Mitzvah/Concept 93 Yom Kippur Part One
“But on the tenth day of this month it is a day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall
afflict yourselves; you shall offer a fire-offering to God. You shall not do any work on this very day, for it is a Day of Atonement to provide you atonement before God, your Lord.”1
“You shall not do any work.”2
Focused Only on Atonement
We are prohibited from doing any work on Yom Kippur.3 Any activity that is forbidden on the Sabbath is forbidden on Yom Kippur even if it is only a rabbinic decree. What ever may not be handled on the Sabbath may not be handled on Yom Kippur. Whatever may not be said or done from the start on the Sabbath is likewise forbidden on Yom Kippur. The only difference is the punishments for breaking the law. 4 Even if someone has not done Teshuva he is still prohibited from doing work on Yom Kippur.5
The work of Yom Kippur is to achieve atonement. We should not be occupied with anything else. We should concentrate all our attention and thoughts to plead for atonement from the Master of the World, Who has set aside this day since the beginning of creation, for us to be granted atonement.6
Levels of Atonement
The day is called Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonements, in plural. There are different levels of atonement, dependent on the level of Teshuva and the intensity of our prayers. The degree of atonement is dependent on how much work we put into achieving the purpose of Yom Kippur. We cannot distract ourselves from this work lest we forfeit the opportunity of the day.7 If you are involved in creating something for you it contradicts the idea of asking for forgiveness from God. You do not create forgiveness. Getting forgiveness from someone else is not going to be a result of what you are giving. It is going to be a result of what you are asking for. So any creative work is actually going to contradict the fact that today you are not super human being but you are somebody who is setting and requesting something from your Creator.
In fact we are requesting more than “just” atonement; Rebbe Akiva says that Yom Kippur is a day of purification.8 He is telling us that there are two different things that happen on Yom Kippur; one is atonement, but atonement is not purification. Atonement means that I have been forgiven from what I did. Forgiven means that God is not going to hold it against me but it does not mean that the damage it has caused is out of my system. If I do something wrong I may be forgiven for it, meaning that God will not punish me for it, but it still has damaged my soul, meaning it has restricted or stifled the full development of my soul because I took an opportunity that I could have used for growth and used it for something that would hurt my growth and development as a spiritual being or as an intellectual being. Therefore atonement is not enough. It is really a day of Taharah, purification. The purpose of Yom Kippur is actually to be recreated in a state of total purity.
Most people are under the impression that Teshuva means I did something wrong, I regret that I did it wrong, and therefore I am repentant. I regret it, I feel guilty9, and therefore I repent. You must realize that the verse which describes Teshuva explicitly says, Acharei Shuvi – after I did Teshuva – Nichamti – I regretted what I had done. Meaning the regret does not lead to Teshuva, Teshuva leads to regret. Teshuva does not mean I feel guilty over what I have done; it is a common misconception that is the Christian idea of repentance, it is not the Jewish definition of repentance. It is not, “You know, I did that, I feel guilty, I do not know how to deal with it,” that is for your therapist. The idea of Teshuva is simply an awareness that I went against God’s will. Teshuva is not “How could I have done that, I cannot believe I fell so low, I cannot believe I did such a thing.” It is, “I was in love with this person and I felt so close and so attached, and he was so good to me, and I have hurt him.” Teshuva is an overwhelming desire to be close to God and repair any damage to the relationship.
Therefore Maimonides says, that if there is a person who did something wrong, a year of rebellion, rejected all religion, and then comes back, does Teshuva, and says, “You know what, it was terrible what went wrong but it was really good for me. Because I learned from it, I grew from it, I became aware of different passions and things like that and I knew about life and it changed my whole religious outlook and it was really great for me. But I did Teshuva.” He is mistaken, he did not do Teshuva. He is looking at it only in terms of himself. He is not looking at it in terms that he went against God’s will. And the more a person says, “You know I feel terrible, it was really bad, but I learned a lot from it, it was really great.” That is not Teshuva. The person is looking at it only from that person’s own perspective. It is frightening because what has happened is that we have become this crying and weeping people only about what we have done to ourselves. But it should be about what we have done to our relationship with God. That is why all the prayers on Yom Kippur are all God oriented. The point is that this day of Teshuva is a day of enhanced awareness of God.
This day has been set aside by God to be close with His children. Whoever works on this day is rejecting God’s desire for and offers of, intimacy.10 If we work on this day we sacrifice our right to function the rest of the year.11 It is as if the person is saying; “I stand outside the realm of God.”12
Yom Kippur is actually a day of opposites; we suffer over our sins and we rejoice over our atonement and closeness with God. If we would work we would distract ourselves from both which are essential parts of the day.13
1 Leviticus 33:27-28 This is the source verse according to the Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 322
2 Numbers 29:7 This is the source verse according to Maimonides, Laws of Resting on the Tenth of Tishrei 1:1
3 Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Resting on the Tenth of Tishrei 1:1. Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 322
4 Maimonides ibid. Halachah 2
5 Meshech Chochmah Leviticus 23:27
6 Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 280 See also Nachmanidies and Seforno Leviticus 23:28
7 HaKetav V’Hakabbalah Leviticus 23:27
8 Mishna Yoma 8:9
9 My father OB”M insisted that the idea of guilt does not exist in Jewish thought. The only thing that is demanded is accepting responsibility.
10 Alshich Leviticus 23:30 Or Hachaim 23:28
11 Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch ibid
13 Alshich ibid