the above are prohibited rabbinically. Since this person has chosen to eat or drink them during the fast, he has made it clear that from his perspective they are edible or potable. Therefore, it is forbidden for him to eat or drink them. Le-khatḥila one must even avoid consuming less than a shi’ur (MB ad loc. 15).[2]


[1]. The Gemara explains that according to R. Yoḥanan, all Torah prohibitions related to eating apply even to less than a shi’ur, as we read, “You shall eat no fat” (Vayikra 7:23) – even in the smallest amount (Yoma 73b-74a). This is because any amount of eating, even just a tiny amount, may ultimately contribute to the shi’ur for which one is punishable (Ritva; see Tosafot 74a s.v. “keivan,” which explains that the rationale of “it may contribute” reinforces the inference from the verse). In contrast, according to Resh Lakish, eating less than a shi’ur is rabbinically prohibited. The halakha accords with R. Yoḥanan (MT, Laws of Resting on the Tenth 2:3 and Laws of Forbidden Foods 14:2). The Yerushalmi maintains that even Resh Lakish concedes that on Yom Kippur one who eats less than a shi’ur transgresses a Torah prohibition (y. Terumot 6:1). This is based on the verse, “It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you, and you shall deprive yourselves” (Vayikra 23:32). We see that one is meant to abstain entirely from anything which will detract from inui (Vilna Gaon).

When it comes to all other prohibitions pertaining to eating, one who eats an olive’s bulk (kezayit) is liable, as a kezayit is the minimum quantity that is considered “eating.” However, on Yom Kippur the criterion is what amount puts one’s mind at ease and negates the state of inui. The Sages have a tradition passed down by Moshe that for food this amount is that of a kotevet, and a cheek-full for drink (Yoma 80a-b).

[2]. Several Aḥaronim write that one who is fed via feeding tube due to a damaged esophagus may continue such feeding on Yom Kippur. They maintain that the prohibition applies only when someone gets pleasure from the taste and from the feeling of fullness that one obtains from food (Ḥelkat Ya’akov, OḤ 52; Nishmat Avraham 612:7 n. 2, based on Eglei Tal, Minḥat Ḥinukh, and others). But this is problematic because, in fact, this person does not experience inui, and the Torah does not directly command us not to eat or drink, but to experience inui. It seems, therefore, that one who is fed this way violates a rabbinic prohibition because he has negated the experience of inui, albeit in an irregular way (shinui). Maharsham (1:124) is of a similar opinion. Ḥatam Sofer OḤ 127 seems to say that one fed in this way violates a Torah prohibition as he does not experience inui. Aḥiezer 3:61 limits Ḥatam Sofer to cases where one derives pleasure from ingestion. Nevertheless, it seems to me that since the person ingests food in an irregular way, the prohibition is rabbinic.

Some claim that one may not take pills before Yom Kippur to ease the fast, as the mitzva is to experience inui, and doing this negates that experience (minority opinion in Sdei Ḥemed; R. Ḥayim David Halevy, Mayim Ḥayim 2:40). However, the leading view is the permissive one, since these pills have only a mild effect in creating a feeling of satiety. Their purpose is the same as eating before the fast, namely, to minimize the difficulty of the fast (majority opinion in Sdei Ḥemed; Ḥelkat Ya’akov 2:52; Tzitz Eliezer 7:32:4; Yabi’a Omer 9:54). Nevertheless, it would seem to be prohibited to take pills before Yom Kippur which make one feel especially good (such as strong painkillers which contain opioids), if the purpose is to alleviate the inui. However, one who must take such pills for medical reasons, to avoid severe pain, may take them before the fast and even on the fast (without water). Even though they alleviate some of his suffering, this is not his intention; this will be explained in the next section, in the discussion of caffeine pills.

02. The Sick Who Are Not at Risk

One who is sick and suffering may not eat or drink on Yom Kippur unless the illness is life-threatening, as fasting on Yom Kippur is a Torah obligation, overridden only by risk to life. In this Yom Kippur differs from other fasts; the sick are exempt from fasting on Tisha Be-Av, and on minor fasts pregnant or nursing women are exempt (Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 10:2-4).

Therefore, one who has a flu or the like must fast on Yom Kippur, since these conditions are not life-threatening. It is better for a sick person to stay in bed all day and not go to the synagogue, rather than drink even a tiny amount to enable him to go, for fasting is the main mitzva of the day, through which God purifies the Jewish people of their sins. While lying in bed, one should do his best to pray. If it is difficult for him to read from the maḥzor, he should offer heartfelt personal prayers. But he must not eat or drink. Likewise, a husband whose wife is pregnant or nursing, and in her condition she cannot both take care of the children and fast, should stay home and take care of the children so that his wife can fulfill the Torah’s mitzva of fasting. Her fasting is more important than his praying with a minyan in the synagogue.

One who is sick and suffering may swallow medications in pill form, as long as it does not taste good. He should take the pill dry, and if he is unable to do so, he should either chew the pill or add a little soap to the water he swallows it with, thus ruining the taste.

If fasting causes someone terrible pain, he may swallow painkiller pills. Thus, one who is suffering from caffeine-withdrawal headaches may take a caffeine pill or a painkiller. Similarly, a migraine sufferer may take a pill to prevent the onset of a migraine.[3]


[3]. The Sages forbade taking medicine on Shabbat, lest it lead one to pulverize herbal ingredients to prepare medication. The poskim disagree as to whether this applies to medications produced today by factories as opposed to individuals. In practice, if one is really suffering, he may take pills; if he is just experiencing discomfort but not real pain, it is forbidden (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 28:4-5, n. 3). One may also take pills that are taken regularly, such as sleeping pills and medications that must be taken for several consecutive days (ibid. 28:6).

The same applies to Yom Kippur. Though we have learned that the Sages forbade eating foul-tasting things on Yom Kippur, in this case, where the purpose of ingestion is not to eat but to take medicine or alleviate pain, the prohibition does not apply (Igrot Moshe OḤ 3:91; Minḥat Shlomo 2:58:25; SSK 39:8). One who suffers severe caffeine withdrawal and has no pills containing caffeine may swallow coffee grounds. Since their taste is extremely bitter, they have the same status as medicine.

One who is in pain and needs medicine that tastes sweet must add something bitter to it to ruin its taste and then swallow it. It is preferable to mix in the bitter substance before Yom Kippur. If only the coating of the medicine is sweet, and, medically speaking, it will not lose its effectiveness if crushed, he should crush it; the bitter taste of the medicine from the inside will ruin the flavor of the coating, and it may all be swallowed. This does not violate the prohibition of grinding, as grinding something that has already been ground is not considered toḥen (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 12:1).

One who suffers migraines must still fast, even though fasting may trigger a miserable headache, since it entails no threat to life. It is important to realize that, in most cases, there are medications that can prevent the onset of a fasting-induced migraine. In rare cases, a migraine can trigger a stroke, which is indeed life-threatening. One is in this risk category, and thus exempt from fasting, if three conditions are met: 1) He has been diagnosed with fasting-induced migraines; 2) the migraine is preceded by an aura (symptoms that precede a migraine headache) that lasts over an hour; 3) there is no medication (like suppositories or sprays) that can prevent the migraines. Since the patients do not need to eat much at once to prevent the migraine, he should eat and drink in minimal quantities (“le-shi’urim”). (This paragraph was written with the help of Dr. Rafi Cayam and Dr. Rachel Herring.)

03. Someone Sick with a Life-Threatening Illness

Someone for whom fasting is liable to cause death has a mitzva to eat and drink as needed, since saving life overrides the mitzva of fasting – and all mitzvot in the Torah – as we read, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live; I am the Lord” (Vayikra 18:5). Our Sages infer: “‘By which man shall live’ – and not die” (Yoma 85b). The mitzvot were given to promote life, not to cause death (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 27:1 n. 1). If one is uncertain whether his life is in danger but is “stringent” and does not eat and drink, he is a sinner, as he violated the Torah’s commandment to preserve his life. Of him, the Torah says (Bereishit 9:5), “But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning” (Bava Kama 91b).

Permission to eat is not limited to cases of grave danger. Rather, as long as there is a chance that fasting will cause a person’s death or weaken his ability to fight off an illness that afflicts him, it is a mitzva for him to eat and drink as needed. Even if someone is already gravely ill, if fasting will likely hasten his death, it is a mitzva for him to eat and drink as necessary, for it is permitted to eat and drink on Yom Kippur even to extend life temporarily.

On the other hand, this should not be taken too far by worrying about remote concerns, for if we were to view every routine illness as possibly life-threatening, it would render moot the halakha that someone sick is obligated to fast on Yom Kippur. Furthermore, anyone with the flu would need to be hospitalized, or at least have a doctor check on him twice a day. Were we really to worry about such levels of risk, we would have to forbid travel by car or plane. Certainly, we would have to prohibit cars that have not passed inspection within the last month. We would also have to prohibit hiking and many other activities.

Rather, the principle is that any danger that people normally treat with urgency and on which they spend time and resources – like rushing someone to the hospital in the middle of a workday – is considered life-threatening. To prevent such danger, it is a mitzva to desecrate Shabbat and to eat and drink on Yom Kippur. However, a danger that people do not normally address immediately with the expenditure of time and resources is not considered life-threatening.[4]


[4]. This criterion is imprecise because some people worry more, and others are more nonchalant. This finds expression in all aspects of life: driving style, attitudes toward illness, planning trips, and, consequently, when to rush someone to the hospital. Each person must use his best judgment, as long as it is within the realm of the reasonable. But if one knows that he is an outlier, he must decide based on what he knows most people would find reasonable.

One who wishes to be stringent and fast even when it is dangerous is not doing a mitzva but rather a sin. One might mistakenly think that this is comparable to a case in which a non-Jew, for his own pleasure, orders a Jew to transgress. In that case, the Jew is not required to sacrifice his life to avoid transgressing, but he may choose to do so in order to sanctify God’s name (Tosafot, Avoda Zara 27b, s.v. “yakhol,” even though Rambam in MT, Laws of Torah Principles 5:1, disagrees and writes that he may not choose death). In our case (of someone dangerously ill), all agree that he may not fast, as doing so does not involve any element of sanctifying God’s name. Rather, just as God commands him to fast, here He commands him to take care of his health.

