Mitzvah/Concept 92 Yom Kippur Part One
“It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; an eternal decree.”1
“It is a day of complete rest for you and you shall afflict yourselves; on the ninth of the month in the evening – from evening to evening –shall you rest on your rest day.”2
We are commanded to cease all work and to make Yom Kippur a holiday.3 4
A Holiday of Rejoicing
The paragraph in the Torah that deals with Yom Kippur as a holiday begins with the word, “Ach.”5 The usual translation is, “But,” however, we will see that it is latent with meaning and cannot be accurately translated.
The day itself brings atonement6, “but,” you will still receive reward beyond the atonement for making it a holiday.7 It is simple to forget that Yom Kippur is a holiday just as is Pesach. We are so involved in confessing our sins and begging for atonement that we are distracted from the day as a holiday. The Cohen Gadol would make a party for his friends for having left the Temple safely.8 Everyone who was in Jerusalem would parade behind him as he went home after the service.9
We can understand that everyone would be thrilled at the conclusion of Yom Kippur because the Cohen Gadol had been successful in the service, and they had a literal sign of atonement from God that they were forgiven; a strip of red wool was tied atop the Sanctuary entrance, and when the he-goat reached the wilderness the strip of wool whitened, as it says in the verse, “Even if your sins shall be like a crimson thread, they will become white as snow.10”11
The parties were not just for atonement, in fact, Yom Kippur was one of the two happiest days of the year! Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said; “There were no two days as full if rejoicing as Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av. On those days, the young unmarried women would borrow12 white clothes from each other and go out into the vineyards and sing and dance (in front of single young men.) They would sing; ‘Young men, lift up your eyes! What do you choose?’”13 We must remember that Yom Kippur is a holiday, a day of rejoicing, not just for atonement, but for the holiday itself.
This One Time
“Ach” can also mean, “This one time.”14 When Abraham was arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and its sister cities, he had negotiated God down from fifty righteous people saving the cities to twenty. “So he said, “Let not my Master be annoyed and I will speak, Ach Ha’pa-am, but this once,” and he proceeded to negotiate for ten. He had pushed and argued and pleaded with God, and he was obviously tentative about beseeching God for an even lower number. He used Ach Ha’Pa-am, but this once, to smooth the way for one last desperate prayer.
Yom Kippur is introduced with the same Ach to remind us that this day is the last desperate opportunity to receive atonement for absolutely everything we have done. The Torah is teaching us that this is exactly the approach we must take to the prayers of the day; they are our ultimate appeals for atonement. We dare not forget this opportunity and rejoice in it.
Pharaoh also used this approach and it worked! When God sent the plague of locusts, “Pharaoh hastened to summon Moses and Aaron, and he said, ‘I have sinned to God, your Lord, and to you. And now, please forgive my sin Ach Ha’pa-am, just this once, and entreat God, your Lord, that He remove from me only this death.’” Pharaoh knows that he has sinned against God. He knows that he has received numerous warnings and he has suffered through nine plagues. He has no delusions that he has the right to ask Moses and Aaron for anything, and certainly not God. Yet, he uses Ach as the magical word to help his plea.
The Ach that introduces Yom Kippur in the Torah is a reminder that we are in a situation very similar to Pharaoh’s.15 We too have sinned, and have been warned and taught what is right. We have ignored everything and continued to sin. We, too, can use Ach to God, “I have sinned to You. However, just this once, please forgive me for absolutely everything I have done.” The Ach approach will work for us as it worked for Pharaoh, so Yom Kippur is a holiday of rejoicing.
Gideon, the Judge of the Jews, also used Ach in his dealings with God. He was hesitant to assume the responsibility of leading the Jews, and he was doubtful that God would save the nation.16 The only way that Gideon would take on the task was if God sent signs. By the time he had witnessed two signs from God, Gideon was hesitant about requesting a third, yet he still had his doubts; “Then Gideon said to the Lord, ‘Let not Your wrath flare against me and I will speak Ach Ha’Pa-am, just this once.” Gideon knew that he was pushing the limits of God’s patience; he had already called for two signs and God responded. He needed one more sign. He still felt insecure. He wanted more, so he used the Ach approach; this will be the last sign I request before accepting the leadership of the Jews.
Yom Kippur begins with an Ach to remind us that we too can use Gideon’s approach. We can plead that we need more from God. We need atonement just this once in order to go on with our lives as Jews. Although God has given us much, we can use Ach to ask for more. This is why this is a day of rejoicing; we can use this day to implore God for more blessings in our lives.
Samson used Ach to beg God for one moment of miraculous strength to be used for vengeance against the Philistines. He was desperate, all his miraculous strength was gone because of his sins, he was blinded; he was humiliated and used for illicit purposes by the Philistines17. Samson was being used as sport in a temple of idol worship.18 He was now entreating God for a miracle despite his sins and humiliation; “Samson called out to God and said, ‘My Master, God, the Lord! Remember me and strengthen me Ach Ha’Pa-am, just this one time, O Lord, and I will exact vengeance from the Philistines for one of my two eyes.”19 It worked.
