Motzei Yom Kippur: Our first sin

Immediately upon the conclusion of the pageantry at the end of the Neila prayer that closes Yom Kippur, even before we break our fast, we pray the regular evening service. In it we recite the silent Amida just as we do three times each weekday. As always we include the sixth blessing in which we request God‘s forgiveness for our sins: Forgive us our Father, for we have sinned, pardon us our King, for we have transgressed. People often wonder just what it is that we are asking forgiveness for. We have just spent over 25 hours in almost continuous prayer, fasting and self-affliction. Many of us pray with more intention and intensity on Yom Kippur than on any other day of the year. In the few minutes since the fast has ended what have we been doing – praying even more! We wouldn’t even have had time to sin if we had wanted to, which of course we don’t. So why should we need forgiveness?

The usual answer is that in our hurry to break the fast we may have prayed the evening prayer too quickly, with insufficient concentration. This may indeed be true, but could there be another answer?

The first Gerer Rebbe, the “Chidushei HaRim”, gives an amazing explanation, one with far-reaching consequences for our observance of Yom Kippur and our overall approach to Divine service:

Why do we recite “forgive us our Father, for we have sinned” immediately after Yom Kippur? Behold we have received atonement for all of our sins on Yom Kippur, and we are still in the synagogue – when did we have a chance to sin? But the truth is that we really need to believe that on Yom Kippur we have been forgiven. If (God forbid) one has even the slightest doubt about this – this in itself is a sin! And for this we pray that God should forgive us, for perhaps…we don’t really have perfect faith that Yom Kippur atones for our sins. (Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Erev Yom Kippur 12)

The Rebbe’s message is both startling and liberating. We must internalize the simple truth that we are God’s children and that He loves us! Once a year this love is expressed through the process of total atonement for all that we have done in the previous year. The Hebrew word for atonement – kapara – is related to the word for covering. HaShem cannot bear to see us in our sinful state and He covers everything up on Yom Kippur so that it is no longer part of us. The hard part is for us to really have faith – in ourselves. We need faith that we are capable of change and that God loves us. We must have faith that He really does want to help us to do teshuva and turn over a new leaf. When we do finally reach perfect faith on this point we will be empowered to leave our past failings behind and move more happily and optimistically into a brighter future. May we merit remembering this teaching throughout our prayers on Yom Kippur.

Shabbat Shalom. Gmar Chatima Tova.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem directs the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. He is the author of 'Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals'. Many of his articles can be accessed at
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