Understanding Yom Kippur

The Torah commands us to “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur.

And you shall have on the tenth day of this seventh month a holy gathering; and you shall afflict your souls: you shall not do any work. (Bamidbar 29:7)

Chazal teach us the meaning of this “affliction”:

There is another positive commandment relating to Yom Kippur, namely, to desist from eating and drinking, as the verse states: “You shall afflict your souls.” [The Sages] learned by tradition: What affliction is there to the soul? This refers to fasting. … They also learned by tradition that one is forbidden on this day to wash or anoint oneself, to wear shoes, or to engage in sexual relations. (Rambam, Hilkhot Shevitat he-Asor 1:3-4)

But what is the idea behind this affliction? Is the objective to cause us grief and suffering on Yom Kippur? The laws relating to affliction on Yom Kippur seem to teach us otherwise.

Eating on the Day before Yom Kippur

The Gemara records a puzzling law:

It is written: “And you shall afflict your souls on the ninth day of the month at evening” (Vayikra 23:32). But do we fast on the ninth? Surely we fast on the tenth! Rather, this teaches you [that] whoever eats and drinks on the ninth, Scripture regards him as if he has fasted on the ninth and the tenth. (Berakhot 8b)

This is undoubtedly a peculiar law. What is the significance of eating on the day before Yom Kippur? Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh) proposes an interesting answer:

This is the meaning of the verse: “And you shall afflict your souls” – that is, prepare yourselves on the ninth of the month by strengthening yourselves through eating and drinking so that you will be able to fast on the next day. This demonstrates how much the Omnipresent, may He be blessed, loves Israel. It is like a person with a darling child, who decrees that [the child] must fast for a day, and [then] commands that he be fed and given to drink on the day before the fast so that he will be able to bear it. (Rosh, Yoma 2:22)

The Rosh explains that the Torah commands us to eat on the day before Yom Kippur in order to make it easier for us to fast the next day. This explanation is puzzling in and of itself: If God commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur, it is reasonable to assume that He wanted us to suffer affliction on that day. Why, then, did He bother commanding us to lighten the affliction by eating on the day before Yom Kippur?

The Rosh’s approach seems to lead us to a surprising conclusion: Fasting on Yom Kippur – unlike fasting on Tish’a be-Av and the other Rabbinic fasts – was never intended to increase our suffering, affliction, or anguish. Some Acharonim have relied on this conclusion in order to allow a person to take medications on the day before Yom Kippur that will make the fast easier for him. Nothing is gained if we increase our pain and suffering. It is enough that we refrain from eating on the day itself, and it makes no difference whether we find the fast easy or difficult (Rav Sternbuch, Mo’adim u-Zemanim, I, p. 108).

“On Account of Anguish”

The purpose of affliction on Yom Kippur may depend upon a controversy among the Rishonim. The Gemara states:

[When Yom Kippur falls on a weekday], we crack nuts and open pomegranates from the time of Mincha on, on account of anguish. (Shabbat 115a)

That is to say, when Yom Kippur falls out on a weekday, one is permitted (toward the end of the fast) to make certain preparations for the meal with which he will break the fast, “on account of anguish.” Rashi (ad loc.) explains:

Here it is permitted because of the anguish [caused him] when he prepares [food] but does not eat [it], this being close to affliction.

According to Rashi, the Rabbis set aside certain rabbinic prohibitions in order to increase a person’s mental anguish and thus allow him to better fulfill the mitzva of affliction on Yom Kippur. According to Rashi’s understanding, this talmudic passage contradicts our proposal, for it follows from what he says that the Yom Kippur prohibitions are intended to cause pain and anguish. Most Rishonim, however, understand the passage differently. Thus, for example, writes the Rashba (ad loc.):

The meaning of “anguish” is that [the Rabbis] were concerned about anguish [i.e., they wished to minimize anguish], and so they permitted a person to clean [vegetables] now, so that he would not have to prepare all [the food] after nightfall when he will be hungry and thus suffer anguish. Rashi did not explain [the passage] in this manner, but this is correct.

According to the Rashba, the Rabbis permitted a rabbinic prohibition here, not in order to cause anguish, but on the contrary, in order to prevent the anguish that a person will feel at the end of the fast if he can only begin to prepare his meal at that time. Ramban, Ran (in his novellae), and Rabbi Zerachya ha-Levi understood the passage in the same way.