04. Who Determines Danger?

These halakhot are generally addressed to doctors, who must determine, based on their medical expertise and experience, when there is concern of endangerment, and when there is not. The problem is that many doctors, whether out of excessive caution or lack of respect for the mitzva of fasting on Yom Kippur, always tell anyone who is sick to eat and drink. Some doctors mistakenly believe that if they tell a sick person to eat or drink only minimal quantities (le-shi’urim), there is no prohibition. In truth, the Torah forbids eating and drinking even in small quantities. Only in the case of a patient deemed dangerously ill enough to eat and drink is it preferable, when possible, to eat and drink le-shi’urim (as explained in the next section).

Therefore, questions about fasting must be posed to a God-fearing doctor. This does not mean asking a doctor who wears a particular type of head-covering; rather, the doctor must be moral and ethical, and reach decisions responsibly, factoring in both the sanctity of the day and the sanctity of human life. Patients have the responsibility to approach the doctor out of reverence for God, for if they pressure the doctor to permit them to eat and drink, they are putting the doctor in a very difficult position: He already bears great responsibility, and they are now making it difficult for him to determine whether they are really at risk, or if they simply want to get out of fasting even though there is no risk to life at all. A critical amount of the doctor’s information comes from patient input, so when a patient presses for a dispensation, the doctor may conclude that he is in bad shape and permit him to eat and drink minimal quantities, whereas if the patient had reported honestly, it may have clarified that the situation is not life-threatening at all. In cases of misrepresentation, responsibility for the erroneous ruling lies primarily with the patient.

A God-fearing doctor who is uncertain as to whether a person must fast should consider: “What would I do on Yom Kippur were I to find out that this person was fasting? Would I be willing to violate Yom Kippur by driving for ten minutes to instruct the patient to eat and drink, thus possibly saving his life?” If the answer is yes, it indicates that the doctor believes that there is a true danger to life, and he should instruct the patient beforehand to eat and drink on Yom Kippur. If, however, despite the responsibility he feels for his patient’s well-being, he would not be willing to drive on Yom Kippur for him, it indicates that the doctor believes there is no real danger to life, and he should instruct the patient to fast. This suggestion is effective for the average doctor, who is not lazy but also prefers not to rush from one patient to another.

If a patient mistakenly consulted a doctor who is not God-fearing, and the doctor instructed him to eat and drink, then the patient must make every effort to ask a God-fearing doctor before Yom Kippur. If the patient did not ask, and Yom Kippur has begun, he should eat and drink. Although we are uncertain whether the doctor answered in accordance with halakha, it nevertheless remains a case of uncertainty (safek) in which life is at stake. We therefore are stringent and instruct the patient to eat and drink.

It is important to know that even though these halakhic decisions are in the hands of doctors, if a patient thinks that his life may be in danger, and that eating and drinking can save him, then even if the doctors disagree, he should eat and drink. This is because sometimes a person can sense the gravity of his condition more than doctors can, as it is written, “The heart alone knows its bitterness (Mishlei 14:10)” (Yoma 83a; SA 618:1). However, if the patient says he must eat, and the doctor thinks that eating would endanger his life, we pay heed to the doctor (AHS 618:5-6; SSK 39:4).[5]


[5]. With respect to these halakhot, there is no difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish doctor. The key factor is trustworthiness (MB 618:1). The Gemara (Yoma 83a) and Rishonim (ad loc.) address cases in which the doctors disagree. In practice, if one doctor says the patient needs to eat, and another says he does not, it is a case of uncertainty, and he should eat (SA 618:2). If two doctors maintain that he does not need to eat, and one says that he does, we follow the majority (SA 618:3). If two doctors say he must eat, we listen to them, even if a hundred other doctors say he need not eat (SA 618:4). If the doctors who say he need not eat include those who are clearly more expert, then since that group has both the majority and the greater expertise, we listen to them and require him to fast, even if two doctors say he must eat (Mateh Ephraim ad loc. 3; see MB ad loc. 12).

Accordingly, if conventional medicine dictates that one should fast, while alternative practitioners say he should eat, we disregard the alternative practitioners, and the patient must fast; conventional doctors are considered more expert because they rely on comprehensive research, and they also constitute a majority. However, if the patient is convinced that the alternative practitioner is correct, he may eat. (See Rema 618:4.)

In Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 27:2, I explain that we listen to the patient over the doctors as long as there is some logic to the patient’s claims. However, if the disease and its treatment are known, but the patient demands treatment that the doctors deem ineffective and that entails Shabbat desecration by someone other than the patient, we listen to the doctors (BHL 328:10 s.v. “ve-rofeh”). Likewise, if the patient is known to be excessively fearful, and the attending caregiver is certain that he is not in danger, the patient should not eat. If, despite the doctor’s view, and despite being aware of his own tendency to worry excessively, he remains sure that he must eat, he may act accordingly. (See Tzitz Eliezer 8:15:7:25, which states that sometimes it is permissible for the patient to desecrate Shabbat on his own behalf, even when it would be forbidden for a doctor.)

05. Eating and Drinking Minimal Quantities (“Le-shi’urim”)

If a person is dangerously ill, but, according to the doctor’s instructions, need not eat and drink large quantities urgently, then according to several of the greatest Rishonim he should eat and drink less than the minimum punishable quantities (shi’urim) intermittently, to minimize the prohibition (as we will explain). Although eating or drinking even tiny amounts is prohibited by the Torah, ingesting a full shi’ur increases the gravity of the transgression: Doing so knowingly incurs the punishment of karet (extirpation) and doing so unknowingly obligates him to bring a sin offering. Therefore, ingesting less than a shi’ur is preferable.

However, if there is any concern that eating and drinking this way will cause at-risk patients to neglect the recovery of their strength, they must eat and drink normally. For example, if a postpartum woman is exhausted, it is better that she drink normally so that she can have uninterrupted sleep than that she stay awake to drink small quantities intermittently.

Likewise, diabetics whose condition has no stable treatment must be very cautious. If there is concern that eating and drinking le-shi’urim will lead them to be neglectful and not eat as much as they need, they should eat normally. It is also better that they pray in the synagogue with a minyan and eat substantial amounts every few hours, rather than eating minimal amounts over an extended period of time and thus be unable to come to synagogue.[6]

Let us now explain the details of eating and drinking minimal quantities (le-shi’urim). For drinking, the minimum punishable quantity is a mouthful, that is, the interior of the mouth plus one cheek is filled with the liquid. This amount varies from person to person. Therefore, the patient must determine how much water fills his mouth by spitting a mouthful into a cup and marking where the water reaches. Le-khatḥila, he should do this before the fast begins. On the fast, he should drink less than this amount each time.

For solid food, the minimum punishable quantity is the volume of a large date (kotevet) – smaller than an egg but larger than an olive, it is approximately 30 cc or one ounce (SA 612:1-5, 9-10).

These shi’urim also contain a time component. That is, to be punishable, one must eat or drink the requisite shi’ur in the time it takes to eat a half a loaf of bread (akhilat pras). Some maintain that this is nine minutes, and le-khatḥila it is good to follow this opinion. One who must eat and drink more frequently may suffice with a seven-minute break. When it comes to drinking, one may even suffice with a break of one minute, because some maintain that for drinking this is enough of a break (SA 618:7-8). There is no halakhic difference between water and other liquids; therefore, if drinking le-shi’urim suffices for a patient, it is recommended that he drink high-calorie beverages, which may make it unnecessary for him to eat.[7]


[6]. Ramban infers from the Gemara in Keritot 13a that a pregnant woman who is in danger and needs to eat on Yom Kippur should eat less than the minimum punishable quantities. He extrapolates from this case to all sick people and concludes that they should all eat and drink le-shi’urim when possible. This is also the position of Rosh, Hagahot Maimoniyot, Tur, and SA 618:7. On the other hand, Rif, Rambam, and many other Rishonim do not mention the idea of le-shi’urim at all, nor is this mentioned in Yoma. In their view, the Gemara in Keritot does not apply to a pregnant woman on Yom Kippur, but rather to a pregnant woman who needs to eat something prohibited. Indeed, several Aḥaronim write that a dangerously ill person should eat and drink whatever he needs on Yom Kippur, with no limitations (Netziv; Or Same’aḥ; R. Ḥayim of Brisk). Nevertheless, the accepted ruling is that when possible, it is preferable to eat and drink le-shi’urim. This is somewhat difficult to understand, as we know that when it comes to danger to life on Shabbat, we do not instruct people to try to minimize the prohibition by asking a non-Jew or minor to carry out a lifesaving melakha, as we are concerned that it will cause people to be neglectful in their lifesaving efforts (Tosafot). We are also concerned that at a future time, if no non-Jew or child is present, people will waste time looking for them, and in the interim the sick person will die (Ran). Based on these concerns, the Sages teach that one should not try to use a shinui when undertaking lifesaving activities, lest it cause delay or negligence. If, on Shabbat, the Sages do not require people to attempt to downgrade from Torah prohibitions to rabbinic prohibitions out of concern for negligence, why is the accepted ruling to try to minimize the severity of the prohibition, particularly since eating minimal quantities still entails violation of a Torah prohibition? (See Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 27:4-5.)

It seems that since the status of the dangerously ill person is known before Yom Kippur, and we can prepare in advance in an orderly fashion, there is no concern for negligence. On the other hand, it is possible that those Rishonim who do not mention eating le-shi’urim are concerned that precise instructions to minimize the prohibition would adversely affect people’s lifesaving efforts. This provides an answer to a question raised by R. Yaakov Ettlinger. He writes that we permit the sick to eat only precisely what is necessary; anything more than that is biblically prohibited. He then expresses surprise that the poskim do not mention this (Binyan Tziyon §34). We can answer that they do not mention it because in practice it is difficult to establish exactly how much a patient must eat or drink, so to avoid any possibility of endangering life, we permit someone dangerously ill to eat and drink as much as he needs. Hilkhot Ḥag Be-ḥag quotes R. Elyashiv as saying this (ch. 26 n. 33), and it is similar to the ruling that we take care of the sick on Shabbat exactly as we would on a weekday (SA 328:4; see Peninei Halakha: Shabbat, ch. 27 n. 4). It should be noted that there have been tragedies in which diabetics who needed to eat on Yom Kippur did not do so and died as a result. Since many diabetics can function normally, they come to synagogue, but there it is difficult for them to eat le-shi’urim. Some have become weak and, without realizing the danger they were in, ended up passing out and dying. When there is any shadow of a doubt concerning danger, diabetics should eat as usual and then go to the synagogue, as the value of eating le-shi’urim does not take precedence over the value of going to the synagogue.

