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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Skorka

The Holiness of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the most important day in the Jewish calendar. Since biblical times it was dedicated as the time when in response to a ritual performed by only one person, the high priest, and the contrition offered by each individual, God´s pardon was bestowed (Leviticus 16). It was the single day in the whole year on which the high priest entered the site of the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. On that day, according to the Talmud, miracles occurred that testified to God´s forgiveness of the sins of the people of Israel. For example, Rabbi Ishm´ael in the Mishnah Yoma 6:8 describes crimson wool turning white on the day of Yom Kippur, recalling Isaiah 1:18: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

After the destruction of the second Temple by the Roman hordes in the year 70 of the Common Era, this day maintained its spiritual power even though the high priesthood and the Holy of Holies no longer existed, In Yoma 86, b it is stated that Rabbi Itzhak, in Babylonia, used to quote the teaching received from Raba bar Mari in the land of Israel, which interprets Hosea 14:3 to mean that words and prayers are received by God just as much as sacrifices and prescribed rituals.

Yom Kippur was and continues to be an extraordinary day in Jewish tradition. But, what is its ultimate message, the one which is suggested in the Torah? This question has a very significant answer. The expression Shabbat Shabbaton signifies the prohibition of doing any work on Shabbat (Exodus 31: 15; 35: 2; Leviticus 23: 3) as well as on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:31; 23: 32). On all other holy days it is allowed to do the work necessary in order to prepare the meals, unlike on Shabbat and Yom Kippur. In Leviticus 25:4 the biblical text uses the same expression to specify the total rest of the soil during the sabbatical year. But there is a very significant clarification in these verses. For Shabbat as with the sabbatical year of the soil, it is explicitly declared that the holiness of those times is for the honor of God. Not to work on Shabbat refers us to the resting of God after the creation of the Cosmos in the opening of the Book of Genesis. By this attitude we reaffirm our belief in a Creator of all existence out of nothing (ex nihilo). Shabbat is for God. By respecting nature we are respecting God its creator. The biblical text clarifies that Shabbat and the sabbatical year are for the glory of God.

In the case of Yom Kippur, the verses explain that repose, the sanctity of the day, are granted to human beings. On Shabbat the human being goes in search of God, on Yom Kippur it is God who goes in search of human beings. It is the day on which the Divine Presence is especially close to us, more than at any other time. The fasting and other prohibitions imposed on this day come to bring us to a reality where the corporeal and its passions are set aside.

In some prayer books, when the blowing of the shofar to conclude this day is mentioned, it is explained that this action signifies the Siluk Shekhinah, the ascension of the Divine Presence after having been among us throughout the day.

In the midst of our agitated world of today, let us recall through the ancient prayers that accompany us and are reinterpreted from generation to generation, the presence of the Holy One among us, and forge a more spiritual year, a more meaningful year, filled with good works, affection and peace.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah [May you be inscribed for a good year.]


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