Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

Commentary for Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

12 May

Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s two parshahs, is closely associated with Yom Kippur. The first of its three chapters introduces us to the holiday and describes the Yom Kippur sacrifice and is thus read in synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, while its third chapter is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Leviticus 16:31 introduces us to the well-known phrase “a sabbath of sabbaths” that is often used to describe the holiday, and it is from this phrase that we learn that activities that are forbidden on Shabbat are also forbidden on Yom Kippur, even if they are permitted on any other holiday (for example, cooking). Due to this phrase Yom Kippur is seen as taking precedence over Shabbat and its laws always win out if there is a conflict. This perception of Yom Kippur as therefore being more “extreme” than Shabbat allows for an interesting Jewish brainteaser that asks, “name one activity that is forbidden on Shabbat but permitted on Yom Kippur?”

The answer, fasting, is often difficult to come by because it is something that is not merely permitted on Yom Kippur but fully required (as we learn for the first time in this week’s parshah in Lev. 16:29) and because fasting on Shabbat is not explicitly forbidden via the standard “thou shalt not” but is rather forbidden because fasting- i.e. not eating and drinking, conflicts with the mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat, of which eating one’s fill of food is considered an important part. While these might seem like minor distinctions that have little practical effect other than happening to make a brainteaser more difficult, understanding them actually helps us learn an important lesson about Shabbat.

While many people assume that the reason we are allowed to fast on Yom Kippur even when it falls on Shabbat is due to Yom Kippur being the “sabbath of sabbaths” and therefore taking precedence, the real reason is because unlike all of the other fasts (aside from the Tenth of Tevet, which only ever overlaps with Shabbat by an hour), on Yom Kippur we are fasting to help pray for a better future rather than to commemorate a past event. The future is inherently a spiritual thing. It has not happened yet and therefore cannot physically affect us. The present can obviously affect us physically, and even the past can do so in some cases (if you fell and cut yourself you might have a scar), but the future exists only in our minds. Shabbat is often seen as a day where we focus on the spiritual over the physical, but in reality it is a day when we focus on both the spiritual and the physical while doing our best to ignore materialistic wants. On Shabbat we are not only encouraged to pray and study, but also required to eat our fill at three different meals and encouraged to engage in marital relations, both things that fall into the category of physical wants more than spiritual ones. Rather, it is on Yom Kippur when we are intended to push aside both the material and the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, spending all day in synagogue praying and abstaining from eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, engaging in marital relations, and using outside substances such as make-up or cologne to make ourselves look and smell nice.

Shabbat contrasts with Yom Kippur and with the first six days of the week by helping us to focus on what we have. On the first six days of the week, when we are allowed to focus on the materialistic as well as the physical and spiritual, we are often distracted by the things we want. On Yom Kippur, when we push aside not just the materialistic but also the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, we struggle to not be distracted by the thoughts of things we already own but can’t use (such as food). On Shabbat we restrict our focus from the materialistic and a portion of the physical, and as a result instead of focusing on the things we want but can’t have or the things we have but can’t use, allowing us to enjoy the things we have that we either use regularly but do not always give ourselves the chance to appreciate- such as food, or might not otherwise think we have time for, such time for taking care of our spiritual needs.


Commentary for Yom Kippur

16 Oct

The most common metaphor found throughout the High Holiday services is that of God as a judge presiding over a court, hearing the evidence for and against us, and deciding what our sentence will be. The reason this imagery is invoked is obvious: courts have been around in some form or another since soon after the development of human society, so it is an image that is relatable to people of all generations, from the first generation of Jews down to us today and far into the future. Also, it’s probably pretty darn accurate. If we follow the courtroom metaphor, though, we run into an interesting abnormality in what first appeared to be rather a perfect picture.
Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Judgment,” on which God judges us for our deeds and we ask God to show us mercy. It is followed by Yom Kippur, when we confess and apologize for those sins upon which God has judged us. If we want God to judge us with mercy on Rosh Hashanah, then shouldn’t we start atoning and apologizing for our sins before our day in court?    A criminal who expresses remorse before and during the trial will be seen as a lot more sincere in his or her repentance- and thus more likely to be shown leniency- than one who starts to show remorse only after being sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Let’s face it: going into the High Holidays, we all have a pretty good idea of what we have done wrong over the past year, and in case we didn’t or we forgot something, we start to say Slichot- including the Vidu’i (“confession”) a week beforehand. Going into Rosh Hashanah, we should all know just about where we stand.
On Rosh Hashanah we come before God praying for mercy, and we are given a suspended sentence. As we read in the U’netaneh Tokef during the Musaf service of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “On Rosh Hashanah it will be written” “how many will pass and how many will be created; who will live and who will die… who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.” These are all written in the future tense.
Between those two passages, though, is one more phrase: “and on the fast of Yom Kippur it will be inscribed.” After the second passage, the paragraph then finishes off with a final message: “But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree.” When we read this paragraph on Rosh Hashanah, it serves as our final wake-up call.
The Kotzker Rebbe said, “One who is on the bottom of a ladder and climbing up is far higher than one on the top of the ladder who is on his way down.” On Yom Kippur we return to be judged by God once again, having received our sentence on Rosh Hashanah and having had one week to act upon that information. On Yom Kippur we do not merely come before God asking for atonement before our judgment is sealed, but we come to God with sincerity in our hearts and minds hoping to be able to prove that we deserve that atonement. On Rosh Hashanah we find out where we stand. On Yom Kippur, we show God that we want to go up the ladder and not down.