[7]. For more on “akhilat pras,” see Peninei Halakha: Pesaḥ 16:25 and Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 10:7. There are many opinions about its duration, ranging from 4 to 9 minutes. MB 618:21 says that on Yom Kippur we should be stringent in accordance with the opinion of Ḥatam Sofer and consider it 9 minutes. However, in times of need, one may be lenient and wait 7 minutes, which is longer than most opinions require. (In Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 10:7 I rule that eating a shi’ur within 7 minutes requires a berakha aḥarona.) In terms of drinking, Rambam uses a different criterion: the time it takes to drink a revi’it in a relaxed and continuous manner (MT, Laws of Resting on the Tenth 2:4). This is no longer than a minute. However, SA 618:8 states that le-khatḥila one should be stringent and follow Raavad, who equates drinking with eating. (Accordingly, one should wait 7 minutes.) In times of necessity, it is better to follow Rambam rather than drink more than shi’ur at once.

06. The Psychological Aspect

Sometimes a person becomes so weak on Yom Kippur that he is afraid that he is going to lose consciousness and die. This fear is usually exaggerated, as fasting and the attendant weakness are generally not dangerous. (There are even some serious illnesses for which fasting may be helpful.) Nevertheless, it is possible that a person does have some issue which might make fasting dangerous. Therefore, if someone is so afraid he might die that he asks for food and drink despite the holiness of the day, we give it to him. However, since the need is sometimes simply psychological, we begin by giving him only a little. Sometimes this is enough to calm him and bring about a recovery. If this does not work, we continue giving him small quantities of food, spread out over time (as explained in the previous section). If this, too, does not work, he may eat and drink until he is reassured (SA 617:2-3).

Sometimes just knowing that it is permissible to eat and drink restores a person’s well-being. He calms down and feels able to continue fasting. There is a story in the Yerushalmi (y. Yoma 6:4) about R. Ḥaggi, who became very weak from fasting, but when R. Mana told him to drink, he decided that he could manage, and he continued to fast. Many poskim use this strategy (Kol Bo §69, cited by Beit Yosef 618:1).[8]

On the other hand, we must be very careful not to take danger lightly. If doctors have instructed someone to eat and drink, he should do so joyfully, as he is fulfilling God’s commandment to take care of his health. Hopefully, he will merit long life as a reward for observing this mitzva. Torah giants made it a practice to admonish the sick about this. If they knew that a particular patient was likely to disregard medical advice and fast, thus endangering his life, they would visit him on Yom Kippur to persuade him to eat and drink.


[8]. R. Zevin tells a remarkable story. Once, before Ne’ila, there was a commotion in the beit midrash of R. Ḥayim Halberstam, the Sanzer Rebbe. A rich congregant, desperately thirsty, almost passed out. This rich man was known to be very stingy. At first, some mocked him: “Throughout the year, this wealthy man is unwilling to give a poor person a little water to drink. Let him now experience thirst!” However, when the people standing around realized that he was truly in danger, they went to the dayanim to ask what they should do. The rabbis instructed them to give him a spoonful of water (less than a cheek-full). However, each spoonful they fed him seemed to make him thirstier, until he asked for a cup of water. The head of the beit din, Rav Berish, did not trust himself to rule on this, so he approached R. Ḥayim for a ruling. He interrupted R. Ḥayim’s holy worship, told him the whole story, and asked him what to do. R. Ḥayim said, “Tell him that for each cup that he drinks now, tomorrow he must donate a hundred guilder (a substantial amount) to charity. If he agrees to this, give him as much as he wants to drink.” When the wealthy, weak man heard this ruling, it revived him. He got to his feet, stood up straight, and continued to pray as if he was not thirsty at all (R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Sipurei Ḥasidim: Mo’adim, p. 101 [A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Festivals, vol. 1, pp. 117-118]).

07. Laws of Eating for Those Who Must Eat

Children and dangerously sick people must recite berakhot before eating and drinking on Yom Kippur. If they eat or drink enough to require a berakha aḥarona, they recite that as well. Someone dangerously ill who is drinking le-shi’urim does not recite a berakha aḥarona, as he drinks less than a cheek-full each time, while a berakha aḥarona is recited only after drinking a revi’it (2.5 ounces or 75 milliliters), which is more than a cheek-full. (See Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 10:10.)

In terms of eating, even one who ate minimal quantities may have to recite a berakha aḥarona, because the shi’ur that obligates a berakha aḥarona is a kezayit, and someone eating le-shiurim on Yom Kippur may eat as much as the volume of a kotevet, which is larger than a kezayit (ibid. 10:5).

As we said above (section 5 and n. 6), it is preferable when possible for the dangerously ill to eat and drink le-shi’urim, but when that is difficult, they should eat and drink normally. For example, a postpartum woman who needs to sleep can eat and drink regularly to help her recovery. Diabetics who are praying with the community should eat and drink normally, so that they can attend synagogue without endangering themselves. Children who eat and drink on Yom Kippur should also do so normally.

People who are eating bread must first wash their hands (netilat yadayim). However, rather than washing to the wrists, they should wash only to the base of the fingers. They should wash each hand twice (Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 2:3, 2:11). One who intends to eat less than the volume of an egg (kebeitza) does not recite “al netilat yadayim.” If he intends to eat more than that, he recites the blessing (Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 2:6).

One who always washes mayim aḥaronim before Birkat Ha-mazon may do so on Yom Kippur as well. If one does not normally do so, he should not do so on Yom Kippur (9:5 below).

One who eats at least a kezayit of bread must recite Ya’aleh Ve-yavo during Birkat Ha-mazon and mention Yom Kippur. If he forgot to do so, he does not repeat it. If Yom Kippur is on Shabbat, he should also recite Retzei, but if he forgot, he does not repeat it.[9] One who is reciting Al Ha-miḥya should mention Yom Kippur. Needless to say, if he forgot to do so, he does not repeat it, since even on a normal Shabbat one who forgot to mention Shabbat in Al Ha-miḥya does not repeat it.

Some say that a dangerously ill person who is eating on Yom Kippur must make “Ha-motzi” over two loaves of bread (leḥem mishneh). Additionally, if it is Shabbat, he must make kiddush before eating. However, according to most poskim, one need not make kiddush or use leḥem mishneh on Yom Kippur, and the halakha follows them.[10]


[9]. According to most poskim, children and the dangerously ill, who eat on Yom Kippur, must recite Ya’aleh Ve-yavo. Since they may eat, and Yom Kippur is a mikra kodesh, this must be mentioned in Birkat Ha-mazon (Maharam; Rosh; Hagahot Maimoniyot; Tur; SA 618:10). However, according to others, Ya’aleh Ve-yavo should not be recited, as the mitzva to recite it applies only when there is a mitzva to eat (Shibolei Ha-leket citing R. Avigdor Katz; Taz ad loc. 10). In practice, Ya’aleh Ve-yavo should be recited, since this is the opinion of most poskim. It does not constitute an interruption, and it includes nothing that is incorrect. However, one who forgot to recite it does not repeat Birkat Ha-mazon, since according to those who maintain that Ya’aleh Ve-yavo is not recited on Yom Kippur, the repeated berakha would be in vain (le-vatala). MA (ad loc. 10) implies this, while Ḥayei Adam, Pri Megadim, and MB ad loc. 29 rule this way explicitly.

[10]. When Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, some maintain that a dangerously ill person must recite kiddush before eating (Hitorerut Teshuva 3:407; Hagahot R. Akiva Eger 618:2 inclines this way as well, following the approach that making kiddush where one eats is a Torah requirement). However, according to most poskim, the sick person does not make kiddush, as there is no mitzva to eat on Yom Kippur (SAH 618:18; Ḥayei Adam 145:32; Or Same’aḥ, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service 4:1; Responsa Har Tzvi OḤ 1:155; Igrot Moshe, ḤM 1:39; Yaskil Avdi 8:20; Mishnat Ya’avetz OḤ §59; SSK 39:33; Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 307). Knesset Ha-gedola (OḤ 618, Hagahot Tur 9) states that one must use leḥem mishneh. This is difficult to understand, though, as double portions of manna did not fall before Yom Kippur (since it was forbidden to eat then). One might respond that manna did fall to feed the sick and the children. Nevertheless, most poskim maintain that leḥem mishneh is not required, and this is the conclusion of MA 618:10 and SAH ad loc. 18.

  1. Akiva Eger writes in his responsa (§24) that it is permissible to give an aliya to someone dangerously ill who must eat, as the Torah reading is due to the holiness of the day, not to the fast. However, R. Akiva Eger is uncertain about doing this at Minḥa, as it is possible that its Torah reading was established because of the fast. One who ate le-shi’urim may get an aliya. (See Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 7:11 n. 15, where I write that at Minḥa on fast days, one should not give an aliya to someone who ate more than a shi’ur. However, if such a person was mistakenly called up, he may accept, relying upon Responsa Ḥatam Sofer OḤ §157. Ḥatam Sofer allows this because he feels that on a fast day, the Torah reading is because of the day, not because of the fast. The same ruling applies to someone called up on Minḥa of Yom Kippur.) A long-time ḥazan who has to eat le-shi’urim may continue as ḥazan (Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 351).

08. Pregnant Women

Pregnant and nursing women are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur (Pesaḥim 54b; SA 617:1). They are even obligated to fast on Tisha Be-Av, which is a rabbinic requirement, so certainly they are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur, which is a Torah requirement.

In recent times, some rabbis have been allowing pregnant women to drink le-shi’urim on Yom Kippur, because they believe that women are weaker nowadays and may miscarry if they fast. However, studies in Israel and abroad show that fasting does not increase the risk of miscarriage. In rare cases, fasting during the ninth month may induce labor, but this is not life-threatening. There is also no basis for the claim that people today are weaker than they used to be. On the contrary, people are healthier than they have ever been, whether due to the abundance and variety of available food or due to advances in medicine. Life expectancy has increased by decades. Therefore, there is no reason to be more lenient today than in the past, and the law still applies: pregnant and nursing women are required to fast (Tzitz Eliezer 17:20:4; Nishmat Avraham 617:1).

This means that even pregnant women who throw up, have slightly elevated blood pressure, low hemoglobin, or other normal discomforts associated with pregnancy are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur and are not permitted to drink le-shi’urim. Consulting a God-fearing doctor is only necessary if a woman is in the first few weeks of pregnancy following IVF or going through an especially difficult or high-risk pregnancy. If the doctor says that there is possible danger to the life of the mother or the fetus, then she may drink, preferably le-shi’urim. In contrast, a woman experiencing a normal pregnancy with normal symptoms (even if this includes throwing up) must fast. There is no reason to even ask a rabbi about it. Nevertheless, if a pregnant woman who is fasting feels that her situation has become dangerous, she should eat and drink as needed.[11]


[11]. It should be noted that it is not enough for the doctor to be God-fearing. If the doctor accepts the view that most pregnant and nursing women may drink on Yom Kippur, his determination is not considered legitimate according to most poskim (n. 13 below). Therefore, one may rely only on a doctor who answers in accordance with the view that, as a rule, pregnant and nursing women are not put at risk by fasting, and that only in a few cases of high-risk pregnancies is it necessary for a pregnant woman to eat or drink. See section 4 above, where we explain that the people asking have a responsibility to asks questions in a God-fearing manner.

