Rosh Hashanah v. Yom Kippur

Please, don’t expect an exciting super hero clash, like Batman V Superman. On second thought, scratch that idea, because that movie was actually boring and tedious. There was a lot of huffing and puffing with posturing and mean staring. Instead, I want to soberly attempt to compare these two very different holidays which we normally lump together as Yomim Noraim, Days of Awe. Just because they bookend that period called the Ten Days of Repentance doesn’t mean that they’re twins. 

In last week’s article, I quoted Rav Soloveitchik Z”L who pointed out that the Rambam appears to equate them (Chapter 2, Laws of Repentance, ‘the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’) then differentiates between them in Chapter 3 (‘from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur’). Let’s be honest, there is a lot of lumping them together in many Jews’ psyche. 

I’m going to attempt to make a clear delineation between them. The simplest difference is that massive amount of Yom Tov food we consume on Rosh Hashanah. Probably only Pesach has more holiday specific culinary customs than Rosh Hashanah. Of course, Yom Kippur, on the other hand, has the five INUYIM or ‘discomforts’, starting with fasting. 

But on the conceptual plane, what is the main distinction between these two commemorations? Let’s begin with one of the most sensitive spiritual personalities who ever lived. Reb Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Chassidut. 

He noted that the Kabbalisitic masters require that mitzva performance, Torah study and prayer must be accomplished B’DICHILA U’B’RACHAMIM, ‘with fear and compassion’. However, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained that they really meant AHAVA V’ YIR’AH, ‘love and reverence’. It’s okay for the Ba’al Shem Tov to rearrange the order. Then he pointed out, ‘Nevertheless on Rosh Hashanah there must a reversal, and YIR’AH must be greater than the AHAVA.’ Normally, love predominates, but not on YOM HA’DIN, our new year of Divine judgment. 

  Then we arrive at Yom Kippur, when according to the custom of the Vilna Gaon one should study the tenth chapter of the Rambam’s Laws of Repentance. What is the core idea in that text? ‘God commanded us to seek this level of Divine service achieved by Avraham Avinu, the ‘lover of God’, as conveyed by Moses: “Love God, your Lord (Devarim 6:5).” When a person will love God in the proper manner, they will immediately perform all of the mitzvot motivated by love (Law 2).’ 

Yom Kippur is about achieving that pinnacle of the religious quest: Love of God. We actually state this quite clearly in our davening. In the extended third blessing of the Amida recited only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

After the regular opening to this blessing: You are Holy…and holy ones praise You daily, there is a triple progression of conclusions. First, ‘therefore, install your dread (PACHAD), God, over all that You have made’. Then, ‘therefore, establish glory (KAVOD), God, over Your nation.’ Finally, ‘therefore, the righteous will realize and rejoice!’  

Notice the winnowing? Initially, we address all of Creation, because Rosh Hashanah is the commemoration of the Creation of everything. But there is a progression to the special relationship of the Jewish nation with God. Eventually, we’re only discussing the righteous (ZADIK), upright (YASHAR) and pious (CHASID), whose spiritual attainments bring them to a state of spiritual elation. 

I firmly believe that there is also a temporal progression. Rosh Hashanah begins with dread of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, and we progress to honoring God’s faithfulness, either during the Chag itself, or during the Ten Days of Repentance. However, we must push on to the pinnacle of ecstasy achieved on Yom Kippur, when we realize the love relationship we have achieved with our God, our Maker, and our Partner in this life and the life to come. Then we can understand the Mishneh’s statement that Yom Kippur is obviously among the most joyous occasions possible (Ta’anit 4:8). 

These ten days are relationship therapy. First, we must realize the centrality of our relationship with God to our very being; then correct our betrayals of our Beloved; eventually, gaining the understanding that we cannot exist without our Beloved. 

Then we can begin to understand why the normally dour Rambam can write: What is the proper degree of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick (Law 3). 

None of this is easy. It requires great emotional effort and, as the Rambam points out, immense intellectual involvement in Torah study. But it’s worth it, even if we only experience it one glorious day a year, when we abandon all worldly pleasures to rendezvous with our Beloved. G’MAR CHATIMA TOVA!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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