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You might be startled to learn that at one time, this day of Yom Kippur was one of several of the most joyous days of the year. We know a little about how Yom Kippur was celebrated during early second Temple times—enough to know that it was primarily a Temple rite and not much observed outside the Temple grounds, other than people not working and having special readings at community prayers. Fasting and other practices of self-denial were apparently not done. In the fifth, sixth, and maftir aliyot, we read the word nafshoteichem, which refers to "afflicting one's soul," and this was likely considered to be a spiritual rather than physical afflicting. The modern practices of self-denial are mostly de-rabbanan, that is, they are mandated by rabbinic law,1 and are talmudic in origin. The most joyful holiday was, of course, Sukkot, which is described in the Torah as zeman simchateinu, "the season of our joy."2 The Torah names today's holiday in two places as a shabbat shabbaton (a sabbath of complete rest),3 and as yom hakippurim (day of atonements) in one.4 Its only unique name is yom hakippurim; since Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Rosh Hashanah, and even Shabbat itself are each also called a shabbat shabbaton.
Why was Yom Kippur called a joyous day? We learn from the Mishnah5 that Tu b'Av (15 Av) was celebrated in a very joyful way—young women would dress in white garments and dance in the fields, singing: "Young man, raise your eyes and see what you are choosing; do not set your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on family,"6 and the young men would gather to watch and choose brides, a sort of Jewish Valentine's Day. Tu b'Av is only one of two days the Mishnah speaks of where this tradition was observed. The other day was Yom Kippur! According to R. Samuel b. Gamliel, "There never were in Israel greater days of joy [yomim tovim] than the fifteenth of Av and Yom haKippurim."7 This tradition is a clue to a possible origin of Yom Kippur, and indeed, to the three major fall holidays: They were rooted in agricultural customs and closely tied to the fall harvest season. Indeed, some commentators have speculated that the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot had a common origin and may have been at one time the forerunner of the modern U.S. state fair: they began as a fall harvest celebration. This would appear to make sense, since Tu b'Av marks the beginning of the fall harvest and Yom Kippur falls at its end. Then the offerings from the harvest were brought to the Temple for Sukkot.
This knowledge gives us some insight into the two Torah readings of the day. The traditional Torah reading for the Mincha service is Leviticus 18, which covers prohibited marriages and the prohibition of illicit relations,8 and some commentators point to its choice for today's afternoon reading in order to impress on those young people who would be dancing in the fields the need for maintaining Israel's high standards of chastity and family morality. But Jews are never satisfied with only one opinion, and thus other commentators have suggested that the passage was chosen because it follows immediately after, and thus concludes, the Torah portion read at the morning service.9 In it we are reminded that forgiveness is not an unconditional promise. The people must reject the abominations of the Caananites, which included sexual perversions. Chapter 17 was presumably not counted since its theme has nothing to do with Yom Kippur.
The link between the shacharit Torah reading and the holiday is much clearer. It's a description of the Yom haKippurim observance at the Temple. (An interesting bit of statistics: this reading is also parashat Acharei Mot, the 29th parashah of the cycle, which is located just about exactly opposite in the year to Yom Kippur in the Torah-reading cycle.) In this morning's reading we learned that before Aaron can make atonement for Israel, he must make atonement for himself, so he is directed to sacrifice a bull for his sins. The priestly sin offering is a bull, presumably chosen to atone for Aaron's sin of the golden calf. The next ritual is the well known and much discussed rite of the two goats, of which one is to be sent to Azazel.
I won't spend much time about who or what Azazel was supposed to be. Medieval commentators Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, among others, assumed that this ritual recalled the ancient belief that demons resided in wilderness areas, and that the sending of a goat into the wilderness was to placate its demon. The text of the Torah seems to be very careful in specifying, however, that both goats used in this ritual are part of the offering to God, even though one of them is to be sent into the wilderness to Azazel. Thus it appears that the "Azazel" gig was likely a holdover from a more ancient belief that placating demons was an important thing to do; in later times the demonic imagery was replaced with a wilderness imagery, and sending the people's sins into the wilderness was to remove their sins—a kind of sympathetic magic. But as Judaism evolved, we moved away from relying on magic and sacrifice to help atone for sins. Atonement is now accomplished through reflection, introspection, and prayer, rather than sacrifice.
