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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Yom Kippur

The Power of One Day

Yom Kippur is a very powerful day that completely cleanses us. Just how powerful is it and how does it work?
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The Laws of the Day
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement as it is called but could also be translated as the Day of Forgiveness or the Day of Pardon, is a day of great importance in the Jewish calendar. The day carries with it a number of special prohibitions that give it its solemn nature. In the words of the Mishnah "On Yom Kippur it is forbidden to eat and drink, and washing, and smoothing oil on the skin, and wearing shoes, and marital relations" (Yoma 8:1).

There are five special prohibitions on Yom Kippur:
1. eating and drinking
2. washing
3. smoothing oil
4. wearing shoes
5. marital relations.

The reason behind all of these is that we are to afflict ourselves on this day as is written in the Torah. In fact in the Torah we find five references to the concept that we are to suffer during Yom Kippur. "On the seventh month on the tenth day of the month you shall afflict yourselves" (Vayikra 16:29). "It is a Shabbat of Shabbat for you and you shall afflict yourselves" (ibid. 31). "On the tenth day of the seventh month it is Yom Kippur...afflict yourselves" (ibid. 23:27). "It is a Shabbat of Shabbat for you and you shall afflict yourselves" (ibid. 32). "On the tenth day of the seventh month...afflict yourselves" (Bemidbar 29:7). From here we learn five obligations to afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur and this is the source for the five special prohibitions.

There is a difference of opinion as to whether all of the prohibitions are actually derived from the Torah. The Rambam holds that all five forbidden activities are prohibited by the Torah. (See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sh’vitat Asor 1:5) However, the Tosafot hold that there is a difference between eating and drinking and the other prohibitions. Eating and drinking are forbidden by the Torah, whereas the other prohibitions are rabbinic. (See Tosafot on Yoma 77a, s.v. "D’Tnan")

Even the Rambam differentiates between eating and drinking and the other prohibitions. "One is only liable to bring a sacrifice or be punished with karet for breaking the prohibition of eating and drinking, but if one washed or rubbed in oil or wore shoes or had sexual relations they are to be punished by beating" (Mishneh Torah ibid.).

Eating and drinking carry with them the most severe punishment that the Torah mentions. One who eats or drinks is punished by karet; they are cut off. The rabbis explain this in different ways. They say that it means that one will die childless (see Rashi on Shabbat 25b s.v. "Karet") or die before one’s time (see Moed Katan 28a).

Yom Kippur is seen to be a serious day with many restrictions and prohibitions. The tendency is to assume that it is these prohibitions that give the day its solemn air. We may think that the day becomes holy through our affliction. However, the Gemara presents a very different picture as to the power of the day itself.

Methods of Atonement
The Mishnah explains that there are different forms of atonement and these apply for different types of sins.

"A sin offering and a guilt offering definitely atone, death and Yom Kippur atone together with repentance. Teshuvah, repentance, atones for simple sins, positive commands and negative commands, but for more severe sins it hangs in the balance until Yom Kippur comes along and atones.

One who says ‘I will sin and repent, sin and repent’ he will not be able to repent.
[One who says] ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for me’ Yom Kippur will not atone for him.

For sins between man and God, Yom Kippur atones, but for sins between man and man, Yom Kippur does not atone until one asks for forgiveness from his fellow.

Rabbi Akiva said ‘Happy are you Israel, before whom do you become pure, and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as it says ‘I will pour on you pure water and purify you’ (Yechezkel 36:25) and it says ‘God is the mikveh of Israel’ (Yirmeyahu 17:13), in the same way that the mikveh purifies the impure, so does God purify Israel’" (Yoma 8:8-9).

This piece of Mishnah discusses the relevant atonement for each sin. Sacrifices secure atonement, but that information does not really help us living in a time when there are no sacrifices. Death also atones, and one who faces death is encouraged to confess sins and return to God in a purer state. Yom Kippur also atones together with teshuvah.

Teshuvah itself is obviously a major ingredient in the process of achieving atonement for one’s sins. But this is only guaranteed in the case of simple sins. When considering more serious transgressions the balance is suspended until Yom Kippur. The two elements of teshuvah combined with Yom Kippur are sufficient to tip the balance of atonement in favour of the repentant sinner.

The Mishnah then clarifies an important point. One could be led to thinking that teshuvah and Yom Kippur are magic remedies that can be relied upon in all circumstances. The Mishnah therefore clearly states that if one relies blindly on teshuvah and Yom Kippur and uses them to ‘help’ one sin then they do not offer atonement. Only in the case of one who sinned and then repented are they effective.

Even Yom Kippur is limited in its power of atonement. If another individual was affected by the sin, then Yom Kippur is ineffective as a means to atonement. Only when one has asked and received forgiveness from his fellow can he approach God for atonement.

The Mishnah concludes with Rabbi Akiva’s homiletic saying. Why does the Mishnah close with this statement? It seems to be disconnected from the rest of the Mishnah. One possible answer is that since this is the final Mishnah of the tractate of Yoma, it was appropriate that the Mishnah conclude with a few well-chosen words. Rabbi Akiva’s uplifting message is a fitting end to the tractate that deals with the laws of Yom Kippur. But is there any additional reason why the Mishnah closes with Rabbi Akiva’s words?

