Yom HaKippurim Topics

A Day of Repentance or Atonement?

Is Yom HaKippurim a day which revolves around individual change and repentance, or is it merely a day of atonement (as per its name)?  What does the description of the service of Yom HaKippurim in Vayikra 16 suggest?

  • In the time of the Beit HaMikdash, one of the eagerly anticipated rites of the day was the dispatching to Azazel of a goat, laden with the nation's sins.  Who or what is Azazel and what is the purpose of the ceremony? How does it achieve atonement? Are the people really cleansed of their sins simply by transferring them to a goat and sending it away? Is there no need for the people to actually repent for their misdeeds?
  • While mystics like RambanVayikra 16:8About R. Moshe b. Nachman suggest that the goat serves to appease demonic beings lest they accuse Israel, the more rationalist RambamMoreh Nevukhim 3:46About R. Moshe b. Maimon views the goat as a standard sacrifice which is sent out of the Mikdash only for technical reasons. R"Y Bekhor ShorVayikra 16:10About R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and RalbagVayikra 16:22About R. Levi b. Gershom, in contrast, view the animal as a symbolic scapegoat. The ceremony enables the people to feel that they have been given a fresh start, while simultaneously reminding them that the goat's fate should really have been theirs.  What does each position suggest about the nature of the day as a whole? 

See Why is the Goat Sent to Azazel for a full discussion of the above.

To Forgive and Forget?

According to many modern commentators,1 Yonah's refusal to heed Hashem's call to rebuke Nineveh stemmed from his theological objections to the very concept of repentance. This story forces the reader to question some fundamental notions regarding both repentance and forgiveness:

  • How does repentance work?  Does it serve to erase both sin and punishment, or only the former?  Would justice really be served if a mere apology eliminated the need for recompense for heinous crimes?
  • What factors play a role in forgiveness?  Must it be a response to change, or might it stem from mercy or love?  Is forgiveness incompatible with punishment?
  • Finally, does repentance that stems from fear of punishment have the same status as that which derives from simple recognition of right and wrong?  Is there any value in short-lived repentance?

See Why Did Yonah Disobey Hashem for elaboration. To see how Yonah's outlook on sin and punishment might compare to that of other leaders, see Avraham and Yonah, Eliyahu and Yonah and Sefer Yonah and the Sin of the Calf.

Purifying the People or the Place?

Today, without a Beit HaMikdash, Yom HaKippurim is usually a day of introspection, revolving around prayer, repentance, and atonement. What, though, was the focal point of the day in Mikdash times? See Purpose of the Service of Vayikra 16.

  • The verses imply that the day revolves around "כפרה" but commentators debate both what this word means and whether the object of this כפרה is the Mikdash or the nation.
  • While R. Saadia maintains that the day was people focused and then, like now, revolved around  the attainment of atonement, Hoil Moshe asserts that, unlike today, the day used to focus primarily on the purification of the physical Mikdash itself. R. Hoffman takes a middle position, suggesting that the day had a dual focus, to both purge the Mikdash of impurity and to expiate the sins of the nation, noting that transgressions contaminate both the individual and the Mikdash itself.
  • What might it mean that sins can defile a physical location? How do one's actions affect one's surroundings?  How do they affect one's self?

Prophetic Disobedience

Given that the main mission of every prophet is to bring the people closer to Hashem and lead them on the path of righteousness, it is perplexing that Yonah should choose to flee rather than aid the people of Nineveh to repent. 

  • Is it conceivable that a true prophet might simply disregard a command of Hashem? Why would Hashem select someone like this as His prophet?  What does this suggest about prophecy in general?
  • Did Yonah really think that he could escape his mission or avoid Divine detection simply by boarding a boat to Tarshish?
  • Finally, and most fundamentally, why was Yonah so adamant in his refusal to  assist the people of Nineveh to repent?  While Rashi Yonah 1:3About R. Shelomo Yitzchakisuggests that Yonah had patriotic motives,2 Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer10About Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer suggests that Yonah was acting only out of self interest.3  R. SaadiaHaEmunot VeHaDeiot 3:5About R. Saadia Gaon, meanwhile, attempts to explain that really Yonah never disobeyed Hashem and that verses which indicate otherwise must be reinterpreted. Which of these approaches is best supported by the text?   How do they affect your perspective on Yonah? See Why Did Yonah Disobey Hashem for elaboration.

Messages from Sefer Yonah

What is the main message of the book of Yonah?

  • Some maintain that it is a book about the power of repentance and second chances, pointing to both Nineveh and Yonah as examples.  How, though, should one rate the repentance of each group?  Does Yonah really change his ways? Is the penitence of Nineveh, replete with fasting animals adorned in sackcloth, a model to emulate or a farce to be avoided?  See The Repentance of Nineveh and Yonah's Prayer.
  • Others suggest that the book revolves around Hashem's mercy, demonstrating that Hashem's benevolence extends not just to His chosen nation but to all His creations.  See Hoil MosheYonah, ConclusionAbout R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi.
  • Yet others assert that the book highlights Hashem's providence and how all of nature is subservient to His will. Go to the Tanakh Lab to explore the most significant keywords in the book when compared to the rest of Tanakh.  How might the guiding words "טול" and "וימן" highlight this theme?
  • How are each of these messages central to Yom HaKippurim?

The Gates of Repentance are Never Locked

Is it really true that the gates of repentance are never locked?  Is it possible that Hashem might punish someone by declaring them ineligible for repentance?  Similarly, is it possible for someone to sincerely repent, and for their repentance not to be accepted?

For topics which touch on these questions, see Hardened Hearts and Repentance Rejected.