Yom Kippur: A Joyous Fast?

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, there were no happier days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), for on them the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments which were borrowed in order not to shame the one who had none. All the garments required immersion. And the daughters of Jerusalem used to go forth to dance in the vineyards. And what did they say? – ‘Young man, lift up thine eyes and see what thou wilt select for thyself; set not thine eyes on beauty but fix thine eyes on family; for Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Eternal she shall be praised; and it says further, Give to her the fruit of her hands and let her deeds praise her in the gates; and it says moreover, Go forth, ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him in the day of his espousals and in the day of the gladness of his heart.’[1]

This Mishnah describes a beautiful celebration and it is used when describing the 15th of Av, known as the Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day.  However, this Mishnah also refers to Yom Kippur as being a day on which these joyous practices occurred.  How could Yom Kippur, which many Jews view as the most solemn day of the year, be a day of dancing, sexuality and joy?  Commentators on the Mishnah say that the celebrations occurred “directly after Yom Kippur” but that is not what the Mishnah says. Rabbi Robert Eisen, my Senior Rabbi when I was in Tucson, used to refer to today, Yom Kippurim, as the day which is like (“k”) Purim.

How we view Yom Kippur will directly influence how we treat the next 25 hours.  Should they be moments of happiness, as our Mishnah suggests, or moments of somberness, as many of us have learned to be proper for a day like this.  From our tradition, one can argue both for treating Yom Kippur as a joyous day and for viewing it as a serious day. You will have to decide how you see fit to observe it.

Why would Yom Kippur be viewed as joyous? First of all, we get to atone for our sins. While we have the famous statement of U’netaneh Tokef that “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” that our fate depends on what God determines on this very day, the assumption is that we will be forgiven and able to rejoice. As Cantor Black chanted earlier this evening, כי  היום הזה יכפר עליכם מכל חטאתיכם לפני ה תטהרו “This day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins-you shall be pure before God.”[2] While we are sad for what we have done wrong we are looking forward to new opportunities of growth and development and to a new year filled with blessing.

Yom Kippur is also joyous for a number of other reasons. It is the day on which, according to our tradition, the second set of tablets were given at Sinai. The 10 commandments and our covenant with God were reaffirmed on Yom Kippur. We should therefore be joyous in this revelation of Torah.

In addition, on Yom Kippur we reach a state of purification. We are like angels, abstaining from daily human needs, and being garbed in white clothes. In other words, we transcend our human bodies in our attempt to arise towards divinity. Unlike other religions, we do not have permanent stains on our records, but rather, if we take steps to ask for forgiveness and reform our actions, we are able to begin anew with a clean heart and conscience.

We also see Yom Kippur’s unique nature amongst fast days in that it can occur on Shabbat. This is in contrast to all the other fast days, which are days of mourning and sadness and may not be observed on Shabbat, instead being pushed back to Sunday. Rabbi Robert Eisen referred to Yom Kippur as a “white fast,” as it is a day of purity on which we are forgiven from our sins, in contrast to Tisha B’Av, a “black fast” in which remember the tragedies which befell our people.

Perhaps most importantly, on Yom Kippur more than any other day on the Jewish calendar, we come together as a community, joining our people in synagogue. We thus show the unity of the Jewish people and that in addition to all being responsible for one another, we all come together to praise God. In doing so we take responsibility for one another’s actions, proclaiming “ashamnu, bagadnu,” that we are responsible for the wrongdoings of all in our community. At the same time, we also rejoice together in being blessed to reach another year and in seeing friends and family, some of whom we might not have seen since last High Holy Days.

This is all well and good, but it’s not the feeling I experienced from Yom Kippur in my youth. The somber nature of the prayers, the incessant asking for forgiveness and the beating of one’s chest don’t appear to correspond to a joyous outlook.

Furthermore, the Bible has a different perspective. Numbers[3] states that on Yom Kippur ועיניתם את נפשותיכם, “and you shall afflict your souls.” Furthermore, Leviticus[4] utilizes the same verb, stating “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice affliction/self-denial.” The rabbis say self-denial refers to fasting. They also established strict prohibitions to be followed on Yom Kippur: that we are to refrain from sexual relations, food and drink, anointing our bodies with oil, bathing or wearing leather shoes.[5] Why would these prohibitions on pleasure be issued if this day were not supposed to be somber?

In addition, there’s an element of urgency, of pleading, on Yom Kippur.  The majority of each Amidah is comprised of Selichot, of penitential prayers in which we both admit guilt and beg God to forgive us. This becomes all the more evident in the Neilah service at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, where we plead to God פתח לנו שער “KEEP THE GATES OPEN!” and where we change the word “Kotveinu” (written) to “Hotmeinu” (sealed) when pleading to God about what we want our fate to be.

