Yom Kippur—The Day of Pure Delight

Maurycy Gottlieb - Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur - Public Domain

Yom Kippur means “The Day of Atonement.” However, on a deeper level, Yom Kippur is the day of pure delight. To understand why, let us start with the day before—Erev Yom Kippur—the Eve of Yom Kippur.

Erev Yom Kippur is considered a semi-holiday—a festive day, on which we do not say Tachanun (penitent prayers), and on which wear festive attire and eat two festive meals (as required on holiday).

This is rather strange. The Eve of Yom Kippur is one of the Ten Days of Repentance (Asseret Yemei Teshuvah). Shouldn’t we be busy regretting the past mistakes (and, indeed, we do!) and repenting our evil ways, instead of indulging in sumptuous meals? Moreover, it’s a day before Yom Kippur—the day on which every person is judged, and everyone’s fate is sealed for the next year. In a moving prayer called Unetane Tokef, it says, “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will…” Who doesn’t know this prayer? Who doesn’t cry reciting it? Most people understandably experience some anxiety before the awesome day of judgment. This is why Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called together Yomim Naroyim—the Days of Awe. So, why the festive meals on the Eve of Yom Kippur? Furthermore, the Rabbis require us eat more than usual, which is counted to us as merit. How strange…

Turning to Yom Kippur itself, the Torah says:

It shall be unto you a Sabbath of solemn rest (Shabbas Shabboson), and ye shall afflict your souls; in the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening unto evening, shall ye keep your Sabbath. (Lev. 23:32)

Note that the Torah enjoins us to keep Yom Kippur on the ninth of Tishrei. Why, then, do we keep it on the tenth? The sages of the Talmud explain that the Eve of Yom Kippur—the ninth day of Tishrei—is also part of the atonement, even though there is no fasting. The sages say, “This teaches that one who eats and drinks on the ninth is credited as if he fasted on both the ninth and tenth.” (Berachot 8b).

This is most puzzling. Why would eating on the Eve of Yom Kippur be considered as fasting? And why does the Torah require us to fast on Yom Kippur in the first place? Yom Kippur is a holiday, and on holidays it is forbidden to fast. Moreover, it is called Shabbas Shabboson—the Sabbath of all Sabbaths—the holiest day of the year. On Shabbat, it is forbidden to fast. So why do we fast on Yom Kippur? And why the additional prohibitions, prohibiting other bodily pleasures—five in total—on Yom Kippur? And what does it all have to do with the teshuvah—repentance—the main mitzvah of the day? The answer to all these puzzling questions are found in one word—taanug or “delight.”

Kabbalah and Chabad chassidut devote much attention to the concept of taanug (delight or pleasure). This concept is so important to Kabbalah that it is used as a metaphor for Ein Sof—“the Infinite” (i.e., God). Chabad philosophy distinguishes between two types of delight—taanug hapashut (simple pleasure, or pure delight) and taanug hamurkav (complex pleasure). Pleasure caused by externalities, such as food, drinks, music, ideas, etc., is considered to be a complex pleasure (taanug hamurkav), because the nature of the thing that causes the pleasure profoundly affects the way we experience the pleasure. Different foods have different tastes. People enjoy dry wine and sweet wine with different food and in different circumstances, because they are so different. The pleasure of food and drink is considered one of the lowest types of pleasure. The smell of fragrant herbs and flowers give a more refined type of pleasure. A delight from hearing beautiful music or from seeing a beautiful painting is a higher kind of pleasure. The delight from understanding profound ideas is even higher yet. And the highest of them all is the delight that comes from understanding deep insights from learning Torah, Kabbalah, or Chassidic philosophy.

All of these types of delight are complex as they are greatly affected by that which gives us pleasure and delight. These pleasures have another common denominator—they fill a void—something we were missing and therefore desired. Food gives pleasure because a hungry person desires and needs food in order to exist. Once satiated, the food stops giving pleasure. A lack of knowledge or understanding sends us on a quest to discover the missing knowledge. Once understood, it satisfies the need for understanding and, therefore, causes delight. And so on.

God’s delight, on the other hand, is very different. God is infinite and perfect; He lacks nothing. His delight is the simple delight of being. He delights in Himself, as it were. This is taanug hapashut—simple delight, which is completely introverted. It is, perhaps, a little bit like the delight of a person in simply being alive after surviving a dangerous accident or recovering from a grave illness, God forbid. It’s the simple pleasure of being alive, uncomplicated, and unadulterated by anything external.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe) explains in his discourse on Tzimtzum, that taanug hapashut is the source of life—makor chayim—and the source of forgiveness (see maamar Lehavin Mah Shekasuv B’Otzros Chayim in Likkutei Torah, Vayikra). It is this level that is revealed on the day of Yom Kippur. The level that is the source of life—makor chayim—is higher than any sin, which is why forgiveness comes from there. But it is also a level of delight—where God delights in His creations.

Now we can understand why we fast on Yom Kippur. This fast is not mortification of our bodies (as it is on all other fasts). On this day, the taanug hapashut (simple delight) is revealed, and it cannot be diluted and overpowered by the complex delight that comes from physical pleasures. Just as the prophets of old used to practice hitbodedut (seclusion to quite all senses) to hear the voice of God, so too Jewish people quiet their desires and refrain from physical pleasures by fasting and otherwise, as proscribed by Jewish law, to experience taanug hapashut—the simple delight of God.

Now we can also understand why eating and drinking on the Eve of Yom Kippur is counted as fasting as well. It is because both are related to delight—the leitmotiv of Yom Kippur. On the Eve of Yom Kippur, we cannot fast, so we experience complex pleasures from food and drinks as preparation for experiencing a higher form of delight—simple delight—taanug hapashut on Yom Kippur itself.

This also helps us understand the connection to teshuvah—repentance. During the year, we are busy pursuing transient pleasures and instant gratifications. This pollutes and corrupts our sense of true delight; it dulls our spiritual senses. Therefore, before we can partake of God’s delight, we must regret and divest ourselves from all those physical pleasures that overwhelmed our senses. Only then the subtle music can be heard, and true delight can be experienced. Thus, Yom Kippur is a day of pure delight. We need to cleanse ourselves from the impure delights experienced during the year so that we can partake of the pure delight of Godliness on Yom Kippur.

Here is to a delightful Yom Kippur and a delightful new year!

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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