Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Yom Kippur 5761/ 9 October 2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Yom Kippur 5761/ 9 October 2000

Kedushat Hayyom--The Special Sanctity of the Day

Dr. Meir Seidler
Center for Basic Studies in Judaism

A special sense of sanctity characterizes the Day of Atonement in comparison with other Jewish holidays. What are the basic things that comprise this special holy feeling? Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach (1883-1942)[1] one of the last great thinkers of German Jewry before the Holocaust, discussed this question in one of his articles.[2] The question becomes all the more poignant considering the one might think the Day of Atonement is supposed to make us feel depressed. After all, we beat our breasts for our sins, we humble and prostrate ourselves; yet despite this the Day of Atonement gives us a sense of elation.[3] Rabbi Carlebach lists three reasons for this:

1. The public nature of the Day of Atonement.
2. The “communion” with G-d, particular to this day.
3. The effect that confession has on the soul.

This three-fold structure will provide the framework for our discussion, based on the above-cited article and remarks of other Jewish thinkers.

1. Public prayer on the Day of Atonement is unlike public prayer on all other days of the year. On this day the public awareness of the congregation is stronger than on any other day. This is so in two respects:

From the theoretical standpoint, precisely on the Day of Atonement the entire community is addressed explicitly, without exception: “We allow praying with those who have transgressed.” Even though we also allow praying with those who have transgressed during the rest of the year, on this day, the Day of Atonement, we state the point emphatically. The entire community, the tzibbur – the righteous [Heb. tzaddik], the mediocre [Heb. benoni], and the wicked [Heb. rasha] together – are called on to be as whole and unified as possible. The Day of Atonement is not intended solely for certain sectors of the people, and certainly not for the righteous alone.

From the practical standpoint, on the Day of Atonement the synagogues are filled from door to door, and (almost) the entire Jewish people are gathered within. There is no other day in the year when one feels the entire community assembled as on the Day of Atonement.

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik pays particular attention to the public nature of the Day of Atonement. According to him, on this day there is especial reason for every Jew to want to be part of the community, because of the nature of the Lord’s covenant with Israel.[4] Alongside the covenant made with each and every individual, this covenant includes “both those who are standing here with us this day ... and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:14). That is, it also includes the covenant that was made with the people as a whole (at Mount Sinai and on the Plains of Moab). Rabbi Soloveitchik cites Rashi on the verse, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your G-d: the Lord your G-d chose you ... to be his treasured people” (Deut. 14:2), in order to help us understand the distinction between the two types of covenant:

“For you are a people consecrated” – your own sanctity derives from your ancestors; and what is more, “the Lord ... chose you.”

According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rashi was referring here to two sorts of sanctity: that which comes to us from our forefathers, namely the sanctity of the nation, and the sanctity that attaches to each person as an individual.

What is the central difference between these two types of sanctity, for which we have a covenant that was established two-fold? In contrast to the sanctity of the individual, which is dependent on our deeds, the sanctity that comes to us from our forefathers is inalienable. In other words, the covenant with the people – a covenant based on the sanctity of our forefathers – cannot be broken by sinning.[5] This also provides the connection with the Day of Atonement, which calls for repentance as a central demand. For repentance in terms of the covenant made with the people as whole is principally the desire to be included as part of the community, to identify with the entire assembly of the Jewish people. The public community, the entire assembly of the Jewish people, is assured atonement. Thus Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the almost aggressive tone of the prayer leader’s repetition of selihot, the penitential prayers, in which the sheliah tzibbur not only requests but actually demands atonement, by virtue of his being sheliah tzibbur, the delegated representative of the community: “Remember what You swore to them,” “grant us as You promised us,” “make our sins vanish as the clouds,” etc.

This, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, is also the origin of the seemingly surprising practice in many congregations of singing the confession, “ashamnu, bagadnu,” in a festive tune during the repetition of the prayers. Is this a fitting place for public song? It is in the song and melody that we lend expression to the assurance that the public community will be found clean of sin. The individual, on the other hand, who also lays his penitential prayers before the Holy One, blessed be He, at the end of his silent prayer cannot sing; rather, he sobs and sighs. He is in awe because of his sins, lest he not deserve atonement; and he surely does not demand but only submissively requests before his confession: “do not turn a deaf ear to our petitions.”

Thus, the public contributes a unique component to the endeavor for repentance – the assuredness of atonement. The act of becoming one with the public community gives the individual a part in the atonement that is promised to the community. This is the first reason for our sense of elation on the Day of Atonement.

2. The second reason has to do with our “communion” with G-d. Not every day do we meet with our Lord. On the Day of Atonement the chances of “communing with Him” are greater. Why? Because “the Lord is truly G-d” (Jer. 10:10). “The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is Truth” (Shabbat 55a), and this is the day on which judgment is sealed. According to Rabbi Carlebach, the voice of truth penetrates the human consciousness with greater force on Rosh ha-Shanah: this is the sound of the shofar. The unadorned tones of the shofar, a natural non-contrived instrument, for us express Truth. This finds expression in the halakhah concerning the shofar, especially in the rules about what makes a shofar unfit for use: anything that makes its sound artificial prohibits its use. If “it is muted unnaturally, it is not fit,” if it is gold plated from within, or even from without “and its sound has changed from what it was previously, it is unfit.” At the same time, “any sound coming from the shofar is valid,”[6] provided it be its true sound.