09. Childbirth and Postpartum

From the moment labor begins, or from the moment a woman must be rushed to the hospital to give birth, she is considered to be dangerously ill, and she must eat and drink as needed. She retains this status for seventy-two hours from the moment of birth. If these seventy-two hours end during Yom Kippur, she may eat and drink as needed until seventy-two hours have passed.[12] As we have seen, it is preferable for anyone dangerously ill to eat and drink le-shi’urim if it will not be harmful. However, if a woman postpartum wants to sleep, and eating and drinking le-shi’urim will make it hard for her to get the rest she needs, then she should eat and drink normally.

From seventy-two hours until a week postpartum, her condition must be evaluated. If it is clear to her and her doctor that she is not at risk, she should fast. If they are uncertain, she should not fast (SA 617:4).


[12]. According to Terumat Ha-deshen §148 (cited in SA 617:4), we count until the end of the third day, regardless of the hour of birth. Thus, if a woman gave birth at any point on the seventh of Tishrei, she must fast on Yom Kippur. However, MB 330:10 states that some Rishonim calculate three days – 72 hours – starting from the exact time of the birth. These include Rosh, Ritva, and Hagahot Asheri based on Behag. This is how we rule in practice (SSK 39:15; Yabi’a Omer 7:53:7).

10. Nursing Women

As we have stated, pregnant and nursing women are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur (Pesaḥim 54b; SA 617:1). True, some contemporary poskim maintain that nursing women may drink le-shi’urim, so that the fast does not cause them to stop nursing. Nevertheless, according to most poskim, nursing mothers must fast on Yom Kippur and even Tisha Be-Av. Even though nursing makes the fast more difficult because of the additional loss of fluids, this is not life-threatening. It does not endanger the baby either, because even if the mother’s milk decreases or dries up, milk substitutes are available. In reality, women who fast are generally able to continue nursing.

Good advice for nursing mothers is to skip every other feeding. This will help them make it through the fast relatively easily. In other words, a woman who normally nurses every three hours should nurse at 10 AM. At 1 PM she should use formula or another substitute, and then nurse again at 4 PM. At 7 PM she should once again use a substitute. This way, she will not suffer too much during the fast, and she will not produce less milk. Some babies will not accept a substitute from their mother, in which case someone else needs to feed them formula.

Nevertheless, if the baby is small, weak, and sickly, and the doctor thinks that the baby has a special need for mother’s milk, and there is concern that if the mother fasts, her milk will dry up or be considerably depleted, she may drink le-shi’urim based on the instruction of a God-fearing doctor (BHL 617:1). However, this is rare; if a nursing mother drinks a lot the day before the fast, her milk will almost certainly not be depleted from fasting. It is even better if, starting three days before the fast, she drinks and sleeps more than usual. This will increase her milk supply. She can also pump in the days before the fast, so the baby will have plenty of milk during the fast, and there is no concern that the mother’s milk will be depleted.[13]


[13]. If there is a reasonable chance that a mother’s milk will dry up or be seriously depleted due to fasting, some permit her to drink le-shi’urim, because, in their view, mother’s milk is necessary for the baby’s survival. (This is cited in the name of Ḥazon Ish.) They add that one should not take into account that good milk substitutes are available nowadays (Halikhot Shlomo 6:2; Si’aḥ Naḥum §36). Others testify in the name of various rabbis that even though the sefarim advise to be stringent, in practice we are generally lenient when questions arise. However, these claims are very difficult to sustain, because even though mother’s milk certainly has beneficial properties, and the prevailing medical view strongly encourages nursing, nevertheless, many women do not nurse at all, and we never hear of doctors being up in arms about this and claiming that nursing is necessary to save the babies’ lives. According to an Israeli national health survey from 2000, 10% of Jewish mothers in Israel do not nurse at all, about 70% nurse beyond one month, partially or entirely, only about 50% nurse longer than three months, and only about 32% nurse longer than six months. It stands to reason that many women who stop nursing do so for their own convenience, to facilitate their professional lives or studies. If these factors are sufficient for women to stop or cut down nursing, and the medical establishment does not strenuously object (as would be expected if this were truly life-threatening), then the facts indicate that cessation of nursing is not seen as jeopardizing babies’ lives.

Furthermore, in the past, infant mortality during the first year was very high, and no good milk substitutes were available. Yet the clear ruling was that nursing women were obligated to fast, even on Tisha Be-Av. How then can we even raise the possibility that nowadays this is life-threatening? Good substitutes are available, and we have never heard of a baby who died because his mother stopped nursing him. Even in the past, when there were no milk substitutes, leniencies were granted only in cases where the baby was sick. We see this in Devar Shmuel §107 (cited in Responsa Ḥatam Sofer 6:23); BHL 617:1; Da’at Torah ad loc.; and Har Tzvi (OḤ 1:201:1 toward the end). Therefore, a nursing mother may drink on Yom Kippur only if there is a specific medical reason that her sick baby needs mother’s milk, and there is a concern that fasting will deplete her supply. Torat Ha-yoledet (ch. 51 n. 11) and Piskei Teshuvot (617:2) incline this way as well.

As we stated, the leniencies stem from times when there were no milk substitutes. Back then, if a mother’s milk dried up, she had to hire a wet nurse. If she did not have money for this, the baby’s life was truly in danger due to the likelihood of malnutrition. Today, milk substitutes are available, so it would seem reasonable to be stringent even with sick babies. In practice, though, the ruling is made by a doctor. If the doctor feels that there is a certain danger to the baby’s life if he cannot have mother’s milk, and there is a reasonable fear that the mother’s milk will dry up as a result of the fast, one can rule leniently. However, if the doctor is one of those who instructs many nursing mothers to drink le-shi’urim on Yom Kippur, then most poskim say one cannot rely on his judgment. Rather, one should ask a doctor who proceeds from the assumption that stopping nursing is not normally life-threatening.

We must add that the possibility that a mother’s milk will dry up due to the fast is remote. Generally, fasting does not force a woman to stop nursing. That is, if one is careful, in the days before the fast, to drink at least three liters a day and sleep for eight (or at least seven) hours a day, it is very unlikely that her milk supply will be depleted. On the contrary, many women report that proper preparation for the fast improves their milk supply; they discover how helpful extra drinking and sleeping are for nursing. Moreover, even if a nursing woman did not prepare properly for the fast, if she drinks and rests a lot after the fast, her milk supply will generally return to normal. (Nevertheless, if a nursing woman is in the process of reducing the number of feedings, or has trouble nursing in general, lack of proper preparation for the fast may make it hard for her to replenish her milk supply.)

To sum up, the Torah commands us to fast on Yom Kippur. The Gemara and poskim explicitly state that a nursing woman is included in this obligation. (Even on the rabbinic fast of Tisha Be-Av, pregnant and nursing women are required to fast.) There is no justification for not observing this mitzva based on the unsupported claim that it is life-threatening for nursing women to fast.

01. The Mitzva to Fast

There is a positive commandment to fast on Yom Kippur, as we read, “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deprive (ve-initem) yourselves” (Vayikra 16:29). The primary expression of this deprivation (inui, which may also be translated “affliction” or “suffering”) is refraining from life-sustaining food and drink, and the punishment of karet (extirpation) in the case of a knowing transgression and a sin offering in the case of an unknowing transgression apply only to one who eats or drinks. Nevertheless, the mitzva of inui includes four additional prohibitions, all of which are forms of deprivation. Together with the prohibition on eating and drinking, there are a total of five prohibitions: a) eating and drinking; b) washing; c) anointing; d) wearing shoes; e) sexual relations (Yoma 73a).

The mitzva of inui does not require us to do things that inflict pain, like sitting in the midday sun. Rather, the mitzva is to desist from certain things whose deprivation causes suffering (Yoma 74b and 76b-77b). The basis for this understanding is the verse, “It shall be a Shabbat (Shabbat) of complete rest (Shabbaton) for you, and you shall deprive yourselves” (Vayikra 23:32). Our Sages expound: “Shabbat” – you should refrain (tishbetu) from eating and drinking; “Shabbaton” – you should refrain from other activities that would reduce inui (Yoma 74a). The Sages also infer from the fact that the Torah commands us to “deprive ourselves” five times that there are five activities from which one must desist.

The poskim disagree about how severe the additional four prohibitions are. Some say that since the Torah never explicitly states that eating and drinking are prohibited, but rather states, “You shall deprive yourselves,” it means that all five deprivations are included in the Torah’s commandment. According to most poskim, however, only eating and drinking are prohibited by the Torah, because the primary expression of inui is to be deprived of them. Still, the Torah did not explicitly state that the mitzva is to refrain from eating and drinking, but commanded us to deprive ourselves, to teach us that there must be additional expressions of our deprivation. Based on this, the Sages enacted the other four prohibitions.[1]


[1]. The Gemara (Yoma 76a) states:

What do these five deprivations correspond to? R. Ḥisda says: They correspond to the five times that the Torah mentions “inui”: “On the tenth [day of the same seventh month, you shall observe a sacred occasion when you shall deprive yourselves” (Bamidbar 29:7)]; “But the tenth [day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall deprive yourselves” (Vayikra 23:27); “It shall be] a Shabbat of complete rest [for you, and you shall deprive yourselves” (ibid. v. 32); “It shall be] a Shabbat of complete rest [for you, and you shall deprive yourselves; it is a law for all time” (ibid. 16:31)]; “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” (ibid. v. 29).]

It would seem from this exegesis and that of “Shabbat Shabbaton” (Yoma 74a) that all five prohibitions are from the Torah. Indeed, this is the position of She’iltot, Behag, Itur, and Yere’im.