It should be noted that there is no proof that all the Rishonim who disagree with Rashi would accept the above suggestion that Yom Kippur is not meant to cause suffering. They might maintain that the pain that a person must feel on Yom Kippur is embodied in the afflictions set down by Halakha, to which additional afflictions should not be added. For the Gemara (Yoma 74b) states explicitly that a person is not required to sit in the sun or in the cold in order to cause himself suffering. But at the very least, according to these Rishonim, this talmudic passage does not contradict our position.  [Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, in his “Mo’adim u-Zemanim,” argues that even according to Rashi, the purpose of the Yom Kippur prohibitions is not to cause pain and suffering.]

Yom Kippur as a Festival

Chazal disagree about whether or not Yom Kippur should be regarded as a Festival:

No mention is made on Yom Kippur of [its being] a Festival, for there is no Festival on a day of fasting. (Tractate Soferim 19:4)

… Rosh ha-Shana is a Festival like Yom Kippur. (SifraAcharei Motparasha 5, chap. 8)

Sifra – a much earlier source than tractate Soferim – maintains that Yom Kippur is indeed a Festival. This certainly inclines toward our position that Yom Kippur is not a day of suffering and mourning. Relating to Yom Kippur as a Festival has halakhic ramifications. On Shabbat and the Festivals there is obligation to honor the day and indulge in pleasure. The Vilna Gaon (OrachChayim, 529) explains the difference between honor and pleasure: Honor involves the preparations made in expectation of the day (clean clothing, bathing, etc.), and pleasure consists of the bodily delights that are enjoyed on the day itself (eating and drinking). On Yom Kippur, when eating and drinking are forbidden, there is obviously no obligation to indulge in pleasure. The Gemara states, however, that the laws of honoring the day apply even to Yom Kippur:

The Exilarch said to Rav Hamnuna: What is the meaning of “And call the holy day of the Lord honorable” (Yeshaya 58:13)? He said to him: This is Yom Kippur, on which there is no eating or drinking. The Torah said: Honor it with clean clothing. (Shabbat 119a)

Some authorities expanded the mitzva of honoring Yom Kippur, extending its application:

You asked about the Rosh’s ruling that in places where it is customary to light candles on the night of Yom Kippur, one lights with a blessing: But surely we maintain that one does not recite a blessing over a [mere] custom! …

It seems to me that the Rosh’s reasoning is that [the Sages] instituted an obligation [to light candles] on account of domestic peace. For [even] on Friday nights there is no explicit mitzva [to light candles]. Rather it falls into the category of honoring Shabbat, and we were commanded to honor Shabbat. Regarding Yom Kippur as well it says, “And call the holy day of the Lord honorable,” and the Gemara says: This is Yom Kippur. And since we are enjoined to honor [Yom Kippur], lighting candles in included in the mitzva of honoring [the day], and [so] we may recite a blessing. (Responsa Radbaz, VI, 2209)

We saw earlier that there is an obligation to eat on the day before Yom Kippur, and we explained the Rosh’s understanding of this obligation. Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his Bet Yosef, proposes an alternative explanation:

As for the mitzva of eating and drinking on this day, it is intended to demonstrate that a person is at ease with and ready to receive Yom Kippur, and that he happily anticipates the day because Israel is being given [the opportunity for] atonement. On Yom Kippur itself, it is impossible to honor the day with food and drink in the way that we honor the other Festivals; one must, therefore, honor it on the preceding day. (Bet Yosef, OC 604)

According to Bet Yosef, the festive meal eaten on the day before Yom Kippur is in fact a fulfillment of the mitzva to show honor to and indulge in pleasure on Yom Kippur – a mitzva which cannot be fulfilled on Yom Kippur itself. The meal partaken on the day before Yom Kippur is actually the meal of Yom Kippur, which for “technical” reasons must be eaten ahead of its time.

Rabbenu Yona writes in a similar vein:

Owing to the fast that is observed on Yom Kippur [itself], we are obligated to partake of a festive meal on the day before Yom Kippur in celebration of the joy derived from the mitzva. (Sha’arei Teshuva 4, 9)

The mitzva of honoring the day clearly indicates that Yom Kippur is endowed with the sanctity of the Festivals, which would seem to negate the possibility of relating to Yom Kippur as a day of pain and suffering. There is, however, much stronger and more direct evidence proving this point. There are those who maintain that on Yom Kippur, in addition to the mitzva of honoring the day, there is also a mitzva of rejoicing, which certainly cannot coexist with grief and suffering. This is what follows from the words of Rav Achai Gaon, author of the She’iltot:

These days [Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur], since rejoicing applies to them, they are considered like Festivals and [therefore] interrupt mourning. (She’iltot 15)

Rabbenu Yonatan, in his commentary on the Rif, writes about “the festive rejoicing of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur” (10b in Alfasi to Eruvin). A precise reading of Rambam also leads us to the same conclusion:

On Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, however, there is no Hallel, because they are days of repentance, fear and dread, not days of excessive rejoicing. (Rambam, Hilkhot Chanuka 3:6)

Rambam explains that Hallel is not recited on Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur because they are not days of “excessive rejoicing.” The implication is that on Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur there is a small amount of rejoicing, modest and restrained rejoicing that expresses itself in serious-mindedness and solemnity. Clearly, however, this too according to Rambam is regarded as rejoicing.

