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G-d said to Moses: '…On the tenth of this [seventh] month is the Day of Atonement… Any person who will not be afflicted (who does not fast) on that day will be cut off from his people. As for any person person who does any work on this very day: I will destroy that soul from its people (23:26-30).
The penalty for not fasting on Yom Kippur is 'karet' - literally, 'being cut off'. Rashi states that the meaning of 'karet' is given the next verse about whoever works on Yom Kippur: 'I will destroy'. That means that every time 'karet' is mentioned in the Torah as a penalty, it means the destruction of the soul, and premature death.
The Sforno, however, gives different meanings to 'karet' and 've-ahavadity'. Following the view that not all types of 'karet' are the same, he infers that the person who works on Yom Kippur is judged more harshly than the person who eats. Eating on Yom Kippur reflects lack of temporary self-control, but actually working shows the holding of G-d's commandments in contempt.
In going a little deeper, we can explore the relevance of the words 'karet' and 've-ahavadity' to specifically Yom Kippur. As the text states:
You shall not do any work on this very day. For it is the Day of Atonement, to effect atonement before the Lord your G-d (23:28).
The Hebrew phrase for 'on this very day' is 'be-etzem hayom hazeh'. Rashi (to Deut. 32:48) comments that it means 'in spite of the forces of that day'. Thus Noah and his family entered the ark 'be-etzem hayom hazeh' (Gen. 7:13) - despite the local people doing all they could to stop him. G-d brought the Israelites 'be-etzem hayom hazeh' (Ex. 12:51) - despite the Egyptians not wanting to release them from bondage.
Thus the words 'be-etzem hayom hazeh' suggest that Yom Kippur has a spiritual force of its own. That force is Yom Kippur being shabbat shabbaton - 'the Sabbath of Sabbaths'. It is a day when G-d is closest to his people - when one 'seeks G-d when He is found, calls Him when He is near' (Isaiah 55:6). It is the day which 'effects atonement' - on which G-d forgives the sins of people as individuals, and as a whole, with repentance.
Wilfully eating on Yom Kippur puts aside that spiritual force. Wilfully working on Yom Kippur puts aside that spiritual force, and substitutes it for mundane, weekday activities. It is as though a person is 'cutting himself' from G-d when He is close, and depriving himself of the opportunity of being forgiven and emerging with a 'spiritually clean sheet' - by working - 've-ahavadity''
This is illustrated by Yom Kippur being the one time in the year that the synagogues are full - with the non-observant, as well as the observant. 'Perhaps,' as my Father put it, 'the soul indeed does respond'.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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