However, other Rishonim maintain that the additional four afflictions are rabbinic. When the Torah speaks of the punishment of karet in the context of Yom Kippur (Vayikra 23:30), it says, “I will cause that person to perish (ve-ha’avadeti et ha-nefesh).” The Sages explain that liability to punishment by karet is limited to the type of deprivation that would lead to death (ibud nefesh) if continued for an extended period (Yoma 74b). This implies that it is only eating and drinking that are prohibited by the Torah. Furthermore, we find that R. Eliezer permits a king and a new bride to wash their faces and permits a postpartum woman to wear shoes. Moreover, washing minors and applying cream to them is permitted. If these actions were prohibited by the Torah, we would not find these leniencies. For these reasons, Rabbeinu Tam, Ri, Riva, Rashba, Rosh, Ritva, Me’iri, and Sefer Ha-ḥinukh maintain that the additional four prohibitions are rabbinic, and the prooftexts simply support the rabbinic laws (“asmakhta”) rather than serve as their source. Those who nevertheless maintain that all the deprivations are Torah prohibitions explain that the Torah authorizes the Sages to delineate their parameters. Therefore, the Sages can choose to be lenient in certain cases (Ran). If the additional deprivations are from the Torah, why do they not carry the punishment of karet? Because as long as one fasts, he is observing the primary deprivation.

I would like to suggest that all agree that these four prohibitions are rooted in the Torah, while the details are rabbinic. This is why the Torah obliquely describes the mitzva of the day as “inui,” which includes all types of deprivation, not just eating and drinking. According to most poskim, the Torah requires us to desist from eating and drinking (the primary form of deprivation), and leaves other matters which have an aspect of deprivation to the discretion of the Sages, while alluding in the verses that there are grounds to prohibit five things. Others say that even the four additional prohibitions are absolutely included in the Torah commandment, for desisting from them is part of the mitzva of inui. However, since they are not the primary forms of inui, their parameters were given to the Sages to delineate.

02. Washing

All washing for pleasure is forbidden on Yom Kippur, whether in hot or cold water. No part of the body may be washed, not even the pinky. However, if one was muddied, sullied by excrement, or had a nosebleed, he may wash the affected areas, as his intention is to remove filth, not to derive pleasure. Similarly, after changing a diaper, one may wash one’s hands with soap and water to remove filth and dirt. Even though washing to remove filth involves a small amount of pleasure, since the primary intention is to remove filth, it is not considered washing for pleasure (SA OḤ 613:1).

When preparing food for a child, one may rinse the food or the dishes, as this is not washing for pleasure.

One who is so sweaty that it is really bothering him and causing him to suffer may rinse the sweaty areas, since he is not doing so for pleasure (MB 613:2; SHT ad loc. 4).

One who is very sensitive, and who will be agitated unless he rinses his face in the morning, may rinse his face, though if he is able to refrain, he should be commended. If rheum accumulated in the corner of one’s eyes overnight, and it cannot be removed without water, one may use a bit of water to remove it (Rema 613:4; MB ad loc. 9).

One may not rinse his mouth on Yom Kippur, both because of the prohibition on washing and lest he swallow a drop of water. Even one who knows he has bad breath and is bothered a lot by it may not to rinse his mouth. He may, however, brush his teeth with a dry toothbrush.[2]

If a newlywed bride (within thirty days of marriage) is worried that if she does not wash her face her husband will find her unattractive, she may wash her face; she is not washing for pleasure, but rather to avoid repelling her husband.[3]

One may use a barely damp towel (for example, a towel with which one dried his hands) to wipe his eyes and face, to clean them and refresh himself a bit. This is because the prohibition on washing does not apply something only barely damp. “Barely damp” means that it cannot make something wet enough to wet something else (“tofe’aḥ al menat lehatpi’aḥ”; SA 613:9). As a rule, moist towelettes and baby wipes are too damp and thus may not be used for enjoyment or to refresh. However, they may be used to remove dirt. If they dry out to the point that they are not tofe’aḥ al menat lehatpi’aḥ, one may even use them to refresh oneself.


[2]. On the minor fasts, one may brush his teeth with water to get rid of bad breath, as long as he is careful not to swallow any water. Even though some water will inevitably be swallowed (as clearly once the mouth is wet, the water will be swallowed together with saliva), since it is not intentional, one may be lenient when necessary. One who really suffers may even be lenient on Tisha Be-Av (Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 7:5). However, on Yom Kippur, when any drinking is prohibited by Torah law, one may not be lenient. This is written in Smak (§221) and cited in Beit Yosef (613:4) with the following rationale: “Even less than a shi’ur is prohibited by the Torah, and water may trickle into his throat.” If he swallows unintentionally, he transgresses rabbinically. However, since the root of the prohibition is from the Torah, one must be stringent. If one finds that brushing his teeth with a dry toothbrush is ineffective, and he suffers greatly from bad breath, he may brush his teeth with soapy water. This entirely ruins the taste of the water, so if he swallows a little water, he does not transgress.

[3]. This is the opinion of R. Eliezer (Yoma 78b) and the ruling of Rif, Rambam, and Rosh. Some Rishonim (R. Yitzḥak ibn Gi’at and Semag) rule in accordance with the Sages and are stringent. Shulḥan Arukh 613:10 is lenient. Ḥayei Adam 145:15 states that we are not lenient if the groom will not see his bride over the course of Yom Kippur.

03. Washing for a Mitzva

Hand-washing is permitted for a mitzva. Therefore, kohanim may wash their hands (up to the wrists) before Birkat Kohanim (Rema 613:3; SA 128:6). However, one who had a nocturnal emission on Yom Kippur should not immerse himself, even if he would normally do so, because the pious practice of immersing after a seminal emission does not override the prohibition on washing. Similarly, a nidda whose time to immerse coincides with Yom Kippur should postpone visiting the mikveh until the night after Yom Kippur (SA 613:11-12).[4]

After waking up in the morning, one should use a cup to wash his hands three times to the base of the fingers (where the fingers meet the palm), because a ru’aḥ ra’a remains on the hands after a night’s sleep, and it can harm the body’s orifices. To remove it, the hands must be washed three times, alternating between left and right. After using the toilet, one washes the hands again and recites the berakha of “al netilat yadayim.” This washing is a mitzva, as the Sages ordained hand-washing before praying Shaḥarit (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 8:4 n. 2). Even though normally we enhance this mitzva by washing the entire hand, on Yom Kippur we wash only to the base of the fingers, because technically this is adequate for both cleanliness and the removal of ru’aḥ ra’a (SA 613:2). While it is true that when one tries to wash beyond the base of the fingers, the palm can get a little wet, this is not a concern, since it is not his intention.

If one touches an area of the body that is usually covered and sweaty, he is considered to have touched something dirty. If he wishes to recite sacred words afterward, he should wash his hands, as he is washing them for a mitzva and not for pleasure (MB 613:5-6; Kaf Ha-ḥayim ad loc. 6; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 5:2). There is uncertainty regarding the status of one who relieves himself without touching any part of the body that is usually covered, as perhaps he does not need to wash, since he did not touch any filth. In order to avoid this uncertainty, when one relieves oneself it is best to touch a part of the body that is usually covered. This way, all agree that one may wash his hands until the base of his fingers, including the knuckles, in order to recite the berakha of Asher Yatzar in a state of cleanliness (SA 613:3, MB ad loc. 4).[5]


[4]. According to Yoma 88a, one who experienced a nocturnal seminal emission may immerse on Yom Kippur. In practice, this is permitted by R. Yehuda ben Barzilai of Barcelona. One who normally immerses in this situation and is very uncomfortable not doing so may immerse according to Maharil, Mahari Weil, Responsa Mahari Bruna §49, and Rav Pe’alim OḤ 2:61. Some Ḥasidim also rule this way (Piskei Teshuvot 613:6 n. 23). However, many Rishonim prohibit immersion, maintaining that the Gemara’s leniency applied only when Ezra’s ordinance (requiring anyone who experienced a nocturnal emission to immerse before praying or studying Torah) was in force. Now that this is no longer required, the immersion is merely a pious custom and thus does not override the prohibition of washing on Yom Kippur (MT, Laws of Resting on the Tenth 3:3; Rabbeinu Tam; Maharam; Mordekhai; Hagahot Maimoniyot). This is also the ruling of SA 613:11 and the decisive majority of Aḥaronim.

Regarding immersion to become tahor, according to most Rishonim, immersing at the proper time is a mitzva and overrides the prohibition of washing. Rabbeinu Tam disagrees. However, nowadays everyone is tamei from exposure to corpses, so even immersion does not purify for the purpose of eating taharot. Therefore, even those who maintain that it is a mitzva to immerse on time would agree that nowadays it is not (Tosafot, Beitza 18b). Furthermore, nowadays women do not actually immerse on time (according to Torah law), since we follow the rabbinic stringency of having every nidda count seven clean days following the conclusion of her period (which Torah law requires only of the zava). Beit Yosef OḤ 554:8 summarizes the issue, and SA 613:12 rules that a nidda does not immerse on Yom Kippur.

[5]. Many of these laws are the subject of disagreement. We will mention some of them and then clarify the halakha. According to most poskim, one is only required to wash each hand once after using the bathroom, but many have the custom of washing each three times. (See MB 4:39.) Similarly, on Yom Kippur, according to most poskim one washes once, while others say three times (R. Mordechai Eliyahu, Hilḥot Ḥagim 45:25). See Peninei Halakha: Prayer 8:3-5 n. 2. Some say that one who touches an area of the body that is usually covered should wash only that hand until the base of his fingers (Ḥayei Adam 40:18, MB 613:6). Others maintain that he must wash both hands (Shlah, Yafeh La-lev; see also Kaf Ha-ḥayim 4:86). They also disagree about a case in which one touches his shoe – even if it is made of cloth – with one finger. Some say he must wash just that hand, while others say he must wash both hands. There are many other uncertainties regarding these laws. For example, does one who touches an area that is usually covered, but which nonetheless is not sweaty, need to wash his hands? (See Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 5 n. 2.)

There is an apparent question pertaining to the view that one may wash on Yom Kippur in these circumstances. Technically, one who touches a sweaty part of the body may simply rub his hands on any sort of cloth and then recite sacred words (SA 4:23, MB ad loc. 61). Why, then, do we not do so on Yom Kippur? It seems that whenever a person would wash his hands ritually under normal circumstances, he may wash them on Yom Kippur as well, even if technically it would be sufficient for him to rub his hands clean, because he is washing for the sake of a mitzva. If, however, he sometimes suffices with rubbing his hands on his clothing or the like, he may not wash on Yom Kippur, since for him this hand-washing is not a mitzva. Consequently, most discussions of this subject deal with people’s behavior during the year. Accordingly, we may ask: Why does Shulḥan Arukh permit washing only to the base of the fingers in the morning and after using the bathroom on Yom Kippur, if during the rest of the year, people normally wash to the wrist? I would like to suggest the following answer: Unlike most of the disagreements raised in the previous paragraph, where the halakha itself is the subject of dispute, according to Shulḥan Arukh washing to the wrist during the year is not a law but rather a mere stringency. Thus, on Yom Kippur we revert to the basic law and do not wash to the wrist. Most Aḥaronim agree with Shulḥan Arukh. Arizal, though, takes a different approach. According to him, washing the entire hand is required all year to remove ru’aḥ ra’a. However, on Yom Kippur, the power of the ru’aḥ ra’a is weakened, so it is sufficient to wash to the base of the fingers (Ben Ish Ḥai, Toldot 2; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 4:14; see Minḥat Yitzḥak 10:45).