On the other hand, Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, author of Sefer Yere’im, states explicitly that there is no mitzva of rejoicing on Yom Kippur:

Yom Kippur, even though it is included among the Festivals, is not included among [the days of] rejoicing, for regarding Yom Kippur it is written: “And you shall afflict your souls.” (Yere’im, 227)

The words of the Yere’im, however, do not necessarily contradict the idea that we have been developing here. Firstly, even if there is no rejoicing on Yom Kippur, it is not necessarily a day of sorrow and grief. Secondly, his formulation implies that Yom Kippur is excluded from rejoicing, not because it is not a Festival, or because the day demands suffering, but rather because, practically speaking, it is impossible to rejoice on Yom Kippur, because rejoicing requires meat and wine. This is stated explicitly in tractate Soferim:

No mention is made [on Yom Kippur] of it being a Festival or of rejoicing, for there is no rejoicing without eating. (Tractate Soferim 19:2)[1]

In addition to the laws of honor and rejoicing, there are additional halakhic expressions to Yom Kippur’s status as a Festival. This, for example, is how Maharam of Rothenburg explains his ruling that a person who is ill and therefore permitted to eat on Yom Kippur must recite the Ya’aleh Veyavo section in his Birkat ha-Mazon:

A dangerously ill person who eats on Yom Kippur recites the section pertaining to the day [Ya’aleh Veyavo] in his Birkat ha-Mazon. This is obvious, for he is permitted to eat. On the contrary, he performs a mitzva, because Yom Kippur for him is like the rest of the Festivals for us. (Responsa Maharam, ed. Prague, no. 71)

We have seen then that according to many of the most important halakhic authorities, Yom Kippur is a Festival. The rejoicing ordinarily associated with Festivals does not express itself on Yom Kippur only because technically it cannot be observed on a day of affliction. Let us return now to our original question: Why is affliction necessary, if its objective is not to increase distress and suffering?

Affliction on Yom Kippur as an Expression of Resting

The Avnei Nezer alludes to an answer to our question:

The prohibition of Yom Kippur stems from holiness … Because of a person’s holiness, he sets himself apart from material things, and there is a removal of sin that results from material things … On Yom Kippur, which is called “a holy day of God,” material things are forbidden. (Avnei Nezer, CM, 161)

According to Avnei Nezer, the prohibitions of Yom Kippur are not intended to prevent rejoicing or to cause suffering, but simply to separate a person from his daily material activities. On Yom Kippur we are all likened to angels, and so we abstain from our worldly occupations. For this reason it is customary to wear white clothing on Yom Kippur, so that we will be like the angels. The prohibition to eat on Yom Kippur is not intended to forbid enjoyment or cause suffering. Rather, it is essentially an obligation to abstain from corporeal occupations that are inappropriate on this holy and venerable day.

Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, father of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, formulated this idea in precise halakhic terms.[2] Rabbi Soloveitchik starts with an observation regarding Rambam’s wording in his Mishneh Torah. As is well known, Rambam calls the Yom Kippur laws: “Hilkhot Shevitat he-Asor” – “Laws Concerning the Rest on the Tenth [of Tishrei].” Rambam opens the section as follows:

There is a positive commandment to rest from work on the tenth day of the seventh month, as it says, “It shall be a sabbath of solemn rest to you.” (Hilkhot Shevitat he-Asor 1:1)

Several halakhot later, Rambam discusses the prohibition to eat and drink:

There is another positive commandment pertaining to Yom Kippur, namely, to rest from eating and drinking. (ibid., 1:4)

It should be noted that Rambam uses the very same expression, “shevita,” “resting,” with regard to the prohibition of eating on Yom Kippur! According to Rambam, this is not a mitzva of affliction, but rather a mitzva of resting, similar in essence to the mitzva of resting from forbidden labors. Resting on Yom Kippur includes resting from all human activity – from work, as well as from eating and drinking. This halakhic formulation fits well the conceptual idea regarding the nature of Yom Kippur. This point finds further expression in the continuation of the words of Rambam:

