The Essence of the Day

The Talmud relates1 the following difference of opinion with regard to G‑d’s pardoning of our sins on Yom Kippur:

Our Sages maintain that “Yom Kippur atones only for those who repent,” while Rebbe [Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi] states: “Whether or not one repents, Yom Kippur atones,” because “the essence of the day brings atonement.” The Halachah is decided according to our Sages.2

It is not that the Sages differ with Rebbe [Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi] and feel that “the essence of the day” is not powerful enough in its own right to bring about atonement. On the contrary, they also maintain that it is “the essence of the day” which atones.3 For with teshuvah alone, a person cannot reach the level of atonement attained by virtue of “the essence of the day.”

The difference between Rebbe and our Sages is one of mechanics: how is it possible for the atonement brought about by the essence of the day to be achieved? Rebbe maintains that when Yom Kippur comes, the power of “the essence of the day” is so great that even when a Jew does not repent, his sins are washed away.

Our Sages, by contrast, maintain4 that for the atonement brought about by the essence of the day to be effective, it must be accompanied by teshuvah. This teshuvah, however, is no more than a preparatory step, for the atonement brought about by the essence of the day is far more encompassing than that brought about by teshuvah.

On this basis, we can also understand our Sages’ comment5 on the verse:6 “Seek G‑d when He is to be found”: “These are the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.”7 On one hand, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are included in the sum of these 10 days, for without them there would not be “Ten Days of Repentance.” Simultaneously, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur stand above the 10 days, which are described as being “betweenRosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.” For the essential aspects of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur transcend the Divine service of teshuvah.

The essence of Rosh HaShanah is the crowning of G‑d as King.7 The essence of Yom Kippur is the atonement brought about by the essence of the day — an endowment granted every Jew from above, independent of his striving to do teshuvah.


Three Levels of Connection

Atonement means more than withholding punishment for a person’s sins. The implication is that all blemishes and scars brought about by the sins are washed away from the person’s soul.8 And in a consummate sense, teshuvah means not only that no trace of sin is left, but that the sin itself is transformed and considered a merit.9

When a Jew returns to G‑d with remorse over the sins he has committed, we can understand how this dynamic operates. His feelings of regret tear away the pleasure he experienced at the time of sin, and this purifies and washes away the traces of evil from his soul.10

What’s more, the distance created by sin spurs the soul to a greater thirst for G‑dliness. For this reason, after teshuvah, the sin can be considered a merit.11

But when atonement is brought about by “the essence of the day,” how can it result in such a process of purification?It is possible to understand that such atonement will prevent punishment, but how can it purify our souls?

This question applies even according to our Sages, for they postulate that the atonement of Yom Kippur has a more encompassing effect than the Divine service of teshuvah. Surely, this question applies according to Rebbe, who maintains that Yom Kippur brings about atonement even without teshuvah.

The above question can be resolved by coming to appreciate the various levels of connection our souls share with G‑d. There is one level which is dependent on our observance of G‑d’s commandments. It is established by a person’s acceptance of the yoke of heaven, and his willingness to do what G‑d asks of him.

There is a second and deeper level of connection, one which is reflected by the fact that even a Jew who has broken G‑d’s commandments and cast off the yoke of heaven will feel remorse and turn to G‑d in teshuvah. Because teshuvah comes from a level of connection which is deeper than that established through the observance of the mitzvos, it has the power to correct and wash away the spiritual blemishes caused by sin.12 Sin weakens the soul’s connection to G‑d, and teshuvah restores it.

Nevertheless, even this inner connection has a certain limit, as it is manifest in the process of teshuvah.

There is a third, and even deeper level: the bond shared between the essence of the soul and G‑d’s essence. This bond knows no measure at all, nor is there any process through which it is manifest. It is therefore above even teshuvah.

This level of connection cannot be established through our activities and Divine service, for all mortal activities, however lofty, have a limit. Instead, it is an innate, natural connection stemming from the fact that every Jew possesses a soul which is “an actual part of G‑d from above,”13 and even while enclothed in the body, it “clings and cleaves to You, its oneness affirming Your oneness.”14

Since this level of connection is above all measure and form, it cannot be established through our Divine service, and cannot be weakened by a lack of service or even by sin.

This is the meaning of the phrase “the essence of the day brings about atonement.” On Yom Kippur, the Jews’ essential bond with G‑d is revealed, and this washes away all blemishes.

(As mentioned above, the difference between the views of Rebbe and the Sages hinges on whether or not teshuvah is necessary for this level to be revealed. They both agree that it is not teshuvah which effects the atonement of Yom Kippur, but rather that atonement stems from the essence of the day.)