04. Applying Ointments and Using Perfume

On Yom Kippur, one may not apply oil or anything else meant to nourish the skin, to even a small area of the body (SA 614:1). Obviously, any makeup that may not be applied on Shabbat because of issues of dyeing (Tzove’a) or spreading (Memare’aḥ) may not be applied on Yom Kippur either, as everything prohibited on Shabbat is prohibited on Yom Kippur (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 14:4).

To relieve itch, one may apply oil in liquid form to his skin (Yoma 77b), as long as he does not violate the prohibition of applying medicine; on Yom Kippur, as on Shabbat, it is rabbinically forbidden for one suffering from minor discomfort to use medicine, lest he grind herbal ingredients to prepare it. However, if healthy people occasionally use this oil, it is not considered medicinal, so one may use it to relieve itch. If the itch is painfully irritating, one may apply a factory-produced medicating oil (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 28:5).

Perfumes or deodorants that make people smell good may not be used. Since they moisten the area to which they are applied enough that touching it would moisten one’s finger (tofe’aḥ al menat le-hatpi’aḥ), using them is considered a form of washing. However, they may be used to remove a bad odor, just as a person may wash to remove grime or get rid of a bad smell. In both cases, the intention is neither for pleasure nor to refresh (section 2 above). Insect repellent may also be used, since it is meant not for pleasure but to repel pests.[6]


[6]. Even though washing is permitted if it is not done for pleasure, applying ointment is not (y. Yoma 8:1; Rambam; SA 614:1; and MB ad loc. 1), because applying ointment gives great pleasure; even if one only intends to remove filth, he still enjoys it, so it is prohibited (MA). Only when there is no pleasurable aspect in applying the ointment, as when it is done for medicinal reasons, is it permitted. According to Baḥ and Taz, however, the laws pertaining to washing and applying ointment are the same. Both are forbidden if they are just to remove a little dirt, and both are permitted to remove real filth. MB (613:2) follows MA. In any case, nowadays no one uses oil to remove filth. If one changed a diaper and his hand smells bad, he may wash his hand with liquid soap. He need not worry about the prohibition of applying ointment, because soap is not oil which will be absorbed into the body, and the soap’s fragrance is simply meant to neutralize the bad odor. However, one may not use soap that contains enough moisturizing cream that it can be felt on the hand after use, as this constitutes anointing.

Some forbid using perfume and deodorant, but they do not explain whether this is because of the prohibition of washing or the prohibition of anointing (R. Ben-Zion Abba Shaul; R. Seraya Deblitzky). Piskei Teshuvot states that the problem is one of applying ointment (614:1). Shemesh U-magen similarly states that spraying perfume on the hand is considered applying ointment. However, the prohibition of anointing would seem to apply only to something that is meant to nourish the skin, in which case it would pertain neither to perfume nor to deodorant. Therefore, it seems, the relevant concern is only of washing. Interestingly, Ḥida permits kohanim to wash their hands in water to which rose water has been added for fragrance (Ḥayim She’al 1:74). We see that the fact that something makes a person smell good is not intrinsically prohibited. Therefore, if deodorant leaves enough residue that it could wet something else, it may not be used, as it constitutes washing. However, if it is not that wet, and the goal is simply to remove a bad odor, it is permitted. (This would seem to be the opinion of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach in Halikhot Shlomo, Bein Ha-metzarim, ch. 14 n. 56, and is quoted in his name by R. Ovadia Yosef in Ḥazon Ovadia: Arba Ta’aniyot, p. 295, and by R. Avigdor Nebenzahl in Yerushalayim Be-mo’adeha: Bein Ha-metzarim, p. 274.) It seems to me that if a woman is worried that not using perfume will make her smell bad and repel her husband, she may use perfume or roll-on deodorant. Spray deodorant, which does not leave enough residue to wet something else, may also be used on Yom Kippur. However, stick deodorant is prohibited, because applying it is considered spreading (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 14:5 n. 3).

05. Wearing Shoes

Neither shoes nor sandals may be worn on Yom Kippur. In the past, these were generally made of leather, because people did not know how to craft strong, durable, and flexible shoes from other materials. Shoes made of cork, rubber, or wood were often used at home, as slippers, and poor people, who would normally go barefoot, would sometimes wear them outdoors. The question arises: May one wear non-leather footwear on Yom Kippur?

Some Rishonim forbid walking in wooden shoes, because one walking in them does not feel the roughness of the ground beneath his feet. However, they permit cork and rubber shoes, because one walking in them feels the roughness of the ground and suffers accordingly (Rashi; Rambam; Tosafot; Rabbeinu Yeruḥam).

Other Rishonim permit wearing all non-leather shoes. They maintain that, by definition, non-leather footwear cannot be shoes. Rather, such “shoes” are just items of clothing, and as such they may be worn on Yom Kippur (Ramban; Rosh; Rashba). Indeed, most Aḥaronim rule this way in practice (SA 614:2).

However, it seems clear that this view presumes a reality in which non-leather shoes were uncomfortable for walking, and thus it could be claimed that these were not considered proper shoes. Nowadays, however, when manufacturers commonly produce high-quality non-leather shoes, one may not wear shoes of any material on Yom Kippur if it is a kind of shoe that people would wear year-round to walk on rocky and rough terrain.

A generation ago, when it was still uncommon to find high-quality shoes made from other materials, some poskim permitted walking in comfortable shoes as long as they were not made from leather or synthetic leather. However, with the passage of time, excellent non-leather shoes are becoming more and more readily available, so the numbers of those who permit wearing such shoes on Yom Kippur are decreasing.

Therefore, one may not wear non-leather shoes on Yom Kippur if they are worn year-round on rocky or rough terrain, regardless of what material they are made from. Thus, footwear such as “Crocs,” “Keds,” and “All-stars” may not be worn on Yom Kippur. One may wear cloth slippers or basic rubber shoes, however, since they are not normally worn on rough terrain. Nevertheless, since some poskim are still permissive and permit non-leather shoes, one should not object if someone else relies on them.[7]


[7]. Yoma 78b states that several Amora’im permit walking in cork shoes and the like. Following these statements, a mishna is cited which considers a wooden leg to be a shoe. The Gemara explains that a wooden shoe is prohibited, while a cork shoe and the like is permitted. This is the position of Rashi, Tosafot, Itur, and Rabbeinu Yeruḥam. The rationale is that wooden shoes are strong and protect the feet, whereas cork shoes and the like do not properly protect the feet. Therefore, they are not considered shoes. Rambam writes something similar when speaking about cork and rubber shoes: “For his feet sense the hardness of the ground, and he feels like he is barefoot” (MT, Laws of Resting on the Tenth 3:7). Several Aḥaronim adopt this opinion, including Panim Me’irot 2:28, Ḥida, and Vilna Gaon, who all state that one may not wear shoes if they keep him from sensing the hardness of the ground. (Ba’al Ha-Ma’or, though, maintains that there is no difference between cork shoes and wooden shoes. The only thing he permits is wrapping cloth around the feet.) In contrast, Ramban writes that only a shoe made of leather is considered a shoe, following the opinion of R. Yoḥanan ben Nuri (Shabbat 66a). A shoe made of any other material is not deemed a shoe, and thus may be worn on Yom Kippur. This is the position of Rosh, Rashba, Ritva, and Me’iri, and this is how they understand the Rif. This is also the ruling in SA 614:2. Most Aḥaronim (including Zera Emet and Responsa Maharshag) follow SA. Indeed, this was the common ruling. MB 614:5 states that although most poskim agree that a non-leather shoe is considered simply an item of clothing and may be worn, and those who are lenient should therefore not be rebuked, nevertheless, since some poskim are stringent about any shoe that protects the foot well, those who can should be stringent and simply wear thick socks or slippers, as was common practice. Most contemporary poskim agree that while it is permitted to wear non-leather shoes, it is proper to be stringent and avoid wearing them if they are comfortable and protect the wearer from feeling the roughness of the ground. This is the view of Halikhot Shlomo 5:16-17 and R. Eliyahu in Hilkhot Ḥagim 45:38-39. Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 313, is lenient even le-khatḥila.

It seems clear, however, that those who were lenient in the past assumed that no material could compete with leather in terms of durability, strength, and flexibility. All the substitutes were either cloth used as slippers or extremely low-quality shoes that only the poor would wear sometimes, as the poor usually went barefoot. They would wrap their feet for protection only if they had injured a foot or if they had to traverse particularly rough terrain. It is this type of “shoe” that the Amora’im and Rishonim argued about. Those who were stringent forbade wearing these shoes since they did offer a degree of protection. Those who were lenient permitted them because they were not comfortable to walk in and people did not generally do so. For example, Ritva on Shabbat 66a writes explicitly that he permitted wooden shoes because they were not normally worn. Ran, too, (Yoma 2b) offers this as the reason for the lenient position. Other Rishonim state that any shoe worn throughout the year may not be worn on Yom Kippur (Yere’im §420; Tosafot, Yevamot 103a, s.v. “be-anpilya”). Maharshag writes that we rule leniently when it comes to non-leather shoes, because quality shoes that people regularly wear are usually made of leather. Therefore, even in the rare case of good shoes that are made of another material, they may be worn (Responsa Maharshag 2:110). However, now that shoes are made from a variety of materials, Maharshag, too, would be stringent.

To summarize, it seems to me that there would be no disagreement among the Rishonim about shoes nowadays; all would agree that if the shoes are good quality and worn year-round, they may not be worn on Yom Kippur. Indeed, this is the ruling of R. Ariel (Ohala Shel Torah 2:81) and R. Elyashiv (cited in Hilkhot Ḥag Be-ḥag 22:25). It seems that as time goes on and people get more used to wearing shoes made from a variety of materials, more poskim are stringent and consider all of them as shoes. The law as it applies to flip-flops, Crocs, and the like is a bit unclear. On the one hand, many people do wear them in the street. However, it seems that the criterion to determine whether they are prohibited is whether people wear them on rough terrain. If almost no one wears them in such areas, they may be worn on Yom Kippur. (True, according to Baḥ one must walk barefoot, but we do not take his opinion into account.)

