Rav Shlomo Riskin: The Dual Nature of Yom Kippur

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Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the great white fast of the Jewish Year. And since there are also additional prohibitions on that day – no sexual relations, no anointing the body with oils, no bathing and no wearing of leather shoes– one might assume that Yom Kippur is basically a day of awe and anxiety, of despair and dread – certainly not a day of joy and celebration.

However, the last Mishna of the Tractate Ta’anit declares that “there were no more joyous days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the Fifteenth Day of Av.” Furthermore, Yom Kippur, like all the other festivals of the Jewish calendar, has the power to cut short and even entirely cancel the mourning period of a mourner. In the words of the Talmud: ” The rejoicing of the nation [since the Bible enjoins all of Israel “to rejoice on the Festival”] pushes aside the mourning of the individual [B.T. Moed Katan, third chapter]. And the fact that Yom Kippur is included together with all the usual festivals which cancel mourning is further affirmation that the deprivations of Yom Kippur are only skin-deep – and that somehow Yom Kippur must be seen as a day of joy.

Moreover, the Sabbath can never “play host” to a day of national sadness. Hence, if Tisha B’Av (the Ninth Day of Av, memorial of the destruction of both Temples and a day marked by the exact same prohibitions as Yom Kippur) calendrically falls out on the Sabbath, the observance of the fast and other restrictions are delayed to the following day. However, as this year testifies, Yom Kippur can and does fall out on Shabbat – and the Day of Atonement is not seen by our Sages as being antithetical in any way to the usual Sabbath joy and celebration !

What we’ve been saying up to now certainly sounds plausible, except for the simple fact that the Torah’s references to Yom Kippur usually appear in a much darker light: “It [Yom Kippur] shall be unto you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict [v’initem] your souls…” [Lev. 23:32] We find the same word, ‘v’initem’ used in Bamidbar: “And on the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall afflict [v’initem] your souls…” [Num. 29:7]

How are we to reconcile these two dimensions of Yom Kippur? On the one hand, it’s clear that Yom Kippur is a day of celebration and joy – after all, the Torah teaches that “this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins (Lev. 16:30)” – but the notion of “afflicting the soul” is hardly compatible with a festival.

To explore this issue, we should first take a closer look at the word ‘v’initem’–usually translated as “you shall afflict”. In fact, the three letter root is anah (ayin, nun, heh) has two distinct meanings, virtually the opposite of each other. Early in Exodus, we read how the Egyptian taskmasters afflicted (same root) the Israelites [Ex. 1:11-12], and indeed the Hebrew word ‘oni’ means poverty.

However, several Biblical verses earlier in Parashat Ki Tavo, the same root word has nothing at all to do with affliction. We read about the commandment to bring the first fruits: “And you shall sing out [v’anitah] and say before the Lord your G d…” [Deut. 26:5] which our Sages interpret means to chant with a tune of cantillation. And it is apparently on this basis that our Sages differ as to the translation – and therefore the major characteristic – of the Passover matzah, Biblically referred to as lehem oni: there are those who take the words “bread of affliction”, and there are others who insist that it is the “bread over which many words are sung”.

A striking Biblical passage remarkably points out these two contradictory meaning for the Hebrew root ani. When Moses is returning to the Israeli encampment after having received the Torah from G-d, he is walking together with his faithful disciple Joshua – who has waited for him beneath the stars during the entire forty -day period. And although G-d had apparently informed Moses of the Israelite transgression with the golden calf – “Go get down, because your nation is corrupted (Ex 32:7) ” – Joshua seems to be unaware of the egregious transgression which transpired.

The Torah records how “… Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted.” [ibid. 17]” with b’reioh the word the Torah uses to describe the noise that Joshua hears, being a kind of broken staccato (truah) sound, perhaps reminiscent of the ululating sound of Sephardi women, used both at weddings as well as at funerals. Then comes a rather cryptic verse, based upon the contradictory verb we have been discussing, ani. “It is not the sound of them that respond (anot) in victory, neither is it the sound of them that respond (anot) in defeat, but it is the noise of them that respond (anot) which I hear.” [ibid. 18]. Now, a secondary meaning of the root very ani is a response – which may be positive or negative depending on the stimulus, a cry-sob as a result of affliction (defeat) or a laugh -song as a result of celebration (victory).

Now the line between exultant joy and fearful panic can be very thin, so that the sounds of hysterical laughter and hysterical weeping are virtually inter-changeable. This contradictory emotion may be what the Israelites experienced around the golden calf. Moses is their link to G d. But Moses is no longer there. Is he still alive? The Israelites find themselves leaderless – bereft of their link to G-d – when they need their leader shepherd most, when they are alone in a strange and hostile desert. Without their philosopher – King – shepherd to provide the compass cloud by day and fire by night, they become anxious and disoriented. They can only think back to Egypt and the way the Egyptians would dance around their idolatrous calve as gods and directors. But they realize that the calf is not powerful, that it was G d who took them out of Egypt, that it was G d who proved the impotence of all other deities. Nevertheless, without Moses they have nowhere else to turn. And so they dance around the calf, and they push themselves into a frenzy of song and dance and laughter -but deep down they’re crying and weeping. It is precisely that hysterical frenzy which Joshua hears, the contradictory anot, a song-cry a laugh -sob.

Therefore in the context of Yom Kippur, the ‘v’initem et nafshotaichem’ doesn’t have to mean, ‘You shall afflict your souls.’ As we’ve been demonstrating, one possible understanding is that it’s a combination word. On the one hand it’s the Tenth Day of Repentance, and I can’t mask over the fact that I’ve looked deeply into my soul over these last few days, I’ve exposed my weaknesses and shortcomings, and that causes me to weep with anxiety and dread lest I be found wanting on the Day of Judgment. But Yom Kippur is also the Day of Atonement, when all sincere penitents are guaranteed absolution, the possibility of starting a new slate, “standing pure before the Divine”. It’s this most comforting element of Yom Kippur that allows me to rejoice during the Festival of Forgiveness.

I would even like to suggest an alternative meaning, which is entirely positive. V’initem need not mean you shall ‘afflict’ your souls; it can also be translated :’ You shall enable your souls to sing, to rejoice.’ You shall free your souls, allow your souls to be rid of all of the usual bodily needs, constraints and desires and dedicate a 25 hour period to the spirit and the Divine. Indeed, Maimonides codifies the laws of Yom Kippur as enabling our bodies to rest (lishbot) from food, drink and sex – not in the sense of prohibition but rather in the sense of re-creation and repair (Laws of Shvitat HaAsor 1,12). Within the comforting embrace of a G-d of love and forgiveness on Yom Kippur, my bodily needs becomes of almost no account as my soul takes over my personality and my person – my soul which soars, my soul which sings. On this Sabbath of Sabbaths I feel the eternity of the world of the spirit and this joy is greater than any other.