Personal Repentance: An Act of Purification

Each person must accomplish this individually


This article relates the liturgy of Yom Kippur to the rituals that were conducted in ancient times. The synagogue rituals it mentions– such as the manner in which the afternoon service is conducted on the eve of Yom Kippur– are presented from a traditional perspective.  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.

According to Rabbi Judah Hanassi, the Day of Atonement procures acquittal of sin–even for those who have not repented individually (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 84b). The question arises: May a Jew who has sinned, and as a result been discredited as a witness in a court of law, be accepted as a qualified witness on the day after Yom Kippur, even if he has not personally repented? The emphatic answer is: No. Kapparah (acquittal) affects the removal of punishment. The “indemnity payment” shields man from divine anger and wrath. However, his personality remains contaminated, and this condition may be remedied only through ritual “immersion,” that is, by whole‑hearted repentance. Kapparah is possible even when an individual has not repented, but without personal repentance taharah (purification) is unthinkable. 

Kapparah is principally connected to the bringing of sacrifices, and in the Holy Temple the prescribed time for offerings were the daylight hours. Ritual purification, in contrast, begins with nightfall, at the “sanctification of the day”–that time when, according to Jewish law, a new day is born.

Purification is conditional upon our drawing near and standing directly “before God,” and as such, it is a spiritually uplifting experience.

There are two forms of confession on Yom Kippur: a communal, public confession and personal, private one. After the destruction of the Temple, the communal recitation of confession by the synagogue reader was substituted for that of the High Priest. However, the intimate, personal type of confession of a broken man, directed inward to himself, remained exclusively in the area of individual responsibility. This is the confession that brings about purification. The communal confession, which is for kapparah, should be said together with the synagogue reader. However, it is impossible to appoint an intermediary in order to achieve self‑purification, as it is by definition clearly a personal obligation. It is absurd from the point of view of Jewish Law for a ritually impure person to send an appointed agent to immerse himself on the former’s behalf. No one can grant another power of attorney to deliver him from a state of impurity and restore him to a state of holiness.

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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.

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