The Double Purpose of Yom Kippur

We must be cleansed from the polluting effects of sin.

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In this article, the author presents a traditionalist view of sin and punishment, presenting the view that all sin is followed by punishment, whether in this world or the world to come. Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson.

Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement--has a double function. The first is kapparah-- acquittalfrom sin or atonement: "For the virtue of this very day shall acquit you of sin" (Lev. 16:30). This was expressed in the prayer recited by the High Priest in the Holy Temple: "Please grant acquittal for sins."

The second aspect of Yom Kippur is taharah-‑ catharsisor purification. As it is written: "For the virtue of this very day shall acquit you of sin, to cleanse you..." This, too, was brought out in the Yom Kippur Temple service. The High Priest pronounced to the assembled people: "Before God, be you cleansed."

These two motifs recur repeatedly in all the prayers said on Yom Kippur. "Acquit us... pour cleansing waters upon us..."

Both of these elements, acquittal and purification, are a direct response and remedy for the ontological effects of sin. This is because sin places man under the burden of culpable liability, and it defiles him as well.

In order to understand the concepts of kapparah (acquittal) and taharah (purification), one must find out what is meant by liability and defilement which are brought about by sin.

Sin and its punishment are born together. No sin goes without its retribution, whether it be meted out by a terrestrial or a celestial court. The belief in reward and punishment is fundamental to Jewish belief: "A man who says that the Holy One, blessed be He, is lax in the execution of justice, shall be disemboweled for it is stated, He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are judgment" (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 50a).

And in the Torah it is written: "Know therefore that the Lord thy God is the faithful God Who keeps covenant and shows mercy to those that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations, and repays those that hate Him ... to destroy them" (Deuteronomy 7:9). Jewish creed is based on the belief in reward and punishment and on the conviction that sin is by no means a transitory phenomenon that passes by, leaving no trace and incur­ring no liability. Sin and punishment are always linked together. If you will, the very definition of sin is that it is an act that entails paying a penalty. If punishment exists, it is because sin does too.

Kapparah means: forgiveness or withdrawal of claim. This is a legal concept, borrowed from the laws of property. Just as one may release his fellow man of a debt owed to him, so may God absolve one of penalty to which he is liable due to sin. Kapparah removes the need for punishment.

We find the first instance of Kapparah in the story of the sin of Cain (Genesis 4:7). "If you shall do better," God admonishes Cain, "the punishment will be carried over," and if you do not, "sin (punishment) crouches at the opening." The punishment is linked, understandably, to the sinful act. The Bible also speaks of the removal of sin . The prophet Nathan said to King David (11 Samuel 12:4): "The Lord has also removed your sin, you shall not die."

The medieval Bible commentator, Rashi, while explaining the verse in Genesis 32:21, observed that "whenever the term kap­parah is used in connection with a matter of trespass and sin ... it has the connotation of wiping away and removal." That is to say, a barrier is set up through which punishment may not pass.

By means of teshuvah (repentance) and kapparah (acquittal) man puts a protective covering between himself and the punishment for his sin. According to Rashi, the words "kapparah" (acquittal) and "kofer" (indemnity payment) are derived from the same Hebrew root ["kfr”] and have a common signification. Punishment is not a self‑negating phenomenon--an indemnity must be offered and paid in order to withdraw the liability claim. That indemnity payment is made through teshuvah (repentance) itself. Kapparah (acquittal) is the result of the payment of this "ransom" which releases and redeems man from punishment.

All this concerns the liability incurred by the sinner. The moment acquittal is granted and punishment wiped from the books, man's liability is terminated.

However, sin also has a polluting quality. The Jewish view recognizes a state of "impurity of sin" (tum’at ha‑het). The entire Bible abounds in references to this idea of self‑pollution, con­tamination, rolling about in the mire of sin. This impurity makes its mark on the sinner's personality. Sin, as it were, removes the divine halo from man's head, impairing his spiritual integrity. In addition to the frequent appearance of this idea in Scriptures and in the homiletical teachings of the Aggadah, we also find many concrete references to the "impurity of sin" in the halakha (Jewish Law).

An Israelite who has transgressed suffers a reversal in his legal status. Should a man commit a prohibited act and be charged with stripes or capital punishment, not only does he have to pay the penalty for his sins, he is also discredited as a witness in a court of Jewish Law. This does not constitute further punishment but is rather indicative of a change in his personal status. As a result of sin, man is not the same person he was before.

Every man is presumed acceptable as a credible witness. Natural truthfulness is, to my way of thinking, an integral part of man's character. The moment a person sins he lessens his own worth, brings himself down, and becomes spiritually defective, thus forgoing his former status. Sin deprives man of his natural privileges and unique human attributes. He is subjected to a complete transformation as his original personality departs and another one replaces it. This is not a form of punishment, or a fine, and is not imposed in a spirit of anger, wrath, or vindictiveness. It is a "metaphysical" corruption of the human personality, of the divine image of man.

The Communists speak of the commission of "error" and of "deviation," but have no concept of sin. Error carries no implication of metaphysical impurity or of psychic pollution. An "error" is a legal, rational term which must be distinguished from "sin," which harms the inner quality of man and has a deep and far‑reaching effect on his being.

Indeed, true teshuvah not only achieves kapparah, it should also bring about taharah from tum’ah (spiritual pollution), liberating man from his hard‑hearted ignorance and insensitivity. Such teshuvah restores man's spiritual viability and rehabilitates him to his original state.

And sometimes ... it makes man rise to heights he never dreamt he could reach.

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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. He delivered an annual lecture on repentance that was a highly anticipated event for Modern Orthodox Jews in America.