Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
This year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on Shabbat so we suspend the regular order and read the Torah portion for this holiest day of the year. The portion begins with a mention of the death of Aaron’s sons, which we read about in Leviticus 10. It then proceeds to detail the worship service in the Temple on the Day of Atonement.
“The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died. And the LORD said to Moses, Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die.” (Leviticus 16:1-2) In referring to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, as a result of an inappropriate approach to the holiest section of the Tabernacle, G-d reminds Moses and Aaron that the approach to the holy of holies is limited and sacred. He makes it very clear that Aaron may only approach this holiest place once a year. And that time of year is the tenth day of the 7th month, the Day of Atonement.
“And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.” (16:29-31)
The Day of Atonement is, indeed, the holiest day of the year. The core observance of that day is encapsulated in the above verses. “You shall afflict yourselves” is interpreted as referring to the abstention from all food and drink, the abstention from sexual activity, the abstention from bathing and the abstention from wearing leather shoes. The latter restriction reflects a sense of equality on this day with the members of the animal kingdom – it is not a day when we reign above the animals and wear shoes made from their hides.
We are commanded to refrain from all work, like the Sabbath. And, in fact, this day is also referred to as a “Shabbat Shabbaton “ a Sabbath of Sabbaths, or as translated above, as a Sabbath of solemn rest.
The most important element of the holiday, however, is the atonement connected with it. “You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.” And again at the end of the section: “And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” (verse 34)
Key elements regarding the Day of Atonement are also included in Leviticus 23. But chapter 23 lists all of the feasts of the Lord and the Day of Atonement is mentioned in that context. Whereas the section in chapter 16 focuses on the Temple sacrifices and worship service of that day, chapter 23 is brief and discusses the requirement of affliction, the refrain from work and the concept of atonement.
Chapter 23 also discusses the severe punishment for those who disregard this particular feast: “For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people.” (verses 29-30)
Since the Temple was destroyed and the special once-a-year entrance of the high priest into the Holy of Holies was no longer a part of the Day of Atonement service, prayers in the synagogue have taken the place of what was performed in the Temple thousands of years ago. But, as a remembrance of that special solemn service, our prayers include two different detailed mentions of the service. We read this same Torah portion from Leviticus 16 and we also read a longer, much more detailed description of the service, as composed a short time after the Temple was destroyed. The Mishna (compiled in the second century) first recorded the actual service, in minute detail, in Tractate Yoma, the volume of the Mishna dedicated in its entirety to the Day of Atonement. Later on, various poetic pieces were composed based on the Mishna and that were included in the prayer service. It took hundreds of years, though, before a particular text was set for inclusion in the prayer service. The Talmud records that for the first centuries after the Temple was destroyed, the leader of the service would recite the text of the Mishna and people would debate whether each detail was indeed recorded properly.
With time, there was no longer a current memory of the way things were done in the Temple, but through the prayer service, it has been kept alive in our hearts and imagination. “He would stand in fear before Almighty G-d and recite upon it (the sacrificial bull) words of confession … And this is what he would say: Please oh G-d, I have sinned . . Please oh G-d, Grant atonement for the sins . . which I have sinned … as it is written in the Torah of Moses your servant, from the mouth of Your Honor, ‘For on that day will He forgive you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.’” (from the Yom Kippur service, quoting Leviticus 16:30) It is written with such passion and with such drama, and the congregation reads parts of it aloud, so that we are able to feel, to some small extent, the incredible spiritual uplift of that very special day.
Shabbat Shalom from Samaria,
Director, Israel Office