Commentary for Ha’azinu

25 Sep

This week’s parshah, like many in Deuteronomy, is a warning to the Israelites from Moses. The first six aliyot comprise a song that tells about how great things are when God is happy with us, and how bad they will be if make God angry by turning away and worshiping false gods. The seventh aliyah starts out with a warning to the Israelites that this is not something to be taken lightly.

The maftir portion of the seventh aliyah takes a very different tone. It is a personal message from G-d to Moses, commanding him to climb Mount Navo today, where he will die, not being allowed to enter the Promised Land because he did not give God the proper credit when he struck the rock at Kadeish in the Wilderness of Zin (Num. 20: 1-13).

The Torah begins this last section with the puzzling phrase “And The Lord spoke to Moses on that very day, saying: (Deut 32:48).” On which very day? Surely if the date was important, the Torah would have just given the date as it often does. If this was to teach us that God was ordering Moses to ascend Mount Navo on the very same day that God gave Moses these instructions, when surely God’s instructions to Moses would have included the fact that he go up today. Instead, the phrase is only found in the verse used by the text to introduce the instructions.

The phrase “on that very day (b’etzem ha-yom ha-zeh)” appears very rarely in the Torah. It is used in Gen. 7:13 to describe Noah and his family boarding the ark after the rain starts to fall, in Gen. 17:23 and 26 to describe Abraham circumcising himself and all of his household, and in Ex. 12:17 to describe the impending exodus of the Israelites fro Egypt. It is also used in Lev. 23:21 to describe Shavuot and in 23:28,29, and 30 to describe Yom Kippur.

What all of these moments have in common is that they are moments from which there is no turning back. When Noah’s family stepped onto the ark, they decided to put their trust in God that this was not just a normal rainstorm, and that God would protect them throughout it. When Abraham circumcised himself and his household, he was declaring that this monotheism thing was not just a phase. It was a permanent relationship with God for which he and his adherents were willing to make lasting, irreparable marks on their bodies. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt it changed them from a people to a nation and demonstrated God’s power to the world in an undeniable way not seen since the flood. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah on Shavuot cement the signing of a covenant between God and every Jew who will ever exist, obligating us to God to fulfill the commandments given in the Torah.

In this week’s parshah, the words “on that very day” mark the moment that Moses’ fate was sealed. From that time on, Moses would have to accept his punishment that he would never see the Promised Land. At the end of each Yom Kippur, we face a similar moment. Our fate for the year is sealed, and we begin to work on ourselves. We take what we have discovered about ourselves during the High Holiday season to heart and we begin trying to correct out behaviors. The same warning that Moses gave to the Israelites in this week’s parshah still applies to us today: we can do what is good in the eyes of God and God will be happy with us, or we can spurn God and face the consequences. Yom Kippur is over, and we must now start working to make our next year better than this one.

