Yom Kippur

During the course of the year when we twice daily say the Shema, the second verse, ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד  (Baruch shem ..) Blessed forever is Hashem’s Honorable Name, is said silently. On Yom Kippur, however, in the evening and morning Shema, we recite that verse out loud. What is behind this custom?

Our Sages explain that when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, he heard the angels praising God with this special praise. He liked it so much that he taught it to the Jewish people when he returned from the mountaintop, yet instructing them to say it quietly. Rabbi Ami said, “Do you know why? It’s like someone who stole a necklace from the royal palace. When he gave the necklace to his wife he told her, ’don’t you dare wear this necklace in public, you may wear it only in our home.’” Similarly, because Moses took this beautiful praise from the angels, it would be inappropriate for us to flaunt it by saying it aloud. Therefore, we say it silently all year. On Yom Kippur, however, we are like angels ourselves and so we say it out loud just like the angels in heaven do.

Each Yom Kippur when I recite the Shema for the first time and say this verse out loud, it  hits me like a ton of bricks:  On Yom Kippur, I am supposed to be like an angel! That is why I am saying this verse out loud! Doing so sets the tone for the entire day and allows me to focus clearly on what I wish to accomplish today – to elevate myself to the level of an angel.

How are we to accomplish that? The Torah provides the prescription.

We read in Genesis (2:7) how Hashem created Adam:

ספר בראשית פרק ב

(ז) וַיִּיצֶר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה:

  1. And Hashem G-d formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being.

A human being is the miraculous combination of an earthly body and a soul that comes from Hashem. The body from the earth we understand, but what is the nature of the soul?

Our Sages describe the soul as a “piece” of Hashem- ,חלק אלקה ממעל  deriving it from the Torah’s description of how Adam received his soul, “and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life.” Why does the Torah need to tell us how Hashem placed the soul into man? To teach us that the soul comes from Hashem Himself. For, when one exhales, the air comes from within him.  מאן דנפח מדיליה נפח. Similarly, the soul that Hashem blew into Adam came from within Him.

The body and the soul are always at odds with each other. With its selfish desires and urges, the body is always demanding gratification continually seeking the world’s forbidden pleasures. The soul, on the other hand, provides the rational voice of reason telling the body, “You can’t have that, it is prohibited to you.” Such is the human condition; the struggle never ends. When the body wins, our spirituality declines and our earthiness expands. When the soul wins, our earthiness declines and our spirituality grows. That constant tug of war underlies the purpose of our existence in this world, the goal of which is to overcome our earthiness to become spiritual. We accomplish this through performing the mitzvot, the spiritual power pills that Hashem has given us in His Torah. With every mitzvah that we perform we become more spiritual and closer to our goal.  On the other hand, with every sin that we perform we become less spiritual and farther from our goal.

The more spiritual we are the closer we get to Hashem.

How do we accomplish this on Yom Kippur? The Torah tells us. (Leviticus Ch. 16 V. 29-31):

ויקרא פרק טז

כט) וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל  מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם

ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק תִּטְהָרוּ

לא) שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם

  1. This is for you an eternal decree – In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and you shall not do any work, not the native or the proselyte who dwells among you:
  2. For on this day He shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be cleansed:
  3. It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; an eternal decree:

These three verses discuss Yom Kippur. The tenth day of the seventh month, the 10th of Tishrei, is Yom Kippur. It is a day of Shabbat, a day on which we rest from any מלאכה  – constructive work. In two of the verses, the Torah instructs us to afflict ourselves on this day.

What is the meaning of this affliction? Are we to place stones in our shoes? Turn off the air conditioning? Should everybody pick something that he finds afflicting and do it to himself on Yom Kippur?

Here is a perfect example where we see that the Torah was given to Moshe with the oral explanation of the commandments.

In dictating this verse to Moshe on Sinai, Hashem told him, “Let me explain what I mean here. You will notice, Moshe, that in scripture only five things are referred to as “ענוי  – affliction.“ Those five things (and Hashem listed them), are the only afflictions to which I am referring in this passage.”

The Talmudic Sages scoured the entire written Torah to locate the five things Hashem referred to as an affliction As an aside; the word ענוי  – affliction or different forms of it, appears 80 times in Scripture and includes many different types of afflictions. Invoking the Torah’s 13 principal interpretive rules, the Sages eliminated most of those usages, distilling them down to just the five that apply to Yom Kippur.

  1. No eating or drinking
  2. No smearing oils to soothe the body
  3. No marital relations
  4. No washing for pleasure such as a shower or bath
  5. No wearing leather shoes

A quick look at this list reveals the obvious purpose for these prohibitions: to minimize the pleasure of the body on Yom Kippur. This, in turn, allows us to concentrate on our spiritual endeavors and reach higher spiritual heights on this Holy day.

All seem to fit except the last one, wearing leather shoes. How does that constitute an “affliction?” Sure, a good pair of leather shoes feel good on our feet, but so does a good pair of non-leather sneakers! Why are we allowed to wear comfortable sneakers and not leather shoes?

Our Sages teach us that a person’s soul has various levels of holiness. During our existence in this world, we have access to only the tail end, or the foot, so to speak, of our very holy soul. Because that part of the soul is considered the foot of the soul, our body, which serves as its vessel, is like its shoe.

