Unlike the other biblical holidays, which are celebratory in nature, Yom Kippur is anything but a celebration. The Torah’s prescription for this day states:
On the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement; it shall be a sacred holiday to you, and you shall afflict your souls; and you shall bring a sacrificial offering to the EverPresent God. And you shall do no work on that day, for it is a day to make atonement for you before the EverPresent, your God. For any soul that shall not be afflicted on that day shall be cut off from his people. And any soul that does any work on that day, that soul will I destroy from among his people. (Lev. 23:26–30)
Rather than revel in good food and drink as we do on all the other biblical holy days including Shabbat, traditional Jews, following the interpretation of “affliction” in the Mishnah (Yoma 8:1), refrain for twenty-five hours from all food and drink, bathing, wearing leather shoes, anointing themselves with skin creams and lotions, and marital relations.
And unlike all of the other seasonal holidays, when traditional Jews do use fire to prepare food for the holiday, on Yom Kippur one does not use fire to cook. Indeed, the Torah, in laying out the restrictions for Yom Kippur, strongly focuses on “afflicting” oneself and on avoiding any work, repeating these admonitions three times each within the space of seven verses. This is hardly what one would think of as a holiday.
Because of its stringencies, Yom Kippur, of all the holidays in the Torah, is perhaps the most physically uncomfortable to observe. And yet, it is observed in Israel, where I live, more so perhaps than any other holiday in the course of the year.
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Let’s turn to the point in the biblical narrative when the Jewish people were encamped in the desert at the base of Mount Sinai. God had revealed the Ten Commandments to them and then asked Moses to ascend to the top of the mountain – without specifying how long he would be there – so that God could teach him many of the other laws of the Torah (Ex. 24:12).
Because Moses had not taken along any food or water to this private tutorial (Deut. 9:9), and because he was gone for such a long time in the middle of the desert’s summer heat, the people became anxious that he would not return. Moses was, for the people, their only physical connection to God. In fact, from their perspective, the line between God and Moses was blurred, to say the least:
And the people saw that Moses was delayed from coming down the mountain so the people surrounded Aaron and said to him: “Get up! Make us a god to go before us because we don’t know what happened to that man, Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt.” [Ex. 32:1]
For the masses, God and Moses were synonymous. Though they had heard God utter the first commandment – “I am the Ever-Present God, your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2) – as far as they were concerned, it was Moses who had led them out of Egypt. Without Moses, they were afraid, no one would provide for them, protect them, or lead them through the vast expanse of the desert to the Land of Israel.
In Exodus 32 we read that the people convinced Aaron to help them make a golden calf – a physical object to replace Moses. Aaron agreed, apparently hoping to channel the people’s anxiety until Moses would return. He melted down golden earrings, donated by the men from their wives’ jewelry, and molded them into the form of a calf. Trying to stall further, and prevent a betrayal of God, Aaron proclaimed: “Tomorrow we will have a festival for the EverPresent God” (Ex. 32:1–5).
But, as the text records, the people pointed to the calf and said: “This is your god, O Israel, who has taken you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). They arose early in the morning, offered sacrifices to their new god and bowed down before it, and then “sat down to eat and drink, and they rose to play” (Ex. 32:6).
These actions of the Jewish people were a blatant violation of at least the first two of the Ten Commandments. The first commandment states: “I am the EverPresent God, your God who took you out of the land of Egypt.” The people said that the Golden Calf was the god that took them out of Egypt. The second commandment states: “You shall make no image of anything…that exists on this earth” (Ex. 20:4). The people made a golden image of something that walks on this earth to represent God. The second commandment also states that such an object should not be bowed down to or worshiped, and the Jewish people prostrated themselves and offered sacrifices to the Golden Calf.
God told Moses, who was still on the top of the mountain, what the people had done, and instructed him to go down to them. On his way, Moses met Joshua who was awaiting him halfway up the mountain. Joshua, hearing the tumult in the camp below, said in distress: “There is the sound of war in the camp!” Moses, knowing what had actually happened, replied sadly: “This is not the sound of affliction of the victor, or the sound of affliction of the loser, it is just the sound of affliction that I hear” (Ex. 32:17–18).
Given the situation, Moses might very well have meant, “It is the sound of God’s affliction that I hear.”
What sounds did Joshua and Moses hear that might have afflicted God? They heard the partying of the people, eating, drinking, and engaging in inappropriate “play” before the Golden Calf. This was a betrayal of their commitment made at Mount Sinai to “do and listen” (Ex. 24:7) to God and to God’s commandments.
Moses, when he saw the frenzied partying and dancing before the calf, threw down the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments in a fit of rage, shattering them into small fragments. In effect, he ripped up the marriage contract that bound God and the Jewish people. With the symbol of their covenant with God literally in pieces, what could the Jewish people do to restore their shattered relationship with the Divine?