On that level of the soul where sins have an effect and can cause a blemish, atonement must be achieved through man’s conscious turning to G‑d in teshuvah.15 This arouses a deeper connection with G‑d, which breaks through any obstacles that might prevent such a bond. The atonement brought about by Yom Kippur, by contrast, comes through the revelation of a bond which never allowed for the possibility of a blemish.16


The Beginning and the End

It thus follows that the beginning of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Rosh HaShanah, and the conclusion of these days, Yom Kippur, both relate to the connection of the essence of the soul to G‑d, which transcends the service of teshuvah. On Rosh HaShanah, this is expressed through our coronation of G‑d and His choosing of us, and on Yom Kippur it is expressed in the atonement brought about by “the essence of the day.”17

Rosh HaShanah is a three-dimensional holiday, because in addition to this essential quality, the day is also characterized by teshuvah and a specific mitzvah, thesounding of the shofar. Similarly, Yom Kippur possesses these three dimensions: the expression of the essence of the soul, as evidenced by the fact that the essence of the soul brings about atonement, the teshuvah of Yom Kippur, for Yom Kippur is also one of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, and the mitzvos performed on Yom Kippur: the fast and also the mitzvah to repent and confess.18


Not to Disturb the Connection

There is another parallel between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. As mentioned with regard to Rosh HaShanah,7 the “mitzvah of the day,” sounding the shofar, also gives expression to the Divine service of teshuvah and of crowning G‑d.19 So too with regard to Yom Kippur, the expression of the essence of the soul in the atonement brought about by “the essence of the day” finds an echo in the mitzvos observed: fasting,20 refraining from work, and celebrating the holy day.

For this reason, the Talmud states1 that even Rebbe, who maintains that the essence of the day atones even without the influence of teshuvah, agrees that this does not apply with regard to transgressions of the commandments applying to Yom Kippur itself. If a person does not fast on Yom Kippur, the essence of the day does not bring about atonement for him. Since it is the essence of the day which causes the person’s failure to fast to be considered a sin, that same factor cannot serve as the agent of atonement.21


Within the Holy of Holies

The above concepts are also reflected in the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. One of the fundamental elements of the service was his entry into the Holy of Holies. Concerning this entry, it is written:22 “No man shall be in the Tent of Meeting.” The Jerusalem Talmud states23 that this applies even to those about whom it is said:24 “the likeness of their face is like the face of a man,” i.e., the Holy Chayos, the highest level of angels.25 When the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, not even the angels may be present.

What does this imply? That Yom Kippur involves the essential bond between G‑d and the Jewish people, as represented by the High Priest who serves as their agent; “Israel is alone with G‑d.”26

Moreover, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the era of the Second Beis HaMikdash as well, when the Holy Ark was not there. Implied is that the High Priest entered into a bond with G‑d that is above even the level of engraved letters in the Torah.27

There is a level of teshuvah mandated by the Torah and a level of teshuvah above the Torah.16 The difference between the two is that the teshuvah mandated by the Torah reflects a revealed level of the soul and of G‑d. It is true that even the level of teshuvah mandated by the Torah is above the level of the Torah itself. For that reason, teshuvah can atone for blemishes in the observance of the Torah’s mitzvos — including even the mitzvah of Torah study.

Nevertheless, the teshuvah mandated by the Torah reflects dimensions of the soul and of G‑d which are revealed. The teshuvah which transcends the Torah, by contrast, points to how the soul is bound up with G‑d’s essence, and is above all revelation.

In the time of the Beis HaMikdash, the Jews’ essential bond with G‑d was revealed through the entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies. Our Sages teach28 that our prayers take the place of the sacrifices. As such, it is our prayers which today express this connection.

To explain: Yom Kippur is the only day of the year on which we are obligated to recite five different prayer services. These five services reflect the five levels of the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah.29 Neilah, the fifth prayer service, which is recited only on Yom Kippur, thus reflects the level of yechidah, the aspect of the soul which is bound to G‑d with singular oneness. At this level, nothing besides G‑d and the souls of Israel is of concern.

This is the meaning of the word neilah — that the gates are locked; no one else is allowed in. The Jewish people are alone with G‑d.

This degree of connection is revealed in the Neilah prayer.30 In a more general sense, however, it applies throughout the day of Yom Kippur,31 for Yom Kippur is “a day on which five prayer services are required.” Although each service has its time (the evening service, the morning service, etc.), the entire day is “a day on which five prayer services are required,” i.e., the fifth level, the level of yechidah shines throughout the day.


(Adapted from the maamar entitled Vichol Adam, 5723,
and Sichos Simchas Beis HaShoevah, 5723)