Question: Why do we recite a fifth prayer – Ne’ilah – on Yom Kippur but on no other day of the year?
Answer: Yom Kippur possesses extra sanctity. The Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 185) states, “[I]t is truly Hashem’s kindness to His creations that He set forth for them one day in the year as a time to atone for their sins through repentance. For if the sins of all of creation would collect from year to year, the refuse would be so overwhelming…that the world would be rife and deserving of Heavenly destruction.
“Therefore, He saw in His wisdom…for the sake of the continued existence of the world the need to set aside one day a year to atone for the sins of those who repent. From the beginning of creation, Hashem designated this day and sanctified it for this very purpose. And since it was designated by Hashem for atonement, the day has become intrinsically holy and thus possesses special favor from Him in that it aids in the atonement.
“And this is what [our sages] say in many places (Shavuot 13a, Yoma 85b), “And Yom Ha’Kippurim atones” – meaning, Yom Kippur possesses a special power of its own to atone for simple sins.”
When we possessed a Beit HaMikdash, the High Priest would offer various sacrifices along with viduyim (confessionals) that would atone for the sins of the repentant masses. Today, however, we have no Beit HaMikdash. We still have the means to repent, though. The prophet Hosea said:
“Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha ki chashalta b’avonecha k’chu imachem d’varim v’shuvu el Hashem, imru eilav kol tisa avon v’kach tov u’neshalma porim sefateinu” – “Return Israel to Hashem, your G-d, as you have stumbled in your sins… Take with you words and return to Hashem. Say to Him: Forgive our sins and take our good deeds and accept the words of our lips as payment for our cattle sacrifices” (Hosea 14:2-3).
The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Korach 12) expounds from these words that the Children of Israel proclaimed to Hashem, “When the Beit HaMikdash was standing, we offered a sacrifice, which atoned for our sins. Today, all we have is prayer.”
The day’s special power to atone can be uniquely ours when we pray to Hashem. Thus, adding an extra prayer on Yom Kippur – Ne’ilah – seems quite appropriate.
Yet, the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 4:1) asks why we pray Ne’ilah. The Gemara (supra and Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 26b) says all other tefillot correspond to a prayer the patriarchs said or to one of the sacrifices in the Beit HaMikdash. What does Ne’ilah correspond to?
In answer to this question, the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 4:1; cf. B.T., Berachot 32b) quotes the following words from Isaiah 1:15: “gam ki tarbu tefillah – even should you say many prayers” from which we infer that if a person spends much time in prayer (by davening Ne’ilah), he is answered.
Today we only say Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, but in the time of the Mishnah, Ne’ilah was also said on public fasts and ma’amadot (the appointed Israelites would fast so that the sacrifices of their brethren would be accepted, according to Rashi – Ta’anit 26a).
The Gemara (Yerushalmi, Berachot) records a dispute between Rav and Rabbi Yochanan (Yerushalmi Berachot ad loc.) about when we say Ne’ilah (which means “the closing”). Rav says: When the Gates of Heaven close (i.e., at sunset). Rav Yochanan says: When the Gates of the Temple close (which is earlier than sunset). To satisfy both opinions, we begin Ne’ilah before sunset. Rav himself would start when the sun was “yet above the trees.”
Sefer Ta’amei Ha’Minhagim (Inyanei Yom Ha’Kippurim 666) quotes the Rebbe, Rabbi Herschel of Rimanov, zt”l, who says the tefillah is called “Ne’ilah” because it is recited towards the end of Yom Kippur when the tzaddikei hador (the righteous of the generation) seclude themselves with Hashem in a special spiritual chamber that is closed and secured, precluding any prosecuting angel, Heaven forbid, from entering.
Let us pray that Hashem answers our prayers on this special day and blesses us with a year of health, plenty, and the geulah shleimah.