The atonement procured by Yom Kippur is loftier even than that obtained through repentance, for on this day Jew and G‑d are absolutely one. The quintessence of the Jew blazes forth, uniting with his G‑d to reveal a bond untouchable by sin.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement,1 about which the Torah states: “On the tenth day of the seventh month you shall afflict your souls and do no work. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; before G‑d you shall be cleansed of all your sins.”2 Clarifying the nature of Yom Kippur, the Rambam writes: “It is the day of repentance for all, for the individual and for the community; it is the time of pardon and forgiveness for Israel. Therefore everyone is obligated to repent and to confess wrongdoing on Yom Kippur.” 3

Teshuvah, repentance, is restricted not only to Yom Kippur. There are many other times which are auspicious for teshuvah,4 and indeed, a Jew can, and must, be in a state of contrition and repentance every day of the year. What makes Yom Kippur so unique?5

Yom Kippur itself procures atonement

The Talmud, discussing how Yom Kippur procures atonement for sins, cites two views.6 The Rabbis are of the opinion that “Yom Kippur brings atonement only for those who repent,” while Rebbi maintains that “Yom Kippur brings atonement for a person whether he has repented or not,” for “the day itself procures atonement.”

The Rabbis do not disagree with Rebbi that “the day itself procures atonement,”7 for also they say that a higher level of atonement can be obtained on Yom Kippur — because of the nature of the day itself — than can be achieved through repentance alone. The disagreement is about how to elicit the atonement of Yom Kippur: Rebbi believes that the day itself, even without teshuvah, is enough to bring atonement for one’s sins. The Rabbis maintain that one must first repent, and then one obtains the particular atonement of Yom Kippur (which is infinitely loftier than that elicited by teshuvah alone).

How does Yom Kippur procure atonement?

The Rabbis and Rebbi agree, then, that what distinguishes Yom Kippur is that “the day itself procures atonement.” But how does Yom Kippur achieve this? Atonement is not merely remission of punishment for sin; it means also that a Jew’s soul is cleansed of the blemishes that are caused by the sin.8 Moreover, not only does no impression of the transgressions remain, but the transgressions are transformed into merits.9

That this may be achieved through teshuvah is understandable. When a Jew is genuinely remorseful over sins committed, he thereby eradicates the pleasure he derived from the sins. His soul is thus cleansed and made pure of evil. Moreover, the sin itself may be viewed as contributing to the teshuvah process. A transgression cuts one off from G‑d. The feeling of being removed from G‑d acts as a spur to teshuvah, to establish a more intense bond with Him. Because transgressions eventually bring one to a stronger relationship with G‑d, they are considered, after one has repented and this strong bond has been effected, as merits.10

Thus the process of teshuvah. What of the atonement procured through Yom Kippur? If atonement meant only the remission of punishment, it would be understandable that “the day itself” can do away with the punishment that otherwise would be due for one’s transgressions throughout the year. But atonement, we have said, means also the cleansing of the soul’s blemishes. How does “the day itself,” without the transforming power of teshuvah, achieve this?

Three levels in a Jew’s bond with G‑d

Sin affects a Jew’s bond with G‑d, of which there are different levels in this bond:

(i) The relationship established by a Jew through performing mitzvos: A Jew’s acceptance of the yoke of heaven and his readiness to follow G‑d’s directives establishes a bond between himself and G‑d.

(ii) An inner connection, deeper than the first. Because this bond transcends that forged by compliance with G‑d’s will, it remains in force even when one transgress that will and thereby severs the first level of relationship. This deeper bond causes a Jew to be distressed over sin and moves him to repent. It is precisely because this bond affects the soul more profoundly than the first type of relationship, that teshuvah has the power to cleanse the blemishes in the soul caused by sin — which weakened the lower level of connection.

(iii) The bond uniting a Jew’s essence with G‑d’s Essence. This is unfettered by any bounds whatsoever, and transcends all human expression. Unlike the previous two, this relationship cannot be produced by man’s service to G‑d, even the service of teshuvah, for man’s actions, no matter how lofty, are inherently limited. Rather, it is a bond intrinsic to the Jewish soul which is “a part of G‑d above”11 — and on this level, Jew and G‑d are absolutely one.

Because this bond transcends all limits, it cannot be affected by man’s actions. Just as it cannot be produced by man’s service to G‑d, so it cannot be impaired by omission of service or by sinning. Sins and blemishes cannot touch this level.

Unity between Jews and G‑d

On Yom Kippur, this bond between a Jew’s essence and G‑d’s Essence is revealed in every Jew — and therefore all blemishes on the soul caused by one’s sins are automatically removed.12

This is the difference between the atonement of Yom Kippur and that of any other time. In the latter, sin does cause blemishes on the soul, and therefore a person must actively work to acquire atonement — by repenting, which produces a deeper relationship between G‑d and man. The greater atonement of Yom Kippur, however, comes about through the revelation of a bond so lofty that no blemish can occur in the first place.

The above concept is expressed in the Yom Kippur service of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who represented all Jewry. One of the principal moments of that service was his entrance into the Holy of Holies, about which Torah says: “No man shall be in the Ohel Moed when he enters to make atonement.”13 The Talmud Yerushalmi comments that this refers even to angels.14 No one, man or angel, could be in the Holy of Holies at that time, for the Yom Kippur service is the revelation of the essential unity between Jews and their Maker. Only Jew and G‑d are there — alone.15

Revelation of Jew’s essence

Such a revelation is possible not only in the Beis HaMikdosh through the Kohen Gadol, but for every Jew in his Yom Kippur prayers.16 Yom Kippur is the only day of the year which has five prayer services, corresponding to the five levels of the soul.17 In the last prayer service, Ne’ilah, the fifth and highest level of the soul18 is revealed, a level which is the soul’s quintessence. “Ne’ilah” means “lock,” indicating that at this time Jews are locked in alone with G‑d. The essence of a Jew is together and united with the Essence of G‑d.19

Yom Kippur, then, is a day when no external factors exist, when only the quintessence of the Jew shines forth. Teshuvah can eradicate sin and the blemishes in the soul; Yom Kippur transcends the entire concept of sin and repentance — and therefore brings an atonement loftier than at any other time.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, pp. 1149-1154