Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed

The Purification of Yom Kippur

The atonement promised to Israel on Yom Kippur expresses the special connection between God and Israel, a connection that does not depend on their actions

Yom Kippur is founded upon the covenant that God forged with our forefathers Avraham, Yitzḥak, and Yaakov. This covenant is not dependent upon the deeds of Israel. Rather, it is linked to the unique soul with which God endowed Israel, a soul that, at its root, longs to improve the world by revealing divine light. This is the meaning of the verse, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; of all the peoples on earth, the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people” (Devarim 7:6).

Therefore, even when Israel sins, and even in avodah zara (idolatry), they are called sons of God (Kiddushin 36a). It is also explained in the Tanakh, and in the words of our Sages, that even if Israel does not repent, the redemption that God promised to our ancestors and us, will come. The choice we have is whether it will come quickly and happily or, God forbid, in a long and difficult way, tormented and dreadful.

Therefore, no matter how much Israel sins, the covenant will never be invalidated. However, if Israel sins, they are punished with terrible suffering, and this, in order to purify them and lead them to repent. However, the Jews will never be able to abrogate the Divine covenant, and Yom Kippur is the holy day that expresses this covenant (see Peninei Halakha: days of Awe 6:4).

The Special Sanctity of Time

Shabbat and Mo’ed (festival) are two types of sanctity of time. The sanctity of Shabbat stems from the creation of the world, its holiness is from God alone, and we are commanded to remember the Shabbat, abstain from work, and receive a blessing from its holiness. Whereas the sanctity of the Moed is contingent on the People of Israel, for it is Israel who sanctifies the months, and by virtue of this, the Festivals. On Yom Kippur something sensational takes place – Yom Kippur is called Shabbat – “It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to you, and a day when you must fast” (Leviticus 23: 32) – but since its date is contingent on the Hebrew month, it is consecrated by Israel.

Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook ztz”l, explained that from the special spiritual elevation of Israel on Rosh Hashanah by way of the shofar, Israel is able to reveal holiness in the world rooted before Creation, from the preconceived notion of Israel that preceded Creation, and by this power, the special atonement of the observance of Yom Kippur is reached, by virtue of Segulat Yisrael [Israel’s unique virtue] and Netzach Yisrael [The Eternal One of Israel] (see, Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook: Yom HaKippurim 1:6).

Atonement of Yom Kippur for All of Israel

On Yom Kippur, the sanctity of Clal Yisrael is revealed, and therefore, “with the agreement of God and of the community, in the heavenly council, and in the council of man, we permit praying with transgressors” – there are no boycotts against any Jew; rather, even the greatest offenders join in the prayers. Only in this way is the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) entitled to enter the Holy of Holies to atone for Clal Yisrael.

Out of the sanctity of Clal Israel and the love of all of Israel, is every individual able to draw atonement for himself on Yom Kippur. However, if he is alienated from the sanctity of Clal Yisrael, and boycotts other Jews or movements, he will not merit the sanctity of Yom Kippur, and is unable to draw atonement and blessing for himself. In connection with this, I remembered the late Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl ztz”l, Rabbi of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, one of the students of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah, who used to attach to his signature a quote from the Ramchal: “And love your neighbor as yourself”! As yourself – without any distinctions – as yourself, without any differentiations, without any tricks or schemes – as yourself – truly” (Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 11).

The Confessions of the Public and the Individual

Some people emphasize matters of the individual on Yom Kippur, and strive to do teshuva (repent) from their private sins, copying long confessions of all kinds of sins out of various books, to the point where out of their preoccupation with themselves, they forget to think about Clal Yisrael. They are, of course, better off than those who confess aloud about the iniquities of their friends and neighbors, who, inadvertently, join the sitra achra (domain of Satan), who accuses Clal Yisrael, God have mercy on us. Although they do not sin by accusing Clal Yisrael, they must elevate themselves and understand the meaning of Yom Kippur, which is the revelation of the sanctity of Clal Yisrael and the sanctification of God in the world, and only by doing so, is atonement drawn for each individual.

That is why the wording of the prayers and confessions of Yom Kippur are in the plural, about all of us, together. Otherwise, one could ask: How can a righteous person declare, “We have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have committed iniquity,” when clearly he did not sin knowingly or rebelliously? How can someone who is careful with other people’s money declare, “We have robbed”? The answer is that the mitzvah of vidui (confession) on Yom Kippur is communal. Therefore, the Sages ordained that every individual recite his vidui in the plural on behalf of the entire nation, just as the Kohen Gadol confessed on behalf of the entire nation.

Additionally, even if a person himself did not sin, it could be that he bears some responsibility for the sins of family members or friends. At times, he was in a position to object to their behavior but did not do so. Other times, had he made the effort, he could have inspired them to repent. It is also possible that had he been a better role model, he would have positively influenced them, so they would not have sinned. Finally, all Jews bear responsibility for one another. We are as one body made up of many parts. Therefore, the sin of any Jew is the responsibility of all. Thus, even the righteous must confess – doing so cleanses them of their share in the sin and inspires others to repent (Peninei Halakha: Days of Awe 7, 4).

