Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Yom Kippur
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

Yom Kippur

Our sages teach: “If a person says, 'I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone,' Yom Kippur does not atone” (Yoma 85b). In this statement, they wish to underscore the fact that Yom Kippur is like a remedy for the sick and suffering soul. It can heal.


Rabbi Mishael Dahan, ztvk”l

1. A Sacred Day
2. A Remedy for the Ill
3. Heartfelt Forgiveness

A Sacred Day
An awesome day. A splendorous, powerful, and glorious day. A monumental occasion in the yearly cycle. A day of expiation, atonement, and forgiveness for all who repent wholeheartedly before God. On this day, the Judge of the entire universe administers justice to all of His creatures. The people of Israel—believing wholeheartedly and faithfully in the sanctity of this day and in its decisiveness and distinction over all other days of the year—fearfully and joyfully prepare themselves, and then stream to the synagogues en masse to seek out the Almighty and to pour out their prayers and supplications before Him. They plead for forgiveness and atonement for sins committed during the course of the year and promise not to repeat such foolishness.

If one person misleads another with lies, intrigues, evil design, or unfulfilled promises time after time, it is only natural that his fellow will cease to place faith in his words and will consider him a liar, a deceiver, and an untrustworthy scoundrel; in the words of the sages, "Such is a liar's punishment: Even if he says the truth, he is not believed" (Sanhedrin 89b).

A Remedy for the Ill
Logic dictates that it is impossible to deceive "all of the people" more than once, or an individual more than two or three times. It is impossible to lie even to an individual—not to mention an entire community—on a continuous basis. If this is true regarding human beings whose opinions tend to change depending upon environment, how much more so when it comes to the Almighty Whose "opinion" cannot be divorced from His essence and Who it is impossible to even consider deceiving. He foresees all and knows the inner workings of the heart. This being so, if, on the day after Yom Kippur, a person returns to his foolish and abject ways, saving the list of sins which he had confessed in his prayer book until next year to be confessed once again, failing to grasp that he must fulfill his words and repent - if this happens he will without a doubt end up in the same category as the liars and crooks, and will be seen as lacking faith.

Our sages give voice to this idea in the laconic adage: "If a person says, 'I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone,' Yom Kippur does not atone" (Yoma 85b). In this statement, they wish to underscore the fact that Yom Kippur is like a remedy for the sick and suffering soul; it has the power to purify man's soul of all its transgressions—transgressions which obscure the radiant glow of the soul's purity and its clear light, like mist which obscures the appearance of the sun such that it is unable to shine. This obviously depends upon pure and sound repentance, the kind which issues forth from the depths of the heart, from an earnest remorse over the past and a definitive decision not to return to such foolishness in the future. Therefore, it is inconceivable that the very medicine for a certain illness be transformed into a cause of that illness, such that without it the illness would not come about. This is why the sages say, "If a person says, 'I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone,' Yom Kippur does not atone" - for, according to such a person's warped perspective, were it not for Yom Kippur, he would not have sinned to begin with. And, as we have noted, it is inconceivable that the remedy for an illness be transform into the illness' cause. Therefore, Yom Kippur does not atone in such a case. From here we learn that a person must be wise and honest, and must be especially careful not to repeat his misdeeds, so that Yom Kippur can act as a vestibule, leading to the palace of repentance, healing him, and allowing him to ascend in holiness.

Heartfelt Forgiveness
The sages teach that Yom Kippur expiates sins committed by man against God if the wrongdoer repents. However, transgressions committed by a person against his fellow man (theft, burglary, insult, adverse criticism, gossip, etc.) are not expiated until the offender returns the stolen item and requests forgiveness - for how is it possible to request forgiveness from the Almighty if we human beings do not sincerely forgive one another. Jews therefore have made a practice of forgiving each other on Yom Kippur Eve. In this manner, we are able to stand in prayer with a clear conscience before the Almighty, pure and clean like God's ministering angels.

I believe it fitting to bring here a moving prayer, grounded in the teachings of our sages, which is meant to be recited before "Kol Nidrei." The entire congregation should read it aloud while standing:

"I hereby forgive and pardon every Jew that has wronged me, male or female, young or old, even he who has caused me physical or monetary harm in whatever form, or insulted me, or cursed me, or spoke negatively about me, or slandered me, or gave me a bad name, or insulted me privately or publicly, or exalted himself through my degradation in public. In sum, even if a person committed every possible wrong against me in the world, I hereby forgive him and pardon him completely and wholeheartedly, in this transmigration or in another transmigration - except for somebody who owes me money and has the means to repay me yet refuses to do so." (from Rabbenu Brod Asbag's Korban Mincha 44:62)

We possess firm faith and complete conviction that the Almighty God, who knows the inner workings of our hearts, will, when He sees that we forgive one another truly and wholeheartedly, requite our pleas, saying, "I forgive you according to your request." We believe that God, in His exceeding kindness, will receive our repentance favorably, like a pleasing fragrance, excusing our sins as He has promised: "On this day you shall have all your sins atoned, so that you will be cleansed. Before God you will be cleansed of all your sins" (Leviticus 16:30).

The translation of the biblical passage from Leviticus was taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah (Moznaim).

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