Commentary for Yom Kippur

22 Sep

Yom Kippur is often said to be the holiest day of the year.  In Judaism, one of the most important ways that we make something “holy” is by making it different.  You can make Kiddush out of any old cup you have lying around, but to have a special cup that you only use for Kiddush makes that cup holy.
Our holidays work in a similar fashion.  They each have special mitzvot attached to them- both things we are required to do and things that we prohibited from doing- that let us know that this day is different from any other random day of the year.  This is a holy day.  Even within the context of holy activities such as prayer, we still do things to set holidays apart.  They have their own Torah and haftarah readings, special prayers, and even special tunes for the prayers that we would usually do on non-holidays.  The High Holidays even have their own special High Holiday-only cantillation for the Torah reading as well.
One of the better-known changes to the service for Yom Kippur is that the second line of the Shema (“Blessed is the name of His glorious Kingdom for all eternity”), which is normally said in an undertone, is said out loud together by the entire congregation.  The midrash in Devarim Rabah (2:36) gives the reason for this as follows: Moses overheard this prayer from the angels and taught it to the Israelites.  We do not usually say it aloud because we are sinful and not as pious as the angels, so to say it aloud would be presumptuous of us.  But on Yom Kippur, when we shut out physical concerns- living, for just a day, like the angels do- and strive to be more holy than we usually are, we elevate ourselves to the level of the angels and are worthy of reciting it aloud.
So on Yom Kippur, we all become angels.  What a nice thought.
The point of Yom Kippur, however, is not for us to be perfect little angels one day a year.  The point of Yom Kippur is to have a day on which we must reflect on our actions over the previous year and develop strategies to help ourselves refrain from making the same mistakes again in the coming year.  Yes, it is the day on which God (hopefully) exonerates us from our sins (or at least reduces our punishment), but that will only happen if we make a sincere attempt at repentance.  Yom Kippur takes place on the tenth of Tishrei, but unlike other holidays, it is not about only the tenth of Tishrei.  It is about every other day of every other month as well.
Interestingly, the only regularly scheduled Torah reading for the High Holidays that does not use the special High Holiday cantillation is the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon.  This reading (Leviticus 18) is a warning from God to the Israelites of many things that they shouldn’t do when they start their new lives in the Promised Land or else they will be punished.  The High Holidays may be about to end, but the year has just begun, and this final Torah reading of the High Holidays is read with the same cantillation that we use the rest of the year in order to teach us that we need to take Yom Kippur- the lessons we have learned about ourselves and the promises we made to ourselves and to God- with us throughout the rest of the year.

Commentary for Vayechi

2 Jan

One year Rabbi Aharon of Karlin went to the bimah to start leading the morning service on Rosh Hashanah, but as he uttered the very first word, ha’melech (“the king”) he fainted. He would later explain that as he said the word, he had thought of the famous Talmudic story (Gittin 56) of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, whose disciples smuggled him out of Jerusalem during the Roman siege so that he could meet with the Roman general Vespasian. When Rabbi Yochanan saw Vespasian, he addressed him as if he were the emperor himself. Vespasian responded by informing Rabbi Yochanan that he was now deserved to be put to death, either because he had called Vespasian the emperor when he was not one, or because “if I am a king (and you already knew this) why did you not come to me earlier?” “’When I thought of that,’ Rabbi Aharon said, ‘I was terrified. Since I know that God is the One and Only King, why did I not come to him sooner in sincere repentance?’ (Art Scroll Machzor Yichron Yosef, p. 321)”


In this week’s parshah we see an opposite but equally important episode, as Joseph’s brothers finally apologize to him for selling him into slavery. The brothers and their families (along with Joseph and his family) have been living together in Egypt for seventeen years now, on land given to them by Joseph after he saved them from starvation… and yet in all this time they have not once apologized to him. Despite having had many years to stew about what his brothers had done to him, Joseph accepts their apology without hesitation.


Although we mark the High Holiday season on our calendars the “time of repentance,” repentance can be achieved at any time. There is no reason to wait until the High Holidays to rectify our misdeeds, and the Holidays are not a deadline that all sins must be atoned for by or else they become irreparable. We should strive to repent for our sins every day of the year, whether they were sins we committed days ago or years ago.

Commentary for Yom Kippur

3 Oct

The Kol Nidrei service has been a source of controversy for centuries.  Its text, as summarized in the Rabbinical Assembly’s machzor reads “All vows and oaths we take, all promises and obligations we make to God between this Yom Kippur and the next we hereby publicly retract in the event that we should forget, and hereby declare our intention to be absolved of them (p. 353),” has been used by anti-Semites throughout the generations (who have conveniently ignored the qualifying phrase “in the event that we should forget them”) as proof that Jews intend to be dishonest from the start, and thus can never be trusted.

