Back to Parsha Homepage | Previous Issues
"For on this day shall be an atonement for you to cleanse you;
from all your sins shall you be cleansed before Hashem. It is a
Sabbath of Sabbath (a Sabbath of complete rest) for you, and you
should afflict yourselves; an eternal decree."
One of the anomalies of Yom Kippur is the status it carries as Shabbat
Shabbaton (the Sabbath of Sabbaths). Most of us who observe Shabbat know
that to observe one must follow certain Halachik (legal) guidelines: We
must dress appropriately; we must eat festive meals; we must read special
sections from the Torah; etc. It appears somewhat incongruous that on a
day that might be described as a super-Shabbat not only do we not eat our
usual three festive Shabbat meals, but we are forbidden to eat or drink any
food at all. Why?
The verse says: "you should afflict yourselves," which should mean that we
shouldn't eat or drink.
The Rambam (acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon [Maimonides], 1135-1204,
Egypt) the great codifier and philosopher maintains that the root of the
word Shabbat means to cease; we are obligated to cease or rest from eating
and drinking. In fact, the Rambam brings the law (Laws of Yom Kippur 1:4-5):
"There is a further positive commandment on Yom Kippur. It
is to rest from eating and drinking.
It is [also] forbidden to bathe, to apply oil to the body, to wear
[leather] shoes, or to cohabitate. It is a positive commandment to rest
from all these just as it is to rest from eating."
The Rambam saw the cessation from eating and drinking as a form of rest.
Hashem frees the Jews from certain physical functions on that one day
allowing us, to strive for something much higher.
Pirke de Rebbi Eliezer chapter 46 (a Midrash composed by the school of
Rebbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, circa 100 C.E.) elaborates even further:
"Samael (Satan, the Angel of Death, the Evil Inclination, the
Accuser or Prosecutor) saw that sin was not found among [Israel]
on Yom Kippur. He said to Hashem: ‘You have a unique nation,
which is like the ministering angels in heaven. Just as the angels
have bare feet, so the Jews have bare feet on Yom Kippur. Just
as angels neither eat nor drink, so the Jews neither eat nor drink
on Yom Kippur...' "
On Yom Kippur, we appear to be angels. We not only refrain from the five
prohibitions cited by the Rambam, we also dress in white, the color of the
angels, the color of purity. This status is fascinating for us to explore
in order to understand better.
Three days after Avraham our Patriarch was circumcised, he sat at the
entrance of his tent looking for a way to do his special Mitzvah,
hospitality to strangers. Hashem came to him and was Mivaker Choleh
(visited the infirm); during that visit, Avraham saw three people walking
in the desert.
"Hashem appeared to him in the pains of Mamre while he
was sitting at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day.
He lifted his eyes and saw: And behold! He perceived that
three men were approaching him, so he ran toward them from
the tent entrance and bowed to the ground."
(B'rayshit [Genesis] 18:1-2)
Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 - 1105) on the
words "three men were approaching" cites an amazing Midrash (B'rayshit
Rabba 50:2) that claims the three were angels:
"One to bring tidings (of the birth of Yitzchak) to Sarah; one
to destroy Sodom; and one to heal Avraham. For one angel
does not perform two missions."
Angels are similar to robots, they serve one purpose or function only.
Hashem has thousands of angels, each with a specific function: Raphael is
the healer; Gavriel is the forceful one; Satan is the Accuser, etc.
If Israel is likened to angels on Yom Kippur, then maybe the above
mentioned Pirke de Rebbi Eliezer is telling us that our function on Yom
Kippur is to reorient ourselves to our one and only function: to spread
holiness in the world through the fulfillment of Hashem's Torah.
We have to some extent lost track of our purpose. We think that we were
created in order to heal the sick, or to fight for the rights of the
downtrodden, to compose beautiful music, or to produce great movies, or
just to make a living. But that is not so. Our true purpose is to spread
Hashem's holiness in the world; perhaps we can accomplish this by being
doctors, musicians, social workers, poets, housewives or rabbis. However,
at times we get sidetracked and we think of how much "I" get out of it
rather than how to fulfill His directives. Yom Kippur is the one day of
the year to get back on track, when we can see the errors we have made and
rectify them through Teshuvah (repentance or a return to His priorities).
And so, one day a year, we are likened to angels who do not need food or
drink, or bathing, or oil for our bodies, or hides of dead animals for our
feet, or even cohabitation with our spouses. All of these needs distract
us from His directives.
Angels do not need to satisfy any physical, emotional or spiritual needs;
they are pure energy whose sole purpose is to serve their Creator, though
their service is robot-like, and they have no choices. Human beings on the
other hand have souls that are spiritual but are imprisoned in an physical
shell, always needing to be fed, clothed, pleasured and nurtured. Yet this
imprisonment is the glory of humanity. Unlike the angels, we can rise
above our limitations and constraints serving our Creator by blending both
our physical and our spiritual natures. For this reason the Torah was
given to human beings rather than to the angels.
So the Rambam, and Rashi and Rebbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and all of our
teachers and mentors stress the point that on Yom Kippur we fool Satan into
thinking that the we are angels, not centered on the physical but on our
"Samael ...said to Hashem: ‘You have a unique nation, like the
angels in heaven. Just as the angels have bare feet, so the Jews
have bare feet on Yom Kippur. Just as angels neither eat nor
drink, so the Jews neither eat nor drink on Yom Kippur...' "
Do not see our abstinence from the five pleasures as affliction, rather
view it as a respite from our limitations as humans. Our true objective is
to serve Hashem with joy, awe and love, and to attend Him with our entire
body, heart and soul. That is spirit of the day; and when achieved, it
deludes the angel Samael into reasoning that we too are angels.
Tzom Kal - Have an easy fast!