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Yom Kippur: Day of No Justice

High Holidays

Many people erroneously think of Yom Kippur as Yom Hadin, Judgment Day – a day on which we celebrate God’s role in presiding over a universe of justice and righteousness, on which the fate of each of God’s creatures is sealed, and each is accorded his due. Nothing can be further from the truth. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment or Justice, and Yom Kippur is the opposite: it is the day on which we acknowledge the terrifying but beautiful truth, that there is no justice – and no possibility of justice – in the world. Yom Kippur is the day on which we seek a relationship with God based on the fact that no matter what we do, we are nothing and he is Everything, and this very acknowledgment of reality cleanses and atones.

How did Yom Kippur come to be associated in people’s minds with Yom Hadin, Judgment Day? A number of reasons come to mind. First of all, while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were originally quite distinct from one another, from Talmudic times on, customs, ideas and liturgy associated with one were often transferred to the other – thus the shofar of Rosh Hashanah is sounded by custom at the end of Yom Kippur as well, while the custom of fasting on Rosh Hashanah, frowned upon by traditional halakhic authorities, is nonetheless well-attested throughout Jewish history. While according to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Amidah is adjusted to refer to God as King on Rosh Hashanah only, in the Talmud Bavli, and later halakhah (Jewish Law) , this adjustment is made during the entire ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Thus it is not surprising that the motifs of justice and judgment also came to be associated with Yom Kippur.

But it would seem that two other interrelated factors are responsible for the fact that many people consider Yom Kippur to be Yom Hadin, Judgment Day. The first is the beloved prayer Untaneh Toqef, recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The opening passage describes the way in which the angels herald this day, presumably the day on which the prayer is recited, as Judgment Day:

We shall ascribe holiness to this day, for it is awesome and terrible. On it your kingship is exalted, your throne is established in mercy, and you are enthroned upon it in truth. In truth You are the judge, the exhorter, the all-knowing, the witness, He who inscribes and seals, remembering all that is forgotten. You open the book of remembrance, which is read of itself, and the seal of each person is there. The great shofar is sounded, a still small voice is heard. The angels are dismayed; they are seized by fear and trembling, as they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!

It is hard to read this on Yom Kippur and not think that “this day” – to which holiness is ascribed and on which the angels proclaim “Behold the Day of Judgment!” – is Yom Kippur. And since many more Jews attend services on Yom Kippur than on Rosh Hashanah, some may not even be aware that the same prayer is recited on Rosh Hashanah. For them it seems obvious that the Day of Judgment is Yom Kippur.

Moreover, the sense that Yom Kippur is Yom Hadin has been compounded in contemporary Israel by the Yom Kippur war, often referred to poetically as Milhemet Yom Hadin, the War of Judgment Day, or Doomsday, or D-Day. The appropriateness of this epithet for the Yom Kippur War is unquestionable, and the well-known and misunderstood Untaneh Toqef prayer made it almost inevitable. Moreover, cause and effect reversed themselves when Untaneh Toqef itself was set to haunting music by Kibbutz Bet Hashittah resident Yair Rosenblum, in memory of eleven members of the Kibbutz who fell in the war. At this point the association of Yom Kippur 1973 and Yom Kippur in general with Yom Hadin became irrevocably etched in the hearts and minds of Israelis.

Doomsday though Yom Kippur 1973 may have been, the Yom Kippur of Jewish tradition is not a day of din – justice or judgment – in any sense of the word. In fact, a proper understanding of the structure of Untaneh Toqef itself makes it clear that Rosh Hashanah is the day the angels proclaim the Day of Justice, and Yom Kippur is the day in which this very sense of God’s justice and judgment is undermined – for better or for worse.

The passage cited above from Untaneh Toqef describes Rosh Hashanah – it goes on to tell how on Rosh Hashanah God judges each of his creatures like a shepherd inspecting his flock, and decides their fate. This is followed by a transitional passage, describing what a person’s fate might be: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… who will live and who will die… who by fire, and who by water… who shall be humiliated and who raised up”. The refrain in this transitional passage refers explicitly to both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: on Rosh Hashanah the judgment is written, and Yom Kippur it is sealed.

