of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Studies in Jewish religious ideology in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism
Originally published September 27th and 28th 1998 / Tishri 7th and 8th 5758 [Yom Kippur]

Bet Midrash Virtuali


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Eating, drinking, washing, anointing, wearing shoes and sexual intercourse are forbidden on the Day of Atonement. A king and a bride may wash their faces and the newly delivered mother may wear shoes - according to Rabbi Eli'ezer; but the rest of the sages forbid [these leniencies].


The name of the Tractate that deals with Yom Kippur is 'Yoma', which is Aramaic for 'the day' - that one day of the year that is more sacred than any other.

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is commanded in the Torah [Leviticus 23:27] as a day on which we are to "afflict" our souls for one whole day, "from evening to evening" [verse 32]. Elsewhere [Leviticus 16:29-34] the reason why this affliction is required is explained: "For on this day he shall make atonement for you, cleansing you of all your sins" [verse 30]. The nature of this "affliction of the soul" is not defined by the Torah, but there is plenty of corroborative evidence that from earliest times this affliction was understood as requiring a general fast. In the Haftarah that is read after the Reading of the Torah on Yom Kippur morning, the prophet [Isaiah 58:3] puts into the mouth of the people their complaint against God: "We have fasted but You have not noticed it, we have afflicted our souls but You remain unaware". The parallelism here between 'fasting' and 'afflicting the soul' cannot just be fortuitous.

According to most halakhic authorities, it is only the fasting that is required by the Torah; the rest of the 'innuyim' ['afflictions'] mentioned in our mishnah are of rabbinic origin, supported midrashically from the text of the Torah. The Gemara [Yoma 74b] declines to recognize the possibility that "affliction" can be subjectively defined - for example, "sitting in the sun [on a hot day] or in the shade [on a cold day] and thus suffering". The midrashic support for these five "afflictions" is derived [Yoma 76a] from the fact that the requirement to afflict the soul is mentioned five times in the Torah: Leviticus 16:29, 16:31, 23:27, 23:32 and Numbers 29:7. Some of the afflictions - those additional to the requirement to fast - can be seen to be ancient practice from incidental cases in Scripture. After David had sinned with Bat-Sheva he was told that the son conceived in that illicit union would die. In order to placate God in the hope that the child would be spared, David fasted [2Samuel 12:16]; but when the child died after all we read that David "washed and anointed himself" [verse 20]. Obviously, during the time he was fasting, he had not washed and anointed himself.

In ancient times smearing the body with oil was considered refreshing and a prior requisite to appearing in good society. The wearing of shoes was considered a sign of status: only children and the completely indigent went barefoot. If one had shoes one had "made it". To this day, a special Berakhah is recited every morning to acknowledge the boon of being able to wear shoes: "she-asah li kol tzorki", praises God for having "supplied my every need", which refers to the wearing of shoes, according to the Gemara [Berakhot 60b].

The Gemara notes [Yoma 77b] that the washing that is prohibited is washing for pleasure; if the washing is in order to remove encrusted dirt it is permitted. It also notes [Yoma 78b] that these 'innuyim' do not apply to children. However another mishnah [Yoma 8:4] circumscribes this leniency. Children should be educated in the proper observance of the day a year or two ahead of their attaining their majority. These regulations were codified by the Poskim [decisors] of the middle ages as indicating that normal children should be encouraged to observe these afflictions for a few hours at least from the age of nine (or ten, in the case of a sickly child). This can most easily be done by postponing their meals to a later hour than is usual. Once they reach the age of eleven they should complete the fast, as part of their education towards religious observance. However once a girl reaches the age of twelve and a boy reaches the age of thirteen it is the Torah which requires them to observe the fast and the other 'innuyim'. [See, for example, Shulĥan Arukh, Oraĥ Ĥayyim 616:2]

Our mishnah teaches that "a king and a bride may wash their faces and the newly delivered mother may wear shoes - "according to Rabbi Eli'ezer, but the rest of the sages forbid". The reason for the leniencies permitted by Rabbi Eli'ezer [ben-Hyrkanos] is as follows: a king, as we have already learned in our study of the second chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, may not appear in public disheveled or otherwise in disarray. The bride referred to here is the newly-married woman who must not give her husband any reason to find her unappealing [Yoma 88b]. The newly-delivered mother is permitted to wear shoes so that she will not run the risk of catching cold. (Newly delivered mothers were considered to be in a critical condition.) The great sage of Pumbedita, Shemu'el, points out that really anyone who would be courting danger by going barefoot is in the same status as the "Ĥayyah" [newly-delivered mother]. Thus, someone whose feet would become filthy by walking barefoot through the public thoroughfare, is also excused this prohibition until reaching their destination. This mishnah is one of the comparatively few instances of where the Amora'im [sages of the Talmud] fixed the halakhah in accord with the view of the individual rather than the view of the majority; thus the halakhah in this case is according to the view of Rabbi Eli'ezer, and not the view of the sages.


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Anyone who says "I shall sin and then repent, I shall sin and then repent" will never reach the stage of repentance. [For one who says] "I shall sin and [the incidence of] Yom Kippur will atone [for my sin] Yom Kippur never atones. Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for transgressions between a person and his fellow man Yom Kippur is not effective unless he has appeased the injured party. Thus runs a midrash coined by Rabbi El'azar ben-Azaryah: From all your sins before God shall you be cleansed [Leviticus 16:30] - Yom Kippur atones for transgressions committed against God, but does not atone for transgressions committed against one's fellow man unless one has appeased one's fellow man...


