On the one hand, the Torah refers to Yom Kippur as a day of self-denial (Leviticus 16:29,31; 23:27,32; Numbers 29:7), and, on the other hand, as the day on which God acquits Israel and purifies it (Leviticus 16:30). Since ancient times two aspects have characterized this day: the ritual actions that must be performed and the accompanying superlative spiritual work that must be undertaken. Thus, Maimonides differentiated between these two aspects in his legal considerations: the ritual (described in Hilkhot Shevitat Asor and in Avodat Yom Hakkipurim) and the commands about the spiritual process to be carried out (masterfully detailed in Hilkhot Teshuvah).
All the rituals and instructions were given to foster in each member of the community a feeling of introspection and a renewal of the spirit. Regarding fasting, which is the way the sages interpreted the concept of self-denial, it can be understood as the abandonment of the everyday routine in order to enter a different spiritual reality. The famous Hasidic Rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, said: “There are two days in the year when the prohibition of eating on them should be unnecessary: the Ninth of Av (when the destructions of the Temple of Jerusalem and the hardships suffered by the Jewish people over time are remembered) and on Yom Kippur. On the Ninth of Av, who feels like eating? And on Yom Kippur, who wants to eat?” Recalling the destruction of the two Temples and the annihilation of a third of the Jewish people in the Shoah prevents us from eating. In contrast, the spiritual state that must be reached on Yom Kippur makes us forget to eat.
In discussing the fulfillment of the Torah’s commands for Yom Kippur, the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:7) explains the importance of the intentions of the one who blows the shofar and of those who hear it. The meaning of the perfection of the sound (which must be sought) is to be found in the motivations of the participants in the ritual. Similarly, the prayers, fasting, ways of dressing and other elements that mark this special day of the year call us to feel the presence of God in an extraordinary way because our longing for God is so intense. The result of the experience of Yom Kippur must be the finding of a heightened virtuousness that allows us to be better human beings.
Gmar Jatima Tova!