As with Rosh Hashanah, Orthodox Jews like me recognize that Yom Kippur is not mentioned in the Bible. It replaces another day known as Yom Hakippurim, mentioned in the Bible in Leviticus 16:29–31, 23:27–32, and Numbers 29:7–11. Orthodox Jews follow the Oral Law, the ways that the rabbis interpreted the Torah. This can be called Rabbinical Judaism in contrast to Biblical Judaism.
Examples of the Oral Law
The rabbinical interpretations of the Torah resulted in many changes. Some examples are: The rabbis delineated 39 types of behaviors that are prohibited on Shabbat. They are not in the Torah. They declared that the shofar, the ram’s horn, should be used on Rosh Hashanah and blown a hundred times. Neither rule is biblical. They developed the tefillin and mezuzahs by their interpretation of biblical words, even though the plain meaning of the words does not suggest these items. Moses never wore tefillin, nor did he place a mezuzah on his tent. They arranged that Jews should pray three services daily with more on Shabbat and holidays despite the patriarchs and matriarchs never engaging in prayer services and legends to the contrary. King David and his son Solomon never wore yarmulkes, nor did any king of Israel, but the rabbis required men to do so. Even the kosher laws and how circumcision must be performed are not biblical.
What is Yom Hakippurim?
Yom Kippur is singular, “day of atonement,” while Yom Hakippurim is plural, “day of atonements.” No work was permitted on Yom Hakippurim. It was a holy day celebrated in the temple, not at home or in a synagogue. Special sacrifices were offered. There was a ceremony consisting of two scapegoats. One was sacrificed, the other sent to wander in the desert. The Israelites were only obliged to te’anu et nafshoteikhem, as discussed below.
Yom Hakippurim was a day when the High Priest offered sacrifices for a number of misdeeds or possible misdeeds, while the average Israelites were passive; they only te’anu et nafshoteikhem. The High Priest atoned for his and other priests’ transgressions, those of Israelites, the Tabernacle, and the altar. Hence the day had the plural “atonements.” As stated in Leviticus 16:30, the average Israelites did not atone, “on this day atonement is made for you (by the High Priest).” Yom Hakippurim was not a sad day. During the time of the second temple, the Israelites spent the afternoon with young men dancing with young women, a practice that led to many marriages.
When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, and sacrifices ceased, the activities of Yom Hakippurim were discontinued, Yom Hakippurim was replaced by Yom Kippur when individuals, not a priest, address their misdeeds.
Meaning of te’anu et nafshotekhem
These words are improperly translated as “you must afflict your souls.” What do the Hebrew words actually mean? What was the obligation of regular Israelites on Yom Hakippurim? The first te’anu is the same word ye’anu in Exodus 1:12, which describes the “afflictions” Israelites suffered under Egyptian slavery. The second, whose root is nefesh, is a word used today for “soul,” but it didn’t have this intent in the Torah. The Torah’s nefesh indicates a person. On Yom Hakippurim, Israelites were required to afflict themselves as their ancestors were afflicted in Egypt.
Significantly, the Torah does not explain how people should afflict themselves. Perhaps everyone was expected to do so in their own way. Only later, when Yom Kippur was invented, the rabbis defined the term as the avoidance of six things: eating, drinking, washing, anointing one’s body, wearing leather shoes, and having sex. None of these six acts is implied in the word.
Let’s examine one High Holiday prayer.
Rabbis and Jews generally invented stories to explain the origin of some prayers. Rather than analyzing the depth of prayers, which could alienate people who do not want to undertake this exercise and frustrate others who would not be able to understand the raison d’être of the prayer, the story teaches a simple moral lesson that could easily be understood. One of the most moving poems/prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef, is a good example. The name can be defined as “And let us recognize the power (of this day’s holiness).” The legend states that the poem was composed by a rabbi who suffered martyrdom. The parable teaches that during this holy day, Jews should devote themselves to the essential lessons of Judaism, even to the extent of willing to martyr themselves for the sake of Judaism.
The problem with this teaching is that it doesn’t always make sense to give up one’s life for Judaism. Some scholars, such as Yellin, Abrahams, and Dienstag in Maimonides, especially on page 34, say that when Maimonides and his family lived in Morocco and were told to either become Muslims or die, he adopted Muslim manners outside his home while being a Jew at home. He did so until he and his family could escape to Israel and then to Egypt, where he finally settled.
There are also difficulties in the ideology and theology of the poem. There is a seeming contradiction between the poem saying that a person’s fate is sealed on Yom Kippur while it later says that “repentance, prayer, and charity help the hardship pass.” Additionally, the primary image of the prayer/poem is God possessing tablets or scrolls in which he inscribes the deeds and destinies of human beings. This notion predates Israel. The people of ancient Mesopotamia held the very idea. This image of God is somewhat disturbing. Do we want to portray God anthropomorphically, like a forgetful king who needs to write notes to prompt him to remember to act? Another central idea of the poem is that God is involved in producing evil. Is God responsible for the Holocaust? Did God cause men and women to have cancer? Another idea is that “penitence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree.” Yet, experience has shown that this is simply untrue. Another disturbing picture in the poem is people going passively before God like ignorant, unthinking sheep. This view is antithetical to Abraham’s heroism, who argued with God about Sodom and Gomorrah.
However, these images can be understood metaphorically. The poem is telling its readers that this is a time to wake up, take notice, see the fragility of life, consider how judgments are formed and sealed, change, abandon despair and apathy, set goals, reshape our character, challenge and take control of our fate and our destiny, and reject the notion that we are helpless before nature and God.
Victor Frankl, who survived years in a Nazi concentration camp, understood this when he wrote: “Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the condition.”
Does the synagogue service on Yom Kippur cleanse us of our misdeeds?
Neither prayers, fasting, hitting one’s chest, rapping oneself in a kittel, or any other synagogue practice cleanses us of the wrongs we committed. It is like a man who hit his wife returning from the synagogue, seeing his wife is still angry at him, saying, “I don’t understand why you are still angry. I went to the synagogue, admitted I did wrong and said prayers.” The only way to stop his wife from being angry is to plead to her to forgive him, promise he will never hit her again, agree to attend an anger clinic, and show her he means it by attending and loving attention to her needs.
So too, the purpose of the Yom Kippur practices is to call our attention to our improper behaviors and prompt us to resolve to cease doing them, and develop practices/habits that will assure that we will not repeat our mistakes.