But what is this “sealing” of the judgment on Yom Kippur? A true judicial system needs no “seal” for its verdicts; rulings and judgments are rendered by the justices, and then they are written up, not sealed. The only reason the divine judgment of Rosh Hashanah is not sealed until Yom Kippur is because the entire purpose of the days following Rosh Hashanah, culminating in Yom Kippur, is to overturn the divine judgment written on Rosh Hashanah – and to overturn the very sense of Divine Justice. The notion that the judgment has to be sealed on Yom Kippur is specifically designed to allow that judgment to be overturned in the meantime.

This is made explicit in the next two sections of the Untaneh Toqef prayer. It is these sections – and not the initial section about the proclamation of the Day of Judgment – that are devoted to Yom Kippur. It is these sections that describe the true nature of Yom Kippur – the Day of No Justice:

(1) But repentance, prayer and almsgiving avert the bad decree! For Your praise is in accordance with Your name: You are difficult to anger and easy to appease. For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him: should he turn to You, You will receive him at once.

(2) In truth You are their Creator and You know their nature, that they are flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, and his end is dust. He exhausts his soul earning his bread. He is like a broken shard, like dry grass, like a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away. But You? You are King, God who lives for all eternity! There is no limit to Your years, no end to the length of Your days, no way to measure the hosts of Your glory, and no way to fathom the depth of Your Name.

Yom Kippur is the opposite of the Day of Judgment and Justice in two senses. The first, described in the passage marked (1) above, is well known. Yom Kippur is not the day of justice and judgment, because it is the Day of Mercy. God’s judgment can be overturned if we appease him with teshuvah, tefillah and tsedaqah: repentance, prayer and almsgiving. Repentance in this context is not the life-changing repentance of Elul, when we attempt to remake ourselves in the wake of impending judgment on Rosh Hashanah. The teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not a dramatic change in personality that renders the judgment obsolete: if it were, it would not merely avert the bad decree; it would require an entirely new trial for a different person. Repentance here is mere “turning” towards God: we realize we are in trouble and we throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. Like prayer and almsgiving, with which it is associated in this passage, it is a desperate attempt to rescind or temper the judgment, not to appeal its validity or render it obsolete. God may judge us severely on Rosh Hashanah, but afterwards, on Yom Kippur, he is a God of mercy.

This first passage makes it sound like Rosh Hashanah is the day of Truth, and Yom Kippur the day of Kindness. But I believe the more profound message of Yom Kippur is found in the second of the two passages: It is Yom Kippur that is the “truer” of the two days, because we are dust and God is Infinite, and in truth it is impossible for the Infinite to judge mere dust, and God knows this. He is so different from us, and our lives are so pitiful compared to his Infinity, that the very notion that we share common standards that would enable him to judge us, is absurd.

This truth can work to our advantage and our disadvantage. If truth and justice are irrelevant in the Divine-human attempt at relationship, love and mercy can take their place, as we pray in the first of the two passages. But a brief life as dust in a world dominated by the Infinite can also be very frightening. In a beautiful passage in the book of Job, which is the inspiration for this passage, as well as some of the Selihot and other Yom Kippur liturgy, a dream is described:

Now a word came to me in stealth, and my ear received a whisper of it – in thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men. Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shudder. Then a spirit passed before my face, and the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I did not recognize it. It was a form before my eyes. It was silent; then I heard a voice: ‘Can a mortal receive justice from God? Can a man be considered pure by his Maker? Behold, he puts no trust in his servants; He casts reproach on his angels. How much more, those who dwell in houses of clay, whose origin is dust, who are crushed more easily than a moth! (Job 4:12-19)

Some of us find comfort in the notion of cosmic order and fairness provided by Rosh Hashanah; others think a relationship with God must be founded on the stark truth of God’s perfection and our insignificance – whether this engenders awe or love. Most of us can relate to each of these conceptions of the cosmos at different times and under different circumstances. That is why we have two high holy days: a Day of Justice and a Day of No Justice. On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate order in the cosmos. On Yom Kippur we celebrate the stark reality of God and ourselves: that no matter how angelically we may behave, as mere mortals we cannot expect justice from God, nor can we hope to be considered pure by our Maker.

Paradoxically, this very lack of expectation is what brings catharsis. Accepting this reality can comfort and cleanse. Just as we give up hope in God’s justice, just as we realize that by His standards we can never be considered pure, we find atonement and catharsis in our honesty: “For on this day atonement will be made for you, cleansing you of all your sins; before the Lord you shall be pure!” (Leviticus 16:30).


Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Photo: Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Gottlieb (1878)

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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