We are called to respond to the shofar’s summons to Truth, which we do in the confession – viddui. For Maimonides, the viddui is the epitome of repentance.[7] One of Rav Kook’s remarks is very apt here: “The sense of Truth is the foundation of repentance.”[8] The connection between truth and repentance, between truth and confession, is clear. When a person confesses, if his confession is sincere, by the act of confessing he answers to the demand of Truth. He confesses of his own free will, without external pressure, and thus expresses his fundamental recognition of the judicial authority above him. Thus facing the “King and Judge” is what it means to submit to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Acknowledging sin enables a person to transcend himself and join something more elevated. True, he suffers torment in the painful act of facing his sins, his smallness, his failures; but the very fact of being able to see himself with all his shortcomings lets him partake in the vantage-point of the Lord, bringing him closer to Him, for the seal of the Lord is Truth. This, according to Rav Kook, is “the light of freedom in repentance,”[9] for “the extent of freedom is commensurate with the degree of repentance.”[10] This great freedom, which brings a person closer to his Creator, for a fleeting moment being totally disinterested and seeing oneself objectively -- this is what a person is called upon to realize on the Day of Atonement.

This paradox, that closeness to G-d is actually contingent on perceiving the human being as humbled to the ground, finds clearest expression in the Torah reading during the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement. Precisely as the day is approaching its climax, at this propitious hour, we read the passages on forbidden marriages. Precisely then, after an entire day of standing in prayer, without food or drink – just like the ministering angels – a person is asked to look into the depths of the wildest and most unrestrained desires dwelling within him, for it is known that “there is no guardian for sexual offenses” en apitropos la-arayot meaning that everyone is susceptible to them.[11] How sordid can a person become? To what depths can he fall? “Your father’s nakedness, that is the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover... Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman ... Do not have carnal relations with any beast and defile yourself thereby” (Lev. 18). Can there be anything more base than this?

Thus the general principle is that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. What could be finer than “the delicate savor of a prostrated spirit?”[12] Precisely by comprehending the depths of sin, a person attains elevation of spirit on the Day of Atonement, since the very fact of being able to view oneself thus attests to the divine spark in a person. This is the communion with G-d of which Rabbi Carlebach speaks.

Confession has another wondrous quality: it alleviates the spirit. At long last one feels a sense of release, one can stop putting on pretenses. A person’s life in this world is so marked by pretense that at times one puts on pretenses not only to the outside world, in public, but also to oneself, in the innermost places. Sometimes a person takes this false charade[13] so seriously that he himself begins to believe it. In any event, there are precious few moments in which a person is truly “himself,’ and one of these moments is the Day of Atonement. It unburdens us: one can take off one’s mask, relax the strained muscles of one’s face. Thus Sa’adiah Gaon wrote about the contrast between truth and falsehood:

Truth is putting something the way it is, according to its state, and falsehood is putting something not according to its state; and when one’s senses encounter it and find it a certain way, and the soul speaks to it another way, the two things conflict in the soul and are two opposites, so that alienation is felt in this disparity.[14]

Confessing the truth releases the soul from alienation.

May it be G-d’s will that through these three aspects of the holy day – being part of the community, communing with G-d, and alleviating the soul – we attain elevation of spirit on the Day of Atonement, and merit forgiveness and atonement that will radiate beneficence throughout the rest of the year.

[1] The last Chief Rabbi of Hamburg during the Holocaust. Rabbi Carlebach was killed in a concentration camp near Riga, along with his wife and three daughters.
[2] “Vom Sinn unserer Festgottesdienste,” in Israelitisches Familienblatt 37 (1934), pp. 9-10.
[3] An impressive description of the special sanctity surrounding the Day of Atonement can be found in the work of one of the major Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century. According to the testimony of Franz Rosenzweig, one of the greatest people to return to Judaism in modern times, the elation of spirit felt on the Day of Atonement is what brought about this major turning point in his life.
[4] J.B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, Jerusalem 1980, “The Individual and the Community”, p. 107-138, “Thou Shouldst Enter the Covenant of the Lord”, pp. 203-246.
[5] Nevertheless, there ar certain sins, according to the Rav, which deny the individual a share in the collective atonement. These are sins whose punishment is karet, being cut off from the community.
[6] Shulkhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 586:6,7,16.
[7] Laws of Repentance 1,1. On the standing of confession in Rambam’s thought, see Soloveitchik, ibid., “The Power of Confession”, pp. 75-106.
[8] Orot Ha-Teshuva, 15,1.
[9] Ibid., 5.5.
[10] Ibid., 7.
[11] Ketubbot 13b.
[12] Orot ha-Teshuvah 7.1.
[13] Yalkut Shimoni on I Samuel, note 139; Tanhuma on Parshat Emor, 2.
[14] Emunot ve-Deot 3.2.