The Meaning of Fasting

For Clal Yisrael, the service of the Kohen Gadol is the essence of Yom Kippur, but today, when the Temple is destroyed, “instead of bulls, we will pay the offering of our lips,” and we fulfill the mitzvah by reciting the order of the service of the Kohen Gadol in the Musaf prayer.

For the individual, however, fasting is the main commandment of Yom Kippur. Throughout the year, a cloak of physicality, of various bodily desires, which make people forget their inner aspirations and sin, envelops the soul. God commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur so that our soul can disconnect itself somewhat from the bonds of the body and materiality, thus allowing its true, noble aspirations to be free and to express themselves. Through this sublime connection to the root of our souls, our sins part from us, and are cast into Azazel.

Therefore, even if one needs to lie down in order to continue fasting, he should not be discouraged, because he has internalized the most basic element of Yom Kippur. Even while lying in bed, he can think about self-improvement and resolve to increase his Torah study, his mitzvah observance, and his commitment to his family.

The Severity of Fasting

In the fast of Yom Kippur, an ill person must fast. In other words, in the Minor Fasts, like Tzom Gedaliah, women who are pregnant and nursing are also exempt. On the fast of Tisha B’Av, which is more severe, pregnant and nursing women must fast, but an ill person who needs to lie in bed, is exempt. However, in the Yom Kippur fast, ill people are also obligated, since it is obligatory from the Torah. This is the case as long as the illness is not life threatening. However, if there is a danger to one’s life, fasting is forbidden, and anyone who fasts in a situation where fasting may cause his death, transgresses a severe prohibition. A pregnant woman, for whom fasting may cause a miscarriage, is also forbidden to fast.

Definition of Danger to Life

Permission to eat is not limited to cases of grave danger. Rather, as long as there is a chance that fasting will cause a person’s death or weaken his ability to fight off an illness that afflicts him, it is a mitzvah for him to eat and drink as needed. Even if someone is already gravely ill, if fasting will likely hasten his death, it is a mitzvah for him to eat and drink as necessary, for it is permitted to eat and drink on Yom Kippur even to extend life temporarily.

On the other hand, however, this should not be taken too far by worrying about remote concerns, for if we were to view every routine illness as possibly life-threatening, it would render moot the halakha that someone sick is obligated to fast on Yom Kippur. Rather, the principle is that any danger that people normally treat with urgency and on which they spend time and resources – like rushing someone to the hospital in the middle of a workday – is considered life threatening. To prevent such danger, it is a mitzvah to desecrate Shabbat and to eat and drink on Yom Kippur. However, a danger that people do not normally address immediately with the expenditure of time and resources is not considered life threatening.

The Doctor and the Patient

These halakhot are generally addressed to doctors, who must determine, based on their medical expertise and experience, when there is concern of endangerment, and when there is not. The problem is that many doctors, whether out of excessive caution or lack of respect for the mitzvah of fasting on Yom Kippur, always tell anyone who is sick to eat and drink. Some doctors mistakenly believe that if they tell a sick person to eat or drink only minimal quantities (le-shi’urim), there is no prohibition. In truth, the Torah forbids eating and drinking even in small quantities. Only in the case of a patient deemed dangerously ill enough to eat and drink is it preferable, when possible, to eat and drink le-shi’urim.

Therefore, questions about fasting must be posed to a God-fearing doctor, namely, a doctor who is moral and ethical, and reach decisions responsibly, factoring in both the sanctity of the day, and the sanctity of human life.

Patients have the responsibility to approach the doctor out of reverence for God, for if they pressure the doctor to permit them to eat and drink, they are putting the doctor in a very difficult position: He already bears great responsibility, and they are now making it difficult for him to determine whether they are really at risk, or if they simply want to get out of fasting even though there is no risk to life at all. A critical amount of the doctor’s information comes from patient input, so when a patient presses for a dispensation, the doctor may conclude that he is in bad shape and permit him to eat and drink minimal quantities, whereas if the patient had reported honestly, it may have clarified that the situation is not life threatening at all. In cases of misrepresentation, responsibility for the erroneous ruling lies primarily with the patient.

A Self-test for a Doctor who is Uncertain

A God-fearing doctor who is uncertain as to whether a person must fast should consider: “What would I do on Yom Kippur were I to find out that this person was fasting? Would I be willing to violate Yom Kippur by driving for ten minutes to instruct the patient to eat and drink, thus possibly saving his life?” If the answer is yes, it indicates that the doctor believes that there is a true danger to life, and he should instruct the patient beforehand to eat and drink on Yom Kippur. If, however, despite the responsibility he feels for his patient’s well-being, he would not be willing to drive on Yom Kippur for him, it indicates that the doctor believes there is no real danger to life, and he should instruct the patient to fast.

Swallowing Medications on Yom Kippur

One who is sick and suffering may swallow medications in pill form, as long as it does not taste good. He should swallow the pill dry, and if he is unable to do so, either chew the pill, or add a little soap to the water he swallows it with, thus ruining the taste, because one who eats something that is not fit to be eaten does not violate the Torah prohibition, and in a time of distress, is permitted.

If fasting causes someone terrible pain, he may swallow painkiller pills. Thus, one who is suffering from caffeine-withdrawal headaches may take a caffeine pill or a painkiller. Similarly, a migraine sufferer may take a pill to prevent the onset of a migraine.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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