The Day that Atones
It is interesting to note that the Mishnah suggests that Yom Kippur itself is one of the stages of atonement. Yom Kippur in combination with teshuvah is a powerful tool in achieving atonement. This is further proven by the later statement of the Mishnah that one should refrain from relying totally on Yom Kippur. One who sins whilst saying that Yom Kippur will atone for them is rebuked. However, it seems that Yom Kippur, the day itself, is a form of atonement even without the prohibitions of the day.

This is seen in another opinion presented here by the Gemara. The Gemara questions the wording of the Mishnah that suggests that Yom Kippur is only a valid agent of atonement when it is combined with teshuvah.

"With teshuvah, yes, without teshuvah, no? This is not according to the opinion of Rebbe, as Rebbe taught Yom Kippur atones for all of the sins of the Torah whether one did teshuvah or not, except for one who interprets the Torah falsely, and one who does away with brit milah, circumcision, that for these Yom Kippur atones only if one did teshuvah" (Yoma 85b).

We see that according to Rebbe, Yom Kippur acts whether one has returned to God and to the right way or not. It is true that there are certain sins that need teshuvah in order for Yom Kippur to ‘work’ for them. But for the large majority of sins Yom Kippur alone is sufficient.

This means that if one were to sit around the whole day and read the newspaper, or sleep, Yom Kippur would atone for them. If one were not even to take out one moment of the day of Yom Kippur to consider one’s deeds and to take stock of one’s life, Yom Kippur still atones. Even if someone did not fast and kept none of the other laws of Yom Kippur, then they would still end the day atoned for their sins.

The day of Yom Kippur itself has great powers to cleanse us of our sins. One of the commentators on the Gemara mentions that the numerical value of the letters "Satan" add up to 364. There are three hundred and sixty four days of the solar year that the Satan has power over us. However there is one day in the year that the Satan is powerless against us, that is the day of Yom Kippur. (See Ran on Nedarim 32b, s.v. "HaSatan"). On this day it is as though we are immune to sin and thus the day atones.

The Rebel Against Yom Kippur
All this is well and good when it comes to one who ignores or is ignorant of Yom Kippur. What about someone who rejects Yom Kippur and does not want the day to atone for him? In such a case surely we would be forced to admit that the day cannot possibly atone for him.

It is fascinating to read the opinion that Gemara presents in another source. Rabbi Yochanan is of the opinion that if one "kicks away Yom Kippur" the day does not atone for him. Rashi explains that the term "kicking away Yom Kippur" means that he says "I do not want the day to atone for me". However, the Gemara brings the opposing opinion of Resh Lakish who holds that even one who does not want the day to atone for him and who actively declares this, even so the day atones for him. (See Kritut 7a)

If one not only ignores Yom Kippur, not only eats and drinks, but also declares that the day should not atone for him, despite his protests the day atones. This shows the immense power of Yom Kippur and of the Divine pardon itself. God wants His children to return to Him. He gave us one day that is the most conducive to repentance and atonement, the Divine acceptance of that repentance. Whether we want it or not, whether we use the day or ignore it, God still desires that we come out of Yom Kippur cleansed and free of sin.

This can then explain the image of the mikveh presented in the Mishnah by Rabbi Akiva.

The Mikveh of Atonement
Rabbi Akiva turned to the Jewish people at the conclusion of the Mishnah and the entire tractate of Yoma and left them with an uplifting thought.

"Happy are you Israel, before whom do you become pure, and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven." Rabbi Akiva does not see Yom Kippur as being a frightening experience. Rather he views it as a wonderful opportunity to become pure in the eyes of God and in one’s own eyes. The entire thrust of Yom Kippur is not to afflict oneself but to purify oneself.

The parable that Rabbi Akiva then gives is that of the mikveh; in the same way that the mikveh purifies one who enters it, so does God purify Israel. The way through which God purifies us is by giving us Yom Kippur, the one day of the year that atones for us, the Day of Atonement. This day is similar to a mikveh. We can explain this using a similar parable of our own.

It is the end of the day and the young children of the house are dirty. They have been playing in the mud or rubbing spaghetti in their hair. The time has come for them to have a bath. The parents insist but the children cry and scream and just do not want to get in the bath. It becomes a bit of an argument and, after a struggle the parent undresses the children and puts them in the bath. The entire time the children are protesting and shouting that they do not want to have a bath. Even though the children are adamant that they do not want the bath and continue to argue, in the meantime they have already been washed and come out clean. As much as they wanted to stay dirty, and did not want the bath to clean them, still they end up clean1.

The reason for this is that the parents wanted the bath even though the children did not want it. It is enough that this will was there for one party in order for the bath to be successful.

The same can be said with regard to Yom Kippur and the atonement and purity that it affords. Because God is adamant that we should be pure and sin-free the day purifies us even if we don’t want it to. Even if we protest and do not want Yom Kippur to ‘work’ for us it still does. It cleanses us like a bath, like a mikveh, that body of water that purifies one who enters it.

Yom Kippur is not a day to be sad or frightened. It is a day to be pure, to come closer to God. The prohibitions and laws of the day help us to do so. Even without them, God implores us to return to Him, but the laws help us to do so.

This also explains why we need the laws themselves and the prohibitions. If the day cleanses us by itself then what good are the laws. The answer is that the laws enable us to utilise the day to its utmost and come close to God through our purity on Yom Kippur.

We have to use this one day of the year to get near to God and to become clean and pure. "Happy are you Israel, before whom do you become pure, and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven."

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