Even if one treats Yom Kippur as a joyous day, a day of “at one ment” in which we most closely connect with our God, one cannot dispute that there are sad elements as part of the day. We remember the High Priest proclaiming the name of God at the Holy of Holies in the Temple, yet at the same time reminisce over its destruction. We recite the  אלה אזרכה, the Martyrology Service, shuddering as we remember the destruction of European Jewry through the massacre of one-third of our people in the Holocaust. We also have Yizkor, sadly remembering our loved ones who while still with us, are not physically present.

How do we reconcile this? Some treat the first part of Yom Kippur as sadness for the wrongs we have done but view the second part as joy for being forgiven from those wrongs. Others feel the full day is about introspection, which leads to thinking both about serious thoughts and about our goals for the coming year.  The most interesting insight I have seen on the topic is from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat in Israel. Rabbi Riskin says we need to look at the root ayin-nun-yud. This root means afflict in the Yom Kippur biblical verses and that is the common meaning. However, in Numbers[6] it means “to sing out,” עלי באר ענו לה, raise your voice to the well, sing to it! Perhaps we are singing out at being given a second chance. Ayin-nun-yud also has a third possible meaning, “laanot/to respond”. Exodus[7] makes reference to this when it says “It is not the sound of them that respond (ענה) in victory, neither is it the sound of them that respond in defeat but it is (simply) the sound of them that respond that I hear.” Also Deuteronomy states, וענית ואמרת,[8] our ancestors responding to the priest after giving him their first fruits. A response can be either good or bad depending on the context; similarly, Yom Kippur can either be a responded to with joy or with somberness.

There’s one other definition of the verb ayin-nun-yud that I relearned yesterday when looking at my rabbinic list-serve. In the Talmud[9] there is a story of Rabban Gamliel, the President (נשיא) of the Sanhedrin (rabbinical court), having a disagreement with Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabban Gamliel humiliates Rabbi Yehoshua by making him stand during the entire court proceedings until the rabbis yelled out “STOP” and deposed him. With another in his place, Rabban Gamliel realized the severity of his error and went to apologize to Rabbi Yehoshua. He said before him  נעניתי לך מחול לי, “I apologize to you. Forgive me.” Eventually he is forgiven by Rabbi Yehoshua.

This is the core meaning of what Yom Kippur is all about. We need to go through a process of עיניתם את נפשותיכם, of afflicting our souls. We do this not only on Yom Kippur but also on the days leading up to it, through the pangs of our conscience, the sleepless nights, humbling ourselves by going to those around us and asking for forgiveness, by working hard at changing ourselves for the better, setting up success for us in the new year. At the end of the day, however, if we have done the serious work leading up to the holiday, we rejoice at being given the opportunity to start anew, with a clean slate. Often the hardest person to receive forgiveness from is not a friend or a family member, but one’s self. We are our own worse critics. That is another purpose of ענוי, of self-affliction. As we humble ourselves and take steps towards self-improvement, we also need to look into the mirror tonight before we go to bed and say “I forgive myself for any mistakes I’ve made during the past year, and I’m letting go of them now. I am freeing myself of any guilt I’ve felt over what I think I should have done, and I’m starting over now.” That is the joy that comes from Yom Kippur-the ability to approach things freshly in the year ahead, to let go of past pain and start the year with only joy.

Depending on how we interpret the verb anah, we can emphasize the affliction of Yom Kippur or sing out in joy.  There is a time and a place for each of these.  I do not envision changing anyone’s long thought out and well-reasoned view on what Yom Kippur is about, only to provide a possible alternative to those of us who find it difficult to spend the entire 25 hour period in somberness.  There are strong Scriptural, liturgical and contemporary sources for both outlooks and because of this I cannot say that Yom Kippur is all about seriousness or all about joy.  All we can do is try to demonstrate some serious introspection during the day while at the same time attempting to rejoice where it is appropriate.  This tension in my opinion enriches the holiday of Yom Kippur rather than confusing it, as it enables us to express different sets of emotions at different times on this important day.  That is what being human is all about and Yom Kippur if anything is about coming together as a community to acknowledge our humanity.  Each of us has sinned yet each of us has the opportunity to overcome past mistakes, to change ourselves for the better. May the Jericho Jewish Center community come together in strong, supportive prayer over the course of this 25 hour period, and may we all merit a good year to come. From Karina and me, l’shana tova tikaveivu v’tehateimu-may we each be sealed into the Book of Life for the coming year.

[1] Mishnah Taanit Chapter 4 Mishnah 8

[2] Leviticus Chapter 16 Verse 30

[3] Chapter 29 Verse 7

[4] Chapter 16 Verse 29

[5] Mishnah Yoma Chapter 8 Verse 1

[6] Chapter 21 Verse 7

[7] Chapter 32 Verse 17-18

[8] Chapter 26 Verse 15

[9] Berachot 28a

One thought on “Yom Kippur: A Joyous Fast?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s