Yoseif Bloch


You’d think the week leading up to Yom Kippur would be the time for Jews to be less judgemental, what with us all being Judged.

However, the raging topic on Frumbook, i.e., religiously observant social media, is Rabbi Aaron Potek of GatherDC’s Alternative Yom Kippur service at Sauf Haus Bier Hall & Garten. Many were so shocked they let go of the chickens they were swinging over their heads! (BTW if you don’t spread the entrails on the roof like the Rema says [OH 605:1], aren’t you basically a goy anyway?)

Look, Rabbi Aaron Potek isn’t trying to poach any of your congregants. No one who was headed to your seven-hour morning service is skipping out to Dupont Circle at 11 A.M. This is specifically designed for people who are intimidated by the synagogue setting, a concept which is nothing new in Israel, where many community rec centers hold services at the beginning of Yom Kippur for Kol Nidrei and its conclusion for Ne’ila. Yes, the same place folks were doing yoga and meditation just a few hours earlier. (Sauf Haus has those too.)

But they’re making Yom Kippur into a frat-house party, you say: fasting is the most important part! Halakhically, that’s true. And the fasting of all adults is equal. So I hope you give as much respect to a 12-year-old girl fasting as some rosh yeshiva with a long, flowing white beard. And you always stress that is far better for a husband and father to never set foot in a synagogue on this day if that’s what his wife needs to bear fasting in her pregnant, postpartum or nursing state? Or an elderly parent to do the same? And if someone’s health is genuinely in danger and they MUST eat halakhically, do you tell them they’re not really keeping Yom Kippur?

The fact is, if you bother to read past the headline, you’ll see that there’s no food or drink served. Attendees will not be accosted by guards pawing through their bags, but the nourishment offered is purely spiritual in nature.

Ah, but the location! What sort of hipster nudnick of a “rabbi” would be caught in such an inappropriate place on Yom Kippur, of all days?!

Funny you should mention that:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments–borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose…(Mishna, Ta’anit 4:8)

Wow, that Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel must have been some upstart iconoclast, Notorious RSBG, right? Actually, he was as establishment as you can get, the Nasi (Prince), direct descendant of Hillel and father of Rabbi Judah the Prince, author of the Mishna. He knows the tradition that Yom Kippur was the day Israel finally achieved atonement for the hedonistic dancing around the Golden Calf. He concludes that it’s a perfect day for doing so, but in holiness and purity.

As a child, he witnessed the violent repression of the final of three Jewish revolts in less than a century. His generation was the first to realize that unlike the First Temple, which was rebuilt after only seventy years, the Second Temple would lie in ruins far longer. He would not see a High Priest perform the Yom Kippur service. Nevertheless, he finds the joy and vitality. To put it bluntly, he makes Yom Kippur sexy again. In the vineyards.

Yes, for many of us, Yom Kippur is shaped by liturgy written a millennium after RSBG, sung to tunes only a few centuries, or even decades, old. Is that “traditional”? It certainly may be for you. But every tradition starts with a shattering of norms. And this one has quite a pedigree.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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