What is it about Yom Kippur—about atoning as our Torah portion commands—that makes the holiday so central to Jewish observance? Most people consider it to be the holiest day of the year—but is it really? Which day is more holy—Yom Kippur or Shabbat? This is a question that has exercised commentators, theologians, and rabbis—not to mention innumerable laypersons—for many centuries, and is important in understanding modern ritual observance. Consider: Shabbat is mentioned over a hundred times in the Bible; it is the first mitzvah in the Torah, observed and sanctified by God.10 It is the first holy day mentioned in the Torah. The fourth commandment tells us we must observe the Shabbat. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is only mentioned three times (being named only once), and is not mentioned at all in the Ten Commandments. It's true that it is called a shabbat shabbaton, a "sabbath of completeness"3; however, so is Shabbat itself,11 which is also called shabbaton shabbat-kodesh, "a rest, a holy Shabbat,"12 and even Rosh Hashanah, Shemini Atzeret, and Sukkot are each called a shabbaton,13 so this isn't any help either. What about the penalty for not observing the commandment to rest on these days? In Numbers, we learn that the punishment for violating Shabbat is death by stoning,14 while violating Yom Kippur is to result in one's being spiritually "cut off from the people" or "destroyed from the midst of his people,"15 a punishment reserved for God alone. So on the basis of the Torah, God sanctified Shabbat, it's mentioned lots of times, we're told to "remember it" (in the Decalogue of Shemot) and "guard it" (in the Decalogue of D'varim), and violating it is a capital offense—but Yom Kippur is only commanded to be a "day of complete rest" and to "afflict one's soul."
What about in the liturgy? Do we find a clue there? Perhaps—let's look. When Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, there is a tension between two prayers, Psalm 92 for Shabbat, mizmor shir le-yom ha-shabbat, and the shehecheyanu that celebrates Yom Kippur. Which should be recited first? No one knows for sure. If Yom Kippur is holier, then the shehecheyanu would be said first, and this is how Ashkenazim do it. But the Sephardim recite the psalm for Shabbat first. So this doesn't answer the question either.
Shabbat does add to the Yom Kippur celebration in at least one material way. On a weekday Yom Kippur havdalah, we use no besamin, spice, while for havdalah on a Shabbat Yom Kippur we do.16 So Shabbat adds something material to Yom Kippur, something Yom Kippur doesn't have on its own.
But of course there is more to Shabbat and Yom Kippur than material symbols; these two holidays provide a sacred time, a holy time that stands apart from the mundane world. The rabbis of the Mishnah, in specifying how the holidays, festivals, and Shabbat were to be observed after the Temple's destruction, recognized that the idea of a sacred time could serve as a substitute for the Temple's sacred space, and, just as the Temple had a hierarchy of spaces of increasing sanctity, a hierarchy of sanctity of time could be established. This was by far the most significant transition in Jewish history—replacing holy space with holy time. So the ordinary days, festivals, and Shabbat were each given a number of aliyot, Torah honors, that were designated for the Torah reading of that day. Thus, on the weekdays when the Torah is read, Mondays and Thursdays (and Shabbat mincha), there are three aliyot. In the Mishnah we are told that Rosh Chodesh and the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot are allotted four aliyot, the festivals and Rosh Hashanah have five, and Shabbat has seven. Yom Kippur, however, has six aliyot: one greater than the festivals, but still fewer than Shabbat.17 So in the Mishnah's hierarchy of importance, Shabbat has precedence over Yom Kippur. The rabbis of the Mishnah didn't learn this from the Torah, they set this precedence for a reason: they felt that Shabbat was the more sacred day. We see this sanctity exhibited in the changes that are made to holiday observance when a festival falls on Shabbat; for example, the shofar is not sounded on a Shabbat Rosh Hashanah, and the lulav and etrog are not used when Sukkot falls on Shabbat.
But, on the other hand, Yom Kippur is unique in that it is one of only two days in the year where two haftarot are read: one in the morning service and one in the afternoon service. Also, whenever a fast occurs on Shabbat—even Tisha b'Av—the fast is moved to another day, except for the fast day of Yom Kippur. But perhaps Shabbat really is the holier day. Observing Shabbat has been called the single practice of Judaism responsible for preserving our faith. As the saying goes, "More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel." Perhaps it's because in observing Shabbat, we're emulating God after the work of creation was completed. But perhaps another principle of Jewish ritual law is operating, the principle of frequency, which states, tadir v'lo tadir, tadir kodem, "that which is done more frequently takes precedence." Obviously Shabbat occurs more frequently than Yom Kippur, so according to this principle, when the two days are compared, it's the more important holiday. But not by very much! In the early first century CE, Philo, the great Jewish historian of Alexandria, remarked about the Jews of Egypt that they were "busy praying on Yom Kippur from morning to evening."18 In two thousand years, some things just haven't changed.
