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.

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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.