Shaya Cohen -


Yom Kippur in the Torah vs How It is Practiced

There seems to be a huge gap sometimes between what is described in the Torah, and what is practiced today by observant Jews.

Take, for example, Yom Kippur. Commonly seen as the Day of Awe, and understood to be a time of judgment and even foreboding, Yom Kippur is the weightiest day on the Jewish calendar.

But in the text of the Torah, there does not seem to be much for the common person beyond “afflict your souls.” We interpret that a variety of ways, but even with that, and the admonition that Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the day seems to lack very much depth or personality.

On the other hand, there is a lengthy ritual in the Temple, especially and most strikingly concerning two goats – one that is sacrificed, and one upon which the high priest lays the sins of the nation, and sends away. Much has been written on this, the origin of the concept of a scapegoat. But I think there is something else here – something that actually tells us about the flavor of Yom Kippur, albeit in a very subtle way.

The hint comes from a specific word, the word used for the land where the goat is sent: gezeirah.

וְנָשָׂ֨א הַשָּׂעִ֥יר עָלָ֛יו אֶת־כָּל־עֲוֺנֹתָ֖ם אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ גְּזֵרָ֑ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַשָּׂעִ֖יר בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

Thus, the goat shall carry on it all their sins to the gezeirah land; and the goat shall be sent into the wilderness.

It is a rare word, indeed, found only in one other place: the Covenant Between the Parts. This is the event in which everything is dark and foreboding. G-d issues the decree that Avraham’s descendants will be slaves for 400 years, and then freed. There is even a visual effect foreshadowing the Exodus (the oven represents Egypt, and the torch the pillar of fire that led the way through the split waters of the Red Sea during the night):

וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ בָּ֔אָה וַעֲלָטָ֖ה הָיָ֑ה וְהִנֵּ֨ה תַנּ֤וּר עָשָׁן֙ וְלַפִּ֣יד אֵ֔שׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָבַ֔ר בֵּ֖ין הַגְּזָרִ֥ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those gezeirah (pieces) [the cut up animals].

The word gezeirah is used in only these two places in the Torah! And it distinctly links the Covenant Between the Parts and Yom Kippur!

Which then fills in the rest of the meaning for Yom Kippur: It is a yearly opportunity to reconnect to the Covenant: a time of foreboding and judgment, a time of mystery and certainly some fear. The mysterious “the rest of your life starts now” feeling of Yom Kippur is analogous to the vision Avraham received. Smoke in the dark, a flaming torch amidst death.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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