Like our Torah portion's theme of atonement—which used to be obtained through sacrifice—a major theme of Yom Kippur continues the High Holiday emphasis on teshuvah, repentance, expressed through prayer and resolve—Jewry's replacement for sacrifice. We repent for lapses in honoring our commitment to observe the mitzvot, lapses in keeping the vows we make to God, and lapses in just being good persons. Later today, in the Neilah service, our prayers will stress our recognition of God's thirteen attributes, especially those pertinent to the day: justice, that is, we should get what we deserve; and mercy, that is, we should not get what we deserve. Last night, in the Kol Nidrei declaration, we asked God to forgive us for the commitments we may make to God but fail to keep in the coming year. But these appeals only cover our relationship with God. The rabbis point out that praying for forgiveness doesn't absolve a person from ignoring the wrongs that he or she may perpetrate on another person. They remind us that if we want forgiveness for wronging another person, we must seek it from that person, even if it takes several attempts. But sometimes a wrong may be impossible to forgive. Let me tell you two stories about forgiveness, one personal and one from Jewish tradition.
After my father died, my mother and sister became estranged from me. I couldn't figure out why this happened, and they weren't at all communicative. Months passed and it was clear that a huge rift was developing in our family. After the Yom Kippur that followed my father's death, I resolved that even though I felt strongly that I was justified in thinking that I was not to blame in causing the rift, I would assume the responsibility for causing it and ask for their forgiveness. This broke the ice, and suddenly all blocks to communication were gone. A situation that was well on the way to becoming a family feud was resolved, and our family became reunited, through the simple means of my asking for forgiveness.
In contrast, the following story, which is told in various versions, illustrates that atonement and forgiveness have limits.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the rabbi of Brisk, who was a scholar of extraordinary renown and revered for his gentleness, took a train to visit an ailing friend. Since he didn't want to be recognized because people made a fuss over him everywhere he went, he dressed in peasants' clothing. On his trip home, several young men, smartly dressed, entered his compartment. The rabbi sat there reading but soon the young men began teasing and insulting him about his shabby appearance. When the rabbi didn't respond, they began insulting and abusing him in earnest.
When the train reached Brisk, a crowd was waiting to welcome their beloved rabbi home. As the rabbi was enveloped by the townspeople, the young men realized his true identity. The men, now chastened and afraid, went over to the rabbi to ask for his forgiveness.
"Rabbi, we didn't recognize you on the train! We didn't mean to bother you, and we're so ashamed and sorry for our behavior."
The rabbi looked at them but made no comment.
After services on the following Shabbat, the young men approached the rabbi again.
"I would like to forgive you, but I can't," he told them.
Soon the High Holidays approached. Before Rosh Hashanah, the men appeared at the rabbi's home and asked, in recognition of the holiday's spirit of teshuvah, if the rabbi would forgive them.
Again the rabbi said, "I would like to forgive you, but I can't."
Then, during the Neilah service of Yom Kippur, in front of the entire congregation, the men approached the bimah and appealed to the rabbi.
"Please, Rabbi, we beg you, the gates of heaven are closing and we have prayed for atonement before God for our sin of insulting and abusing you! But we can't make full atonement without your forgiveness. Can't you forgive us our great sin?"
The congregation sat still; the room was absolutely quiet. The rabbi closed his eyes and rocked in prayer. Then he opened his eyes and spoke.
"I would forgive you if I could. But I cannot—it was not the rabbi of Brisk you insulted and abused; it was an old peasant on the train. It is he from whom you must seek forgiveness."
G'mar chatimah tovah.
1. Tosafot, Yoma 7b
2. Deut. 16:14
3. Lev. 16:31, 23:32
4. Lev. 23:27–8
5. Ta'anit 4:8
6. Otsar HaTefilot. p. 1158
7. b. Ta'anit 26b
8. Orach Hayyim 622:2
9. Eliyahu Kitov, Sefer HaToda'ah, p. 55
10. Gen. 2:3
11. Ex. 31:15 and Lev. 23:3
12. Ex. 16:23
13. Lev. 23:23, 39
14. Num. 15:32–36
15. Lev. 23:29–30
16. Orach Chaim 624:3,4
17. j. Megillah 4:2
18. Treatise on the Festivals, The Ninth Festival
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