A Midrashic Account

When Moses ascended to the supernal abode, he heard the angels singing the words “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed” (“Blessed be the name of the glory of His Kingdom forever and ever”), and upon his descent he taught it to Israel. Why does Israel not proclaim these words openly [but rather whisper them in an undertone during the daily Shema service]? Says Rabbi Asi, “This is comparable to a man who stole a gem from the royal palace and gave it to his wife. ‘I implore you,’ he said to her, ‘never wear this gem in public, only in the privacy of your home.’ However, on Yom Kippur, when they are pure as angels, they proclaim these words loudly.”1

On the surface, this Midrash raises more questions than it answers. If this prayer belongs to the angels, why did Moses steal it? If we announce the theft on Yom Kippur, what is the purpose of further stealth after Yom Kippur? How does Yom Kippur enhance our purity?

The Jew and G‑d

Immediately following the above account, the Midrash goes on to explain that there are five levels to the soul, of which the fifth and highest is yechidah, from the root yachid, which translates as “alone” or “unique.” The Midrash tells of the intimate connection between G‑d and the soul, especially on the fifth and highest level. “Just as G‑d is alone . . . so too is the soul alone.”

The High Priest and the Angels

Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest would enter the Temple’s innermost sanctuary, known as the Holy of Holies. The Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 1:5) teaches that when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he was alone with G‑d; even the angels were not permitted entry. This is to say that the connection between G‑d and his human soul at that moment was so intense that it was even beyond the spiritual capacity of angels. Only G‑d and Man are allowed into this unique relationship. Just as G‑d is alone, so too is the soul alone—with G‑d.

The Modern-Day Connection

We don’t have our Holy Temple service today, but in its place we have the prayers. We pray thrice daily. On Shabbat and holidays we add a fourth prayer, Musaf, which means “addition.” Yom Kippur is the only day in the year in which we add Neilah, a fifth prayer to be said as the sun is sinking below the horizon and the day comes to a close.

Chassidism explains that the prayers are linked to the five levels of the soul. Thus, the fifth prayer we say on Yom Kippur represents yechidah. During the year, this level lies concealed within us, too holy for the mundane world. But on Yom Kippur, yechidah is uncovered. This was the level which was revealed by the high priest in the Holy of Holies. The level which, the Talmud teaches, is beyond even the angels. The level which, the Midrash teaches, is alone, one with G‑d.

The Honest Thief

We now understand the secret behind the so-called “theft” of the Baruch shem prayer. This holy prayer should be recited only by the most spiritually exalted beings. The angels are entitled to chant it. And on its highest level, that of yechidah, each of our souls is holier even than the angels, which is why we do indeed chant it throughout the year.

But because this level of soulfulness is not evident within us throughout the year, we chant it quietly. To chant it loudly would be a form of “theft,” suggesting that our internal holiness is more accessible to us than it truly is. We are holy, but our holiness is concealed; this is why we chant the prayer, but we conceal our chant by whispering it.

It follows that on Yom Kippur, when this level of the soul is fully revealed within us, we proclaim our right to this prayer in a loud voice.