Perhaps we can justify the position of those who are lenient and wear good non-leather shoes. They may be following the view of the Rishonim who maintain that the prohibition on wearing shoes is a rabbinic enactment limited to leather. So even if nowadays all would agree that a non-leather shoe is good and sturdy, it does not become prohibited, as we do not make new enactments. Additionally, shoes made of leather are still considered to be of a higher quality than those made of any other material. Finally, Arizal offers a kabbalistic explanation for the prohibition, related to the “garments of leather” that God gave to Adam and Ḥava to appease their animal souls (Pri Etz Ḥayim, Sha’ar Yom Ha-kippurim, ch. 4). This rationale would not apply to non-leather shoes. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is no room for leniency, and the prohibition applies to all shoes worn outside on rough terrain, whether or not they are leather.

06. When Wearing Shoes Is Permitted

Sick people and postpartum women who are liable to catch a cold if they walk barefoot on the ground may wear leather shoes (SA 614:3).

One who is walking in an area where there is concern for scorpions and the like may wear leather shoes. Likewise, one who is walking in a muddy place may wear his regular shoes to avoid soiling his feet. A soldier on active duty may wear army boots (SA 614:4). The reason for these leniencies is that wearing shoes is prohibited only if one wears them for the sake of comfortable walking. When there is different reason for wearing them, however, the prohibition does not apply.

One who needs orthotic shoe inserts and suffers greatly without them may insert them into slippers or thin rubber shoes and use them on Yom Kippur, because orthotics are not worn for pleasure, but to alleviate terrible pain (Ḥelkat Ya’akov 2:83).[8]


[8]. R. Mordechai Yaakov Breisch (Ḥelkat Ya’akov 2:83) permits people who suffer greatly without orthotics to use them in a cloth or rubber shoe, even if the orthotics themselves are covered in leather. Such a person is like a squeamish person (“istenis”) walking in a filthy place, who may wear shoes, as he is not doing so for pleasure (Rema 614:4). Furthermore, orthotics are not part of the shoe, so wearing them is like standing on a leather pillow, which is permissible (Rema 614:2; MB ad loc. 9). SSK 39:37 and Nishmat Avraham 614:4 rule this way as well. In contrast, Ḥut Ha-shani (p. 137) is uncertain: perhaps orthotics should be considered part of the shoe. Nevertheless, he permits them for those who would otherwise be unable to walk. In practice, those who suffer greatly without orthotics may wear leather inserts. They should put them in simple rubber shoes not normally worn outside. If the orthotics are not made of leather, one may be lenient even if he does not suffer greatly.

07. Marital Relations

The fifth form of deprivation is abstaining from marital relations. To ensure that no one comes to sin, married couples should behave as they do during nidda times: They should not touch one another and should sleep in separate beds (SA 615:1; MB ad loc. 1).[9]

Several Ashkenazic Rishonim write that on the day before Yom Kippur, men should avoid foods likely to cause a nocturnal seminal emission (Rema 608:4). Nowadays, doctors do not know which foods cause this, so it is not necessary to avoid any particular foods. Young men should avoid sleeping in positions which they know are likely to lead to a nocturnal emission. Many recite the first four chapters of Tehilim before they go to sleep, in the hope that the merit of this recitation will help prevent a nocturnal emission (MB 619:14).


[9]. Taz maintains that nidda restrictions must be followed only on the night of Yom Kippur. However, SA 615:1 does not distinguish between day and night, nor do MB (ad loc. 1 based on MA), Eliya Rabba, Birkei Yosef, SAH, and Ḥayei Adam (who are all stringent regarding both). Nevertheless, when necessary, one may be lenient during the day (Elef La-mateh ad loc. 1; Ben Ish Ḥai, Vayelekh §15). Thus, a couple may serve as kvaterim at a brit mila on Yom Kippur, even though this involves the wife passing the baby to her husband (Halikhot Shlomo 5:22).

08. Children

Once children reach the age of ḥinukh – the age when they can understand the mitzvot of Yom Kippur – we teach them not to wash, apply ointment, or wear shoes on Yom Kippur. Generally, children reach this stage at the age of five or six. Some go beyond this and make sure their children do not wear shoes from the age of three.

In addition to the mitzva to train children to keep the mitzvot of the day, it is also forbidden for adults to cause children (even day-old babies) to transgress. Just as adults may not feed children insects or blood, or cause a young kohen to become impure, so too, it is forbidden for adults to wash children, apply ointment to them, or put shoes on them (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 24:2). However, if there is a certain degree of medical need, one may wash a child and apply ointment. These do not fall under the prohibition of taking medicine (which is a rabbinic prohibition on Shabbat and Yom Tov), because the Sages permitted undertaking these activities for a child who is sick or experiencing discomfort (ibid. 24:6). Similarly, if a child is likely to hurt himself going barefoot, an adult may put on his shoes for him.

In terms of fasting, we do not train children who are only five or six to do so, because they are not strong enough, and fasting may be harmful to them. Therefore, we wait until the age of nine. At that point, healthy children are encouraged to fast part of the day. For example, if they generally eat breakfast at eight in the morning, they should wait until the afternoon to eat. Weaker children should begin fasting at age ten rather than nine.

From the age of eleven, children should be encouraged to fast the whole day. If they are weak, they can be lenient and fast only half the day.

Girls from the age of twelve have a Torah obligation to fast, while boys have a rabbinic one. Even a twelve-year-old boy who is weak should make an effort to fast the whole day. If he is sick (even if not deathly ill), he is not obligated to fast, since he is not yet thirteen. Nevertheless, he should try to fast until the afternoon. From the age of thirteen, boys, too, have a Torah obligation to fast.[10]

Many encourage younger children who have reached the age of ḥinukh to fast through the night. Even though some object to this stringency, many follow it in order to train the children to participate a little in the fast. However, if the children ask to eat or drink, they should be fed (Elef Ha-magen 616:5).

Many maintain that before the age of nine, children should not be allowed to fast at all during the day, lest they endanger themselves (Rema 616:2). However, most children want to fast for a few hours even before they turn nine. Since doctors do not feel that this is dangerous, most people let them fast during the morning. We are not required to try to stop this custom (Eshel Avraham [Buczacz], based on Rashi).


[10]. Three practical opinions on the topic of minors fasting emerge from the Mishna and Gemara on Yoma 82a. According to Rosh and Or Zaru’a, we begin training children to fast for part of the day, starting four years before they will become obligated to fast. Two years before they become obligated, they should be encouraged to fast the entire day. If they are weak, the training should begin a year later. Therefore, a girl, who is obligated to begin fasting at age twelve, starts fasting at age eight (following R. Huna); a boy, who is obligated to begin fasting at thirteen, starts at nine (following R. Naḥman).

According to Rif, Rambam, and SA 616:2, there is no difference in the age at which boys and girls begin training for the fast. Healthy children start fasting part of the day at the age of nine, and weaker ones start at ten. By the age of eleven, all healthy children are encouraged to fast a full day. Only children who are sickly should wait to fast until their Torah obligation sets in. (This second position follows a different understanding of R. Naḥman.)

Others follow R. Yoḥanan, who maintains that we never train minors to fast a whole day. Only when their Torah obligation sets in do they fast a full day. Training to fast part of the day begins two years before halakhic adulthood. This is the position of R. Yitzḥak ibn Gi’at, Roke’aḥ, and Yere’im, as well as AHS 616:17 and Halikhot Shlomo 6:14. Eliya Rabba suggests that the reason that le-khatḥila, children should not fast for a full day until they reach majority, is that all children are considered sick. In contrast, Terumat Ha-deshen and Rema state that we rely upon R. Yoḥanan only if a minor is weak and not strong enough to fast.

MB 616:9 cites the various positions. R. Eliyahu in Ma’amar Mordekhai Le-mo’adim U-leyamim 45:49 writes that minors should be encouraged to follow the ruling of SA. This is what I write above. The exception is an eleven-year-old who is weak, where I follow the lenient position, as this is the common practice.

01. The Kodesh Ha-kodashim and Yom Kippur

The Temple in Jerusalem was where all divine values were revealed, and from it they flowed forth to the rest of the world. The Sanctuary (heikhal) was comprised of an entrance hall (ulam) and two chambers. The outer chamber, called the Holy (Kodesh), contained the menora (candelabrum), symbolizing wisdom; the shulḥan (table), symbolizing material sustenance and wealth; and the mizbaḥ ha-ketoret (incense altar), symbolizing prayer and the yearning to be close to God. The inner chamber, called the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Ha-kodashim), is where the basis of faith and Torah are revealed. In other words, it is there that the divine foundation of the Torah and the holiness of the congregation of Israel illuminate, and through their light, God animates the entire world. For this reason, the Kodesh Ha-kodashim housed the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets (luḥot) that Moshe received at Mount Sinai and the Torah scroll he wrote. Atop the Ark was the kaporet (golden cover), with two cherubs rising from it, symbolizing the covenantal relationship and love between God and Israel. The location of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim within Jerusalem was atop the Foundation Stone (Even Ha-shetiya), which, our Sages tell us, was the rock from which the world was created (Yoma 54b). A parokhet (curtain) separated the Kodesh from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, to demarcate different levels of holiness. For the sanctity of the Kodesh derives from that of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. Without a separation, the light emanating from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim would have ascended directly to heaven, preventing it from radiating light and blessing to the Kodesh, and from there to the entire world.

Although people were not permitted to enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, nevertheless, by the light of the Shekhina (Divine Presence) which radiated from it, Israel and the whole world could return to God, correct their sins, and channel their prayers to God, as expressed in King Shlomo’s prayer at the Temple’s dedication. (See 1 Melakhim, ch. 8.)

Even after the Temple’s destruction and the ensuing exile, a trace of the Divine Presence never budged from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. The longing and yearning of the Jewish people for the Divine Presence to dwell among them in Eretz Yisrael guarantees that the redemption will arrive. Then, God’s name will be sanctified over Israel, His people; Jerusalem, His city; Zion, the home of His glory; the kingship of the house of David, His anointed one; and His home, the Temple. God alone will rule over all His creations.