Obviously this is not the case.   The Torah clearly states that “anyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the LORD your God (Deut. 25:16),” and even if the act of announcing to your entire congregation that you do not intend to keep any agreement you make over the course of the next year was sufficient to protect one from violating this precept, then any dealing with anyone not in the same synagogue with you on Yom Kippur, whether the person is a gentile or a fellow Jew, would still violate the commandment of not putting a stumbling block in front of the blind (Lev. 19:14) and thus unacceptable in the eyes of God.

The perpetuation of this idea that Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur act as a spiritual “get out of jail free” card for any wrongdoings one commits over the course of a year comes from a misunderstanding of what Yom Kippur is, by both Jews and non-Jews alike.  Yom Kippur is not a mechanical ceremony in which everyone who shows up and says the magic words is automatically cleansed of all sin.  The rabbis of the Mishnah are quite clear on this point: “One who says ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will provide atonement [for the sin], Yom Kippur does not provide atonement (Yoma 8:9).”  What Yom Kippur is is a day to honestly admit our failures to both ourselves and God, and to focus ourselves on doing better in the coming year.
In order be absolved of our sins, we must first atone for them.  No one can repent for our sins in our place.  We must do it ourselves.  If we want to be pardoned for straying from God’s path, we must first show God that we wish to return to it.

And so on Yom Kippur we reflect on our wrongdoings, and we vow to not repeat them.  But we know that just as we have not been perfect in the year that has passed, we will not be perfect in the coming year either, and so we do Kol Nidrei and nullify our vows before we make them, so as to not also make ourselves guilty of the sin of oath-breaking if we should slip up and repeat the misdeeds that we vow to correct.  In this way, Kol Nidrei functions as a safety net to ensure that in our desire to repent we do not set ourselves up to sin even more.  But just because we have this safety net does not mean it is okay to give up and allow ourselves to fall.

By the very virtue of doing Kol Nidrei, we are acknowledging that we are flawed; that we will make mistakes in the coming year.  Then, immediately after Kol Nidrei, we begin Yom Kippur, where we vow, in spite of those very flaws, to improve ourselves and become the best person we can be.

Commentary for Behar

12 May

This week’s parshah, Behar, in which we learn the laws of the Jubilee year, is always read during the Counting of the Omer. These two periods have a lot in common. We are required to count them both, and we do so in seven sets of seven (weeks for the Omer, Sabbatical cycles for the Jubilee), and in both cases we count forty-nine units (days in the Omer, years in the Jubilee cycle) in order to build up to an even more special, joyous fiftieth unit during which we celebrate our relationship with God (the giving of the Torah on Shavuot and God’s ownership over the land and our fealty to God and God alone in the Jubilee).

A deeper look reveals some very interesting contrasts and correlations between these two periods. While every individual Jew is commanded to count the Omer, the courts are tasked to keep count of the Jubilee cycles on behalf of the community. The Kabalistic tradition teaches that there are seven attributes that we are supposed to focus on improving in ourselves during the Counting of the Omer, while the releasing of debt slaves and reverting of property rights at the Jubilee is seen as an improvement of our society as a whole.

Strangely, though, the culminating “fiftieth day of the Omer,” Shavuot, is a holiday focused on the communal acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish People, while the day that the Jubilee year officially begins, Yom Kippur, is a day of personal introspection where we look at our own flaws and resolve to improve ourselves as individuals for the coming year. It seems backwards that period of focus on ourselves as an individual should lead up to a communal holiday while the major economic upheaval which the community is responsible for managing should begin on a day when we are judged for our individual actions (especially when there are other days on the calendar during which we are traditionally judged as a society, such as Shmini Atzeret or the Tenth of Tevet).

One thing that both days have in common is that they are both days when the Torah was given. While the initial revelation at Sinai occurred on Shavuot, a series of calculations by Rashi reveals that the on which Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets was Yom Kippur. One of the commonly used division for the mitzvot in the Torah is miztvot incumbent upon the individual vs. mitzvot incumbent upon the community as a whole. While looking at things along these lines can certainly lead to interesting insights, it is important to remember that they are all interconnected. The Gemara on Shevuot 39a warns us with the well-known statement “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh- all of Israel is responsible for one another.” It is our duty to help each other fulfill our individual responsibilities just as much as it is our responsibility as individuals to do our part for the community. Similarly, when we as individuals achieve a goal, the whole community celebrates with us, and when the community calls on us, we must ensure that we are ready to answer.