And just as shoes allow our soft feet to walk on all types of hurtful terrains and in all types of substances that would hurt or dirty our feet, the body allows our soul to “walk” in a world that would otherwise be hostile to it.

We see this concept from Moses when he approached the burning bush to receive his first prophesy. Hashem told him, “Remove your shoes from your feet.” Our Sages explain that Hashem was telling Moses, “For you to be capable of receiving a prophesy, you must remove your physical body from your soul. This way, your soul will be free and unfettered by the materialistic body, and you will be spiritual enough to receive a prophesy.”

We understand the shoe concept, by why is only leather prohibited?

To answer this question, we must return to the first set of clothing ever created (Genesis 3:21):

ספר בראשית פרק ג

(כא) וַיַּעַשׂ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם:

  1. And Hashem God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and He clothed them:

Hashem made the very first set of real clothing for Adam and Chava. These were regal, respectable garments made of skin, or fur, that completely covered their bodies, in place of the fig leaf aprons that they had made for themselves. The purpose of these clothes was to cover the body and minimize its prominence and the desire for it. This would allow the dignity and holiness of the soul to shine forth and provide man with a clear understanding of who he really is. The human body is a beautiful thing, and man can easily make the mistake of thinking that he is his body and nothing more. This is why modest dress is so important in Judaism. It puts the materialistic body out of sight and out of mind. The Torah teaches us that we are a soul, and our bodies are merely the shoes that allow our soul to “walk” in this earthy world.

Today’s world does not subscribe to this perspective on humanity. On the contrary, our world is obsessed with making the body look as beautiful and as flashy as possible, paying little attention to the internal qualities of character and virtue.

This is why only shoes made from animal skin are forbidden on Yom Kippur. The leather shoe, which represents the body and was the very first material used to cover it, is reminiscent of the body’s earthiness and its need to be covered. This is what we are trying to minimize on Yom Kippur.

There is another very important message here.

The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Alexandri would add the following prayer to his daily prayers.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יז/א

ורבי אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם

Master of the universe, it is revealed and known before You that our true desire is to do Your will, but what is standing in our way? The leaven in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and the society we live in (the evil influence from outside of us). Please save us from them so we may do Your will with all our hearts.

King David said in Psalm 103:14

ספר תהילים פרק קג

(יד) כִּי הוּא יָדַע יִצְרֵנוּ זָכוּר כִּי עָפָר אֲנָחְנו:

  1. For He knows our evil inclinations, remember we are dust.

Hashem knows what we are made of and what the temptations of being human are. We have it from inside and outside. It is not that we are malicious or mal intentioned against Hashem. It is because of our earthy component, the body, and the society we live in, that we do the things that we do. “Hashem, please see me as I stand before you today, on Yom Kippur without my body pulling on me and influencing me. This is the real me. I want to do Your will.”

It is not easy to abstain from these five pleasures for 24 hours. That we are prepared to put ourselves out and deprive ourselves of pleasures that we would very much enjoy, shows that we are serious about achieving forgiveness. This is all Hashem needs to shower us with forgiveness.

As we read in verse 30 above.

  1. For on this day He shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be cleansed:

There is something inherent in the day of Yom Kippur that makes it a day of awesome forgiveness. This is the day that Hashem Himself will cleanse us of our sins.

The Mishna in Tractate Taanit (26b) refers to Yom Kippur as “Hashem’s wedding day.”

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף כו עמוד ב

וכן הוא אומר צאינה וראינה בנות ציון במלך שלמה בעטרה שעטרה לו אמו ביום חתנתו וביום שמחת לבו,

-ביום חתנתו – זה מתן תורה

What wedding are we celebrating here, and who is the bride?

The commentator Rashi explains: This refers to the second tablets with the Ten Commandments that Hashem gave the Jewish people on Yom Kippur. Hashem was the groom, the Jewish people were the bride, and the tablets were the wedding ring. This was the day that Hashem in His infinite love and mercy renewed our relationship with Him and forgave us for our previous sin, the golden calf.

This is what has set this day in the Jewish calendar as a day when Hashem is in the mode of infinite love and mercy and is most forgiving of our sins. When we stand “afflicted” to fulfill the laws of Hashem as given to us in the Torah and ask for forgiveness, we are guaranteed to leave Yom Kippur like a new born baby, completely free of sin.

There is a question that our Sages ask:

Why, in the Shema at the onset of Yom Kippur, when our stomachs are full from the big meal we just ate and we are fresh after a shower and are feeling pretty good, do we say the verse “Baruch shem …” out loud; yet in the evening service immediately following Yom Kippur, when we feel so holy from fasting and praying all day, do we say the verse silently?

Our Sages answer that at the start of Yom Kippur our minds are focused on the upcoming holy day and our tasks on that day. That is holy stuff, and, therefore, since we are headed into holiness, we are considered like angels already. Whereas, after the shofar has been blown and Yom Kippur is over, our minds begin to think about the things that we need to do when we get home and about the days ahead. So, since we are headed towards mundane matters, we are no longer like angels and must say it silently.

The Shema after Yom Kippur is my wakeup call going forward after Yom Kippur. After this amazing holy day, a day that I spent fasting and praying, I am now re-entering the material world. I am no longer like an angel. I need to ask myself, “What can I take with me from this holy day to last until next Yom Kippur?”

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a healthy, happy new year!

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