Happy Yom Kippur to You?

By Shlomo M. Brody
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Happy" is certainly not the first word that comes to mind for most of us when we describe our Yom Kippur experience.  After all, the Torah commands us to afflict ourselves on this day (Leviticus 23:26-31).  The fasting makes us weak and famished, while the day’s other prohibitions—against bathing, anointing, wearing leather, and intimate relations—remind us of mourning practices.  The medieval Karaites went still further, interpreting the Torah as requiring the wearing of ashes and sackcloth, sleep deprivation, and similar practices.  While today’s traditional Jewish practice rejects unlimited or undefined anguish (synagogue air conditioning systems are regularly checked before the fast!), even our more limited asceticism clearly creates a feeling of deprivation.  For good reason, Yom Kippur is colloquially referred to as a Day of Awe, not a holiday.  Indeed, the day most similar to Yom Kippur, at least in ritual practice, is Tisha b’Av, the summer fast day considered the saddest day on the calendar.

Yet when we examine the Bible carefully, we see that Yom Kippur is included in the regular list of holidays—designated, like the others, a "sacred occasion."  The Sages ordained that on Yom Kippur, as on all festivals, one must wear special clothing to mark the occasion properly.  In early medieval times, some Geonim argued that the Yom Kippur prayers should include the customary blessing added to the festival Amidah, which begins, "Bestow on us, Lord our God, the blessings of Your festivals . . . .”  While this is not the contemporary practice, we do recite the she-heḥeyanu blessing chanted at joyful moments or events: "Blessed are You . . . Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment."  Some scholars even take the position that the meal we eat on Yom Kippur eve, usually understood merely as preparation for the fast, actually fulfills the holiday requirement of a feast.

The tension between these two themes, affliction and joy, is reflected in two salient talmudic passages.  In one of them, the Sages, discussing the question of why we do not recite the Hallel prayer of thanksgiving on the High Holidays, record a conversation between the heavenly angels and God (Erkhin 10b):

The angels asked God, "Why does Israel not chant songs in front of You on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  God answered, "Is it possible that the King sits on His throne of judgment with the Books of Life and Death open before Him, and the people should recite song?" 

The Days of Awe, in other words, are no time for song or other expressions of joyful festivity.

Yet in another passage (Ta'anit 30), the Talmud records that there was no happier occasion than Yom Kippur, the day on which, according to rabbinic tradition, God granted forgiveness and exoneration for the sin of the Golden Calf and gave the Jewish people the second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments.  This historical event became the paradigmatic Yom Kippur, when the Jewish people receive forgiveness for their own iniquities.  The same sentiment is expressed in concrete halakhic terms.  Upon the arrival of Yom Kippur, the laws of mourning—for example, sitting shivah for a loved one—are suspended, just as they are for other festivals.  One's personal sadness must be put aside when confronted with the communal joy of the Day of Atonement.

The need to express a sense of joy in some manner on Yom Kippur was aptly noted by Rabbi Abraham Halevi, an early 18th century scholar in Cairo, where Jews had adopted the custom of sniffing an aromatic tobacco—snuff—on Yom Kippur and other fast days.  Some scholars condemned the practice as an inappropriate form of physical pleasure.  Halevi, however, contended that it was perfectly emblematic of the conflicting emotions of Yom Kippur: It allowed for an expression of festival pleasure without violating the commandment of affliction.

These contradictory sentiments might be said to reflect a dialectical tension in the Yom Kippur experience.  Fasting and other forms of self-deprivation might weaken us physically; but, like all healthy doses of temporary asceticism, they teach us to concentrate fully on other goals.  Abstinence is not mourning, and seriousness is not sadness.  Within the reverential environment of the Temple or synagogue, we deny ourselves central physical pleasures in order to allow ourselves to focus on our spiritual selves.  Yom Kippur is a day for self-reflection and repentance, when we put aside our lattes and Blackberrys and work on the things in life that really matter: our relationship to God, family, community, nation, and humanity as a whole.

To a certain extent, the goal of the day is pragmatic: to forgive and be forgiven, to confess genuinely and be pardoned.  The joy felt on such an occasion is not one of song and dance.  Instead, it is the excitement of rejuvenation and catharsis, of receiving another chance, of being empowered by the knowledge that one can do better and achieve more.  Rabbi Jonah of Gerona (13th century, Spain) went so far as to suggest that the Yom Kippur eve feast reflects our joy at having the opportunity for such atonement.

Yet, even beyond expatiation and repentance, the joy of Yom Kippur stems from the opportunity to stand before God and recognize that our decisions in life matter.  Will we receive forgiveness of our sins?  Is our repentance truly genuine?  Ultimately, only God knows.  Yet our willingness to stand in prayer before God, engage in self-reflection, and admit to our failings is an acknowledgment that human actions are worthy of examination.  As painful as the remorse of repentance might be, and as difficult as it is to genuinely mend our ways, Yom Kippur reflects our belief that we have obligations and responsibilities—that we have a mission in life to fulfill—and, therefore, must scrutinize ourselves to see whether we are working toward accomplishing this goal.

The process of standing before God on Yom Kippur—concentrated, without the distractions of the physical world—affirms that our lives have meaning and purpose.  Such affirmation, ultimately, provides the greatest inner satisfaction and happiness.  It is a feeling that might not lend itself to the merriness of song and dance, but it does render Yom Kippur the happiest day of the year.

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, writes the Ask the Rabbi column for the Jerusalem Post, and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.

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