And so we have learned by tradition that one is forbidden to wash himself, or anoint himself, or wear shoes, or engage in marital relations. There is a mitzva to rest from all these just as one rests from eating and drinking, as it says, “A sabbath of solemn rest” – a sabbath regarding eating, and a solemn rest from these things. [Alternative reading: a sabbath regarding work, a solemn rest from these things.] (ibid., 1:5)

According to both readings, the term “shabaton” is understood as referring to the laws relating to affliction on Yom Kippur. According to the second reading, there is an explicit analogy between refraining from eating and refraining from work, both being called a “rest.” Rambam’s decisive wording in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot supports the second reading cited above:

“It shall be a sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls.” It is as if it said that there is a separate obligation to rest from labor and activity, and a separate obligation to rest from food that maintains the body. Therefore, it says, “It shall be a sabbath of solemn rest.” (Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 164)

Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik cites additional proofs in support of this principle. We shall suffice with one more proof. Rambam rules that he who sends out the goat to Azazel is permitted to eat, if he feels weak, so that he may complete his sending of the goat. This is not merely an allowance based on piku’ach nefesh, the principle that all prohibitions are superseded by the obligation to save a life:

And afterwards, he would send the live goat with a person who had been prepared to lead it to the wilderness. All are fit to lead it, but the High Priests established that a non-Priest would not be allowed to lead it. Ten booths were set up between Jerusalem and the beginning of the wilderness. One or more people would spend Yom Kippur at each booth, in order to escort him [the man leading the goat] from one booth to the next. At each booth they would say to him: “There is food here. There is water.” If his strength fails and he needs to eat, he can eat, but no one ever actually needed to. (Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim 3:7)

Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik asks: How do we know that one is permitted to desecrate Yom Kippur in order to perform the special tasks required by the day? We find a source for the law that the Temple service supersedes the prohibition of labor on Shabbat: “‘In its appointed time’ – even on Shabbat” (Pesachim 77a). But how do we know that the prohibition of eating on Yom Kippur is also superseded? Rabbi Soloveitchik answers that Rambam understood, as we have shown, that the prohibition against work on Yom Kippur and the prohibition against eating on that day together constitute a single system of “resting” on Yom Kippur. Thus, it follows that if the prohibition against forbidden labors is superseded, so is the prohibition against eating. The mandated “solemn rest” of Yom Kippur – including both of its elements – is set aside by the Temple service. The prohibition against working on Yom Kippur is also connected to the principle that we have put forward. In contrast to the prohibition against working on Shabbat, the prohibition against working on Yom Kippur joins with the prohibition against eating, and together they express a total withdrawal from worldly matters.

This serves as yet another proof of the principle mentioned above: affliction on Yom Kippur is not an expression of distress and suffering, but rather a law of resting, of temporary withdrawal from all worldly matters. This principle is similar to the idea that we saw regarding Shabbat: we are not dealing with dissociation from this world, but rather with a demand to withdraw temporarily from worldly matters for the sake of worshiping God. There are, however, two important differences: 1) The withdrawal on Yom Kippur is more decisive and comprehensive, extending to food, drink, and other pleasures. 2) Shabbat emphasizes man’s readiness to sacrifice and waive his normal activity; Yom Kippur focuses upon his seeking intimacy with God that requires a temporary waiving of worldly life. In any event, neither Shabbat nor Yom Kippur represents the normal situation of the Jew. Both represent unique and exceptional situations, the value of which stands out against the backdrop of our everyday life.

The significance of the twofold resting on Yom Kippur seems to be twofold as well: 1) Man’s very standing before God obligates withdrawal from material things. 2) Yom Kippur’s essence as a day of reckoning and atonement requires that we concentrate solely on holy matters, and avoid all of our mundane affairs, even though in and of themselves they may be perfectly legitimate.


[1] Earlier, we cited a passage from tractate Soferim, which states that Yom Kippur is not a Festival. It is not clear, then, why it was necessary to say here that there is no rejoicing on Yom Kippur because “here is no rejoicing without eating.” If Yom Kippur is not a Festival, why would anybody think that there is a mitzva of rejoicing? This point needs to be clarified.

[2] Cited by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l in “Alon Shevut,” 5, nos. 1-2 [reprinted in “Daf Kesher,” 201 (Tishrei, 5750)].

VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har EtzionThis article was reposted with permission from the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion.

If you found this shiur interesting, you may also enjoy Rabbi Chaim Navon’s article: The Mitzva of Rejoicing on the Festivals

Translated by David Strauss


About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Navon teaches Gemara and Jewish thought in Herzog College at Yeshivat Har Etzion and at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an author of several series of shiurim online at the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rabbi Navon authored a number of books including: Caught in the Thicket: An Introduction to the Thought of Rav Soloveitchik. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion from 1992 to 2004 and received rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
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