The Ach of Yom Kippur allows us to plead with God in the same way as Samson. Despite our sins and problems with life, perhaps even humiliation, we can beg God for a miracle. We may, just as Samson, ask for our own purposes. Even if we want atonement for ourselves, our own conscience we can ask today, Ach Ha’Pa-am, just this once.
Atonement and Nothing Else
“Ach” also means this, and nothing else. “For the Children of Israel and the Children of Judah have been doing Ach nothing else but what is wrong in my eyes since their youth; for the Children of Israel Ach, only anger Me with their handiwork-the word of God.”20 The Ach that introduces Yom Kippur teaches us that it is a holiday dedicated to atonement and nothing else. The entire existence of the holiday is for God to grant us atonement even if we have been acting as the Children of Israel in the verse above.21
Everything on This Day
“Ach” teaches us that all the atonement will happen on this day. The day is comprehensive. The atonement is not a process that begins the day before or ends a day later. The day is complete onto itself. Even if we have not taken advantage of Rosh Hashanah, the Fast of Gedaliah and the Ten Days of Teshuva, we can receive atonement on Yom Kippur. Ach, absolutely everything happens on this day.22 This is another reason why we celebrate Yom Kippur as a holiday.
Celebrating Our Abundance
The Manna did not fall on Yom Kippur, just as it did not fall on the Sabbath. We learn this from the verses that describe Yom Kippur as Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of Sabbaths.23 A double portion of Manna fell on Friday in honor of the sanctity and blessing of the Sabbath, and a double portion fell on the eve of Yom Kippur in its honor. We entered Yom Kippur with a sense of abundance.
The Seuda Hamafseket, the feast before Yom Kippur is designated as a time of sensing God’s blessings and the abundance He has granted us. It is not simply a meal to prepare for the fast. It is rejoicing in our plenty.
It is essential to enter Yom Kippur with a sense of abundant blessing from God. That sense will help us remember that God wants to bless us, He wants us to succeed. He will grant us atonement.
Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: One for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for those in between. The completely righteous are written down and sealed for life immediately. The completely wicked are written down and sealed for death immediately. The verdict of those in between remains tentative from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are written down for life. If they do not merit, they are written down for death.24
What is the definition of righteous, wicked and in between? Maimonides says; “Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is termed righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merit is termed wicked. If his sins and merits are equal, he is termed a Beinoni, in between.25 Accordingly, throughout the entire year a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips the balance.26
Rashi and Nachmanides maintain that it is impossible to see our merits and sins as simply numbers as we do not know the merit of a Mitzvah or the damage of a sin. The definition of righteous or wicked is dependent on which Mitzvot have been performed and their quality.27
Abravanel holds that everything is determined by the quantity and quality of a person’s Teshuva.28
We celebrate Yom Kippur as a holiday because of the opportunity to “tip the scales’ in our favor. We cease any distraction29 and focus solely on our relationship with God, hoping to earn the title of Tzaddik. We can define and redefine ourselves. We can change the way that God relates to us individually and as a nation. We focus on earning more and more merit for us, for all Jews and for the entire world.30
1 Leviticus 16:31
2 ibid 23:32
3 Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Resting on the Tenth of Tishrei 1:1
4 Rabbi Isaac Arama, the Akeidat Isaac, Gate 63 says that we must believe that the intention of the Torah is to guide us in the paths of righteousness, and that the basic commandments of this day include all the necessary tools to understand the message of Yom Kippur and to achieve atonement.
5 ibid verse 27
6 Maimonides; Mishnah Torah; Laws of Teshuva 1:3 based on TB Yoma 86a. TB Shavuot records a debate among the Sages: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi maintains that Yom Kippur atones for a Jew’s sins whether he repents or not. In contrast, the other Sages maintain that Yom Kippur only atones for a person when he repents.
7 Or Hachaim Leviticus 23:27
8 TB Yoma 70a
9 ibid 71b
10 Isaiah 1:18
11 TB Yoma 78b
12 No one was allowed to wear her own clothes so as not to embarrass the poor women who did not have nice clothes to wear.
13 TB Taanit 26b
14 Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah, Leviticus 23:27
16 Judges 6:13-16
17 ibid 16:21
18 ibid verse 25
19 ibid verse 28
20 Jeremiah 32:30
21 Nachmanides Leviticus 23:27
22 ibid verse 28
23 Maharal, Gur Aryeh Exodus 16:25
24 TB Rosh Hashanah 16b. There are numerous debates regarding what life and death mean. We obviously see wicked people living through the year and many righteous people die. The Vilna Gaon holds that life and death is referring to life in the World to Come.
25 Laws of Teshuva 3:1
26 ibid 3:4
27 Nachmanides, The Gate of Reward. Rashi is quoted by Abravanel Leviticus 23:27 together with Rabbi Oshia the Elder from Triani and the Ran.
28 Leviticus 23:27
29 Sefer Hachinuch #317
30 Laws of Teshuva ibid