The location of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim is exalted so that no person may set foot there. Anyone who enters there is liable to death at the hands of heaven, as we read, “The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aharon that he is not to come at will into the Kodesh, beyond the parokhet, in front of the kaporet that is upon the Ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the kaporet” (Vayikra 16:2). The only person ever permitted to enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim was the Kohen Gadol on the holy and awesome day of Yom Kippur. He would enter in a cloud of incense (section 7 below) to perform the day’s avoda (Temple service) on behalf of all Israel, as it is written, “Thus only shall Aharon enter the holy place” (ibid. v. 3). Over the course of Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol was required to enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim four times. But entering a fifth time – even given his lofty position and the sanctity of Yom Kippur – would have made him liable to death at the hands of heaven (MT, Laws of Entering the Temple 2:4).

02. Yiḥud Elyon and Yiḥud Taḥton: Two Ways That God Governs the World

To grasp the meaning of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda on Yom Kippur, we must understand that there are two levels to God’s governance (hanhaga) of the world: 1) governance through justice, which corresponds to yiḥud taḥton; 2) governance through unification, which corresponds to yiḥud elyon. (See above, 2:8 n. 4; 7:12; 6:4.) God’s governance of the world through justice is expressed in the laws of reward and punishment He embedded in the world, under which both the natural and spiritual worlds operate. Just as one who neglects to work becomes poor, so too, individuals and communities that choose evil are punished in this world and the next. According to these laws, it seems, at first glance, that human beings are irredeemable, since as a rule they tend to follow the evil urge. Even if there are righteous people, power is generally concentrated in the hands of those who crave power and money, following their evil impulses. It seems that there is no way to redeem the world from suffering. Death, which destroys every living being, will ultimately destroy the world as well.

Yet there is a higher, hidden way that God governs the world: through unification. This means that God directs all the world’s progress and processes for the good. Goodness will ultimately come even from the evil intentions and actions of despots and other wicked people. This form of governance exists by virtue of Israel, who are bound to God in an eternal covenant, and whose innermost desire is always to improve the world. It is thanks to this mode of divine governance that redemption is assured, as stated in the Torah and the Prophets. However, this hanhaga is hidden and can work only through the hanhaga of justice. Accordingly, how redemption will take place depends on the choices made by Israel. If they choose goodness, redemption will come quickly and painlessly; if they choose evil (God forbid), redemption will be delayed and accompanied by terrible suffering.

Because the hanhaga of unification is hidden, it is revealed in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, a place beyond place, whose very existence within the physical world is a miracle. This is the reason one may not enter there. Moreover, an attempt to enter it without permission is fraught with risk, because one who connects with this exalted level is prone to thinking that since all is anyway for the best, it is unnecessary to choose good and overcome the evil impulse. In the dazzling light of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, one may find justification for pursuing his impulses, claiming that everything is for the best and for the sake of heaven.

Only the Jewish people collectively can connect to God’s hanhaga of unification, since this hanhaga operates in the world through klal Yisrael, in that all their troubles and suffering cultivates and reveals additional principles of the Torah. However, this is an incomprehensible secret, which is revealed gradually, over the course of time. Therefore, only on the holy and awe-filled day of Yom Kippur, when the Jews abstain from melakha and detach from everything related to this world – eating, drinking, washing, applying cream, wearing shoes, and engaging in marital relations – was the Kohen Gadol able to reach such a lofty level that he could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on behalf of the nation. From there, he was able to draw down purity and atonement for any impurities that may have contaminated the Jewish people superficially. This enabled every individual to repent fully, and thus all Israel could merit a good year, and the world could proceed toward redemption.

Although the Temple no longer exists, all these exalted properties persist in a scaled-down form, through the sanctity of the day, fasting, and prayers.[1]


[1]. These two forms of divine governing are generally called yiḥud elyon and yiḥud taḥton, whereas Ramḥal (Da’at Tevunot §134 and elsewhere) calls them governance through law (hanhagat ha-mishpat) and governance through unification (hanhagat ha-yiḥud). See above, 2:8 n. 4, where we explain that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are related to yiḥud elyon. In 6:4 above, we point out that the intrinsic power of Yom Kippur is due to yiḥud elyon and governance through unification. Finally, in 7:12 above we use these concepts to shed light on the Yom Kippur custom of reciting “Barukh shem kevod” out loud.

Ramḥal describes the Kodesh Ha-kodashim as “the place of the powerful light and the tremendous blessing.” Its measurements “extend from the beginning to the end and from the end to the beginning, with twenty [amot] in each direction, so the dimensions of this chamber were twenty by twenty. When we add twenty and twenty, we get forty, which hints at the minimum amount of water required for a mikveh – forty se’ah” (Mishkenei Elyon, ch. 3). In other words, the Kodesh Ha-kodashim purified the Jews like a mikveh. Compare R. Akiva’s exposition in the Mishna, “Happy are you, Israel – for before Whom do you purify yourselves and Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as we read…‘God is the hope (mikveh) of Israel’ (Yirmiyahu 17:13). Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so too, God purifies Israel” (Yoma 85b). Even though we no longer have the Temple, the intrinsic power of Yom Kippur is comparable to the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, while the fasting and praying are comparable to the Kodesh.

03. The Kohen Gadol

The function of the kohanim is to connect Israel to their Father in heaven by serving in the Temple, deepening Israel’s faith and kindness, and teaching halakha. To enable the kohanim to devote themselves to this mission and to free them from the need to support themselves, the Torah commands that they be given a variety of donations and gifts. To preserve the sanctity of the kohanim, they may not become tamei by coming into contact with a corpse (except for first-degree relatives). A kohen also may not marry a divorcee or a ḥalala (the daughter of a forbidden kohen relationship, such as a kohen and a divorcee).

There is a mitzva to appoint the most outstanding kohen to serve as Kohen Gadol. The laws pertaining to him are more restrictive than those pertaining to other kohanim. He is not allowed to mourn (or become tamei) for anyone, even his parents, and he is only allowed to marry a virgin. Once appointed, he was anointed with special oil and dressed in eight vestments designated for him, as the verses state:

The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not bare his head or rend his vestments. He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. He shall not go outside the Sanctuary and profane the Sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the Lord’s. (Vayikra 21:10-12)

The Sanhedrin of seventy-one sages would decide whom to appoint as Kohen Gadol (MT, Laws of the Temple’s Vessels and Its Workers 4:12-15).

While the other kohanim wore four special vestments when they served in the Temple, the Kohen Gadol added an additional four, for a total of eight. If he performed his duties wearing only seven of them, it invalidated his avoda. Each of the vestments represents a specific idea and helped atone for sins corresponding to that idea. Thus, our Sages tell us:

The ketonet (tunic) atones for the spilling of blood; the mikhnasayim (breeches) atone for sexual sins; the mitznefet (miter) atones for arrogance; the avnet (sash) atones for sinful thoughts; the ḥoshen (breastplate) atones for injustice; the ephod (apron) atones for idolatry; the me’il (robe) atones for (public) gossip; the tzitz (gold band worn on the Kohen Gadol’s forehead) atones for brazen deeds. (Arakhin 16a).

The Kohen Gadol must be the most pious of the kohanim, one who follows in the footsteps of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, who “loved peace and pursued it; who loved people and drew them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12). To emphasize his devotion to God, the words “Holy to God” were engraved on the tzitz. To express the Kohen Gadol’s feelings of love and responsibility for klal Yisrael, the names of the patriarchs and tribes of Israel were engraved on the stones of the ḥoshen, which he wore over his heart. The shoulder straps of his ephod also featured two precious stones on which were engraved the names of the tribes (MT, Laws of the Temple’s Vessels and Its Workers 9:1, 7-9). Additionally, the Kohen Gadol had to be superior to others in strength, wisdom, beauty, and wealth. If he possessed all of these except for wealth, his fellow kohanim would give him money, so that he would possess all these attributes (Yoma 18a).

If a Kohen Gadol was appointed who was neither pious nor virtuous, be-di’avad the appointment was valid, and the laws pertaining to the Kohen Gadol applied to him. However, it should be obvious that the more righteous the Kohen Gadol was, the more successful he would be in his work to draw Israel closer to their heavenly Father.

The Sages tell us that during the 410 years of the First Temple, eighteen Kohanim Gedolim served. Most of them were righteous, and accordingly were blessed with longevity. In contrast, during the 420 years of the Second Temple, there were over three hundred Kohanim Gedolim. Three of them were righteous and served for extended periods. Almost all the rest were not righteous. They bought their positions from the ruling powers, and their lives were cut short. Thus, we read, “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, while the years of the wicked will be shortened (Mishlei 10:27)” (Yoma 9a).

The shortcomings of the High Priests during the Second Temple period was harmful to the purity and atonement that Israel could attain on Yom Kippur. Ultimately, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jews went into a prolonged exile.

04. The Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur

During the year, any kohen could perform the avoda, offering the sacrifices and incense, and preparing the menora for lighting. However, due to the great sanctity of Yom Kippur, only the Kohen Gadol was permitted to perform these duties (Yoma 32b; MT, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service 1:2).

The Kohen Gadol offered three types of sacrifices on Yom Kippur. The first category included the daily temidim – two lambs, one offered in the morning, before the rest of the sacrifices, and the other offered in the afternoon as the last of the day’s sacrifices. This category also included the offering of the incense (which was done on the incense altar twice daily, morning and afternoon), as well as preparing and lighting the menora. The second category was the musaf offerings, akin to those offered on Rosh Ḥodesh and the holidays. On Yom Kippur, these consisted of a bull, a ram, and seven lambs for burnt offerings, plus one goat for a sin offering. The third category was specific to Yom Kippur. It comprised a bull for a sin offering to atone for the Kohen Gadol and the rest of the kohanim, a ram as a burnt offering (both of which the Kohen Gadol paid for himself), and two goats to atone for Israel: one goat was a sin offering, and the other was sent out into the wilderness.

The Kohen Gadol had to be married while serving on Yom Kippur, as we read, “‘To make expiation for himself and for his household’ (Vayikra 16:6). ‘His household’ refers to his wife” (Yoma 13a). This is despite the Kohen Gadol’s obligation to separate from his wife for a week before Yom Kippur, to purify and sanctify himself in preparation for the avoda. The reason he was required to be married is that someone who is not married is considered incomplete (Yevamot 63a), lacking joy, blessing, goodness, Torah, protection, and peace (ibid. 62b). The Kohen Gadol had to have one wife only; if he had two wives, he was disqualified from serving (Yoma 13a). For only within a monogamous relationship can ideal unity and love be achieved. Once the Kohen Gadol experienced this unity with his wife, he was also able to unite and connect the Jewish people with their Father in heaven.

An alternate Kohen Gadol was designated; he would step in should the Kohen Gadol become tamei or die (Yoma 2a; MT, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service 1:2-3, and Laws of the Temple’s Vessels and Its Workers 5:10).

Chapter Contents