One of the greatest scholars who explained the traditions of repentance and atonement in Judaism is Maimonides. In his twelfth-century code of Jewish law, he teaches that one of the key ways to successful repentance is to avoid those means, which led to sin in the first place. Applying this insight to the story of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people “afflicted God” by eating, drinking, and engaging in inappropriate behavior as part of their worship. God therefore commanded that they, and all future generations of Jews, avoid eating, drinking, and marital intimacy on the day of the year they were ultimately forgiven, in order to repent and gain forgiveness.
Therefore, on Yom Kippur Jews afflict themselves and avoid the very actions that led to the worship of the Golden Calf, which afflicted God. In so doing, they demonstrate their commitment to not repeating the mistakes of their ancestors.
A similar line of reasoning helps us understand the Bible’s thrice-emphasized prohibition of work on Yom Kippur. Unlike the other seasonal holidays on which the use of fire to prepare food is permitted, on Yom Kippur, as on the Sabbath, it is prohibited. In fact, the Bible describes Yom Kippur as a “Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
The one example given in the Torah of the traditional thirty-nine categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath is the kindling of fire. This particular prohibition was commanded by Moses immediately after he came down from the mountain with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness for the Golden Calf. And the timing is no coincidence:
And Moses assembled all the congregation of the Jewish people, and said to them: “These are the words which the EverPresent God has commanded, that you shall do: ‘Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day shall be a holy day to you, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the EverPresent God; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.’ ” [Ex. 35:1–3]
Although all work is prohibited on the Sabbath – and on the Sabbath of Sabbaths – Moses specifies the prohibition of kindling fire perhaps because the use of fire facilitated the creation of the Golden Calf in the first place. We know this from Aaron’s attempt to deflect responsibility for his pivotal role in fashioning the calf:
And Moses said to Aaron: “ What did this people do to you, that you brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said: “Let not my lord be angry; you know that the people are set on evil. So they said to me: ‘Make us a god that will lead us, for this man, Moses, who took us out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And I said to them: ‘ Whoever has any gold, let them break it off ’; so they gave it me; and I cast it into the fire, and out came out this calf.” [Ex. 32:21–24]
Since fire was used to create the calf, either magically, as Aaron implied, or consciously, as the Torah seems to record, telling us that Aaron formed a molten calf (Ex. 32:4), the Torah thrice emphasizes the prohibition of work – whose most prominent example is fire – on this Sabbath of Sabbaths.
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We now understand not only why the Bible vehemently insists that Jews afflict themselves but also why the Bible repeats the prohibition of working on this day in such intensive fashion: both are responses to the sinfulness of the Golden Calf. But why, according to our sages, do traditional Jews also afflict themselves on Yom Kippur by not wearing leather shoes, bathing for pleasure, and anointing themselves with moisturizing oils or lotions?
In the narrative of the Golden Calf, even though Moses persuaded God not to destroy the people, and granted them provisional forgiveness (Ex. 32:34), God still felt deeply wronged by the people’s misdirected worship. So God told Moses he should lead the people to the land of Canaan, accompanied by a heaven-sent angel who would help them conquer the land. God would not accompany them lest He consume them during the journey:
And the EverPresent God spoke to Moses: “Depart, go up, you and the people that you brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land – the land flowing with milk and honey – which I swore unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants will I give it; and I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; but I will not go up in your midst for you are a stiff-necked people; lest I consume you on the journey.’ ” [Ex. 33:1–3]
The people were very upset by the news that God would not accompany them. Feeling genuinely contrite for what they had done, they mourned deeply and demonstrated their remorse by removing the jewelry they had from the mountain of Horeb/Sinai, as recorded in the Torah.
And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man put on his jewelry. And the EverPresent God said unto Moses: “Say to the Jewish people: ‘You are a stiff-necked nation. If I go up in your midst, in one moment of wrath, I might consume you. As for now, keep off your jewelry, that I may know what to do with you.’ ” And the Children of Israel stripped themselves of their jewelry from Mount Horeb. [Ex. 32:4–6]
To reconcile with God on our Day of Atonement, we imitate our ancestors’ mourning behavior and engage in the traditional rituals of bereavement: not wearing leather shoes, bathing, or anointing ourselves. For the same reason, the custom is for women not to wear gold jewelry on Yom Kippur. Like the Jewish people in the biblical narrative, we remove our jewelry to persuade God of our contrition and remorsefulness.
Additional customs demonstrate our contrition and remorse. Like the High Priest, who on Yom Kippur wore simple white linen garments instead of his customary gold-embellished clothing, we too dress in simple white clothes. Traditional men wear a kittel, a plain white garment that recalls a shroud, the simplest, least ornamental form of clothing. Many women dress in plain, all-white clothing as well. We show thereby that on this day at least, we do not pay attention to ourselves, to our own vanity, but redirect our attention and devotion to God.
This essay was excerpted from his book “Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of the Jewish Holidays and their Mysterious Rituals” (Maggid Books).