The five 'afflictions' that we mentioned in yesterday's shiur are not ends in themselves, but a means to an end. That end is, of course, the ability to achieve atonement. On the one hand the sanctity of the day itself is sufficient to ensure atonement, provided that the individual has reached a stage of sincere repentance. That is to say, that once one has achieved sincere repentance, no further action or ceremony is necessary: the very incidence of the Day of Atonement itself will ensure atonement for sins sincerely repented. There is no need for 'washing' them away or receiving absolution in any other shape or form: the sanctity of the day itself effects atonement for the sincerely repentant. This being the case, it is obvious that someone who looks upon the Day of Atonement as some kind of magic charm, or someone who looks upon the act of repentance as a mere formality, this kind of person has completely missed the point and Yom Kippur cannot be effective for them.

If someone believes in their innermost soul that repentance is some kind of outward action that achieves automatic absolution, they have so completely missed the essence of repentance that Yom Kippur can never be effective for them. This is the reason why repentance, in order to be true repentance, must be preceded by what we call in Hebrew 'Ĥeshbon Nefesh'. This may, perhaps, be best translated as 'critical self examination'. A review of one's behaviour in the various compartments into which we can conveniently divide our lives, if done with honest conviction, will almost certainly reveal aspects of our behaviour that require attention, improvement, mending. This is the first stage towards repentance. The ability to look at ourselves critically, as others see us, is essential as a prior stage towards putting ourselves to rights. One of the hardest things for any human being to do is to admit, sincerely and unreservedly, that "I have done wrong; I should not have done that..." And once this state has been achieved it will inevitably bring in its wake the kind of mental anguish that our conscience always evokes when we know that we have done wrong. The only way to ease our conscience is to find some way of putting things to right. The person whose view of repentance is that it is a formal admission that need not necessarily be accompanied by sincere and gnawing regret - such a person will never achieve true repentance, as our mishnah states. A corollary of this is that Yom Kippur can never effect atonement for them, since the sanctity of the day can only effect atonement for the person who is already truly repentant. If Yom Kippur is looked upon as some kind of magic charm whose incantation automatically brings about the desired result - for such a person "Yom Kippur never atones", as our mishnah states.

I suppose that inevitably one will ask how one can know whether one has reached true repentance. The Gemara [Yoma 86b] also asks this question, and the answer given is in no way philosophical speculation, but eminently practical.

What is a truly repentant person like? Rav Yehudah says, that it is when, for instance, the opportunity for committing the transgression presents itself once or twice [after repentance] and one is not tempted. Rav Yehudah even gave an example: the same woman, the same situation, the same place.

Even though Rav Yehudah is obviously speaking of one specific kind of transgression, - discussed almost ad nauseam of late in the information media - his meaning is clear. There are two aspects to true repentance: the inner feeling that one has set oneself to rights and the outer assurance that we have conquered the temptation to do it again.

The Gemara [Yoma 87a] asks an obvious question: why does our mishnah repeat itself? "I shall sin and then repent, I shall sin and then repent". It sees this as teaching a profound truth:-

Rav Huna reports Rav as having said that 'when a person commits a sin and then does it again, it becomes permitted to him'. Could he have meant literally that the sin becomes permitted?! Obviously, what he meant was that that person relates to the act as if it were permitted.

Herein lies the dilemma of our generation. We have permitted ourselves so many actions that our ancestors would never have dreamed of doing for fear of sin. And yet, for us, they have ceased to bear the mark of sin, they have become permitted. This is probably connected with the weakening in our comprehension of what sociologists call "the God idea". If the consciousness of a Commander is weakened, inevitably there is a weakening of respect for the command. Well known is the quip that for our generation the Ten Commandments have become the Ten Suggestions. Possibly we might have to add that for many of our generation the 613 Mitzvot [precepts, commandments] have become the 613 customs and traditions. Our rabbis recognize two traits in the religiously minded person: "Yir'at Shamayim ve-Yir'at Ĥet" - being in awe of Heaven and being in awe of sin. For our own well-being, we should note that we can get along quite well without fear of Heaven; what would be the ultimate cause of the moral collapse of our religion would be the loss of the fear of sin. We must make every attempt to restore to ourselves this awareness that not everything we want to do is permitted, and not everything that is forbidden may be 'made permitted' for our convenience. (My comment is on the ethical plane, not the halakhic plane: it is obvious that for Conservative Judaism Halakhah can and does change with altering circumstances and improved understanding. I am not referring to this aspect of our philosophy at all.) The prophet Jeremiah [16:11] says, "They have forgotten Me and not kept My Torah". On this the midrash quotes Rabbi Ĥiyya bar-Abba: "If only they had indeed forgotten Me - but kept My Torah" [Eikhah Rabba, Hakdamah 2]. It would be most encouraging if this Yom Kippur as many Conservative Jews as possible could discover or rediscover the trait of "Yir'at Ĥet", being sin-fearing. Fear Of Heaven will take care of itself.


Michael Simon writes:

I would like to know what the difference is between yir'at shamayim and yir'at ĥet. Is the difference theoretical or are there practical distinctions?

I respond:

Yir'at Shamayim is the character trait which makes a person do the right thing because of the love and respect that they bear towards God. Yir'at Ĥet is the character trait which makes a person refrain from doing the wrong thing because of their dislike of the sin.

I realize that this interpretation of mine is novel, but I hope that it may contain the kernel of motivation for the perplexed of our age. For the sages there was no practical difference between the two.

I wish everyone well over the fast and Gemar Ĥatimah Tovah.