Yoma 85

Doing the work of repentance.

Have you ever stood in synagogue on Yom Kippur and wondered if all the rituals and prayers actually worked to atone for your sins? Or if they actually worked to atone for the sins of some of your fellow congregants? Does all of this awe and fasting, pomp and circumstance, really do anything? 

Lest you thought these were strictly modern questions, today’s daf takes up exactly these concerns:

Death and Yom Kippur atone for sins when accompanied by repentance. 

Repentance itself atones for minor transgressions, for both positive and negative mitzvot.

And repentance places punishment for severe transgressions in abeyance until Yom Kippur comes and completely atones for the transgression.

According to this mishnah, Yom Kippur does actually do something. It accomplishes a kind of atonement for large sins that can otherwise only be achieved by death. Some Jews view Yom Kippur as a rehearsal for death — and this mishnah makes clear why. It is a big deal and the rituals are enormously powerful.

But it’s not a blank check. The awesomeness of the day of Yom Kippur only works to enact atonement for serious sin when it is accompanied by sincere repentance.

Which sins require repentance? The mishnah continues:

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught: From all your sins you shall be cleansed before the Lord. (Leviticus 16:30) For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person.

According to Rabbi Eleazar’s reading of the verse in Leviticus, Yom Kippur by itself atones only for sins that are directed “before the Lord” — but sins that are directed against human beings require active repair with the victims. God has the graciousness to forgive transgressions directed against heaven, but human relationships require personal repair. God alone does not fix them.The Gemara juxtaposes this mishnah with a beraita (a rabbinic teaching of the same era) attributed to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi which appears to suggest the opposite:

It was taught: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says that for all transgressions in the Torah, whether one repented or did not repent, Yom Kippur atones, with the exceptions of: rejecting the yoke of Torah and mitzvot, interpreting the Torah falsely, and violating the covenant of the flesh (circumcision). In these cases, if one repents Yom Kippur atones for his sin, and if one does not repent Yom Kippur does not atone for his sin.

According to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the sins for which active repentance is required are not those between two people, but three specific sins between a person and God; the beraita seems to suggest that Yom Kippur does atone for sins between people even if the perpetrators don’t work to repair the harm. In this view, Yom Kippur is a holiday oriented firmly toward heaven, and human beings bring themselves back into right relationship with God through a combination of rituals and true repentance.

So which is it? Do transgressions against God require active repentance? How about transgressions against fellow human beings? And what do the rituals of Yom Kippur “automatically” atone for?

The Gemara lands firmly on the side that humans need to make matters right with other human beings. And it assumes that even Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would agree that sins between human beings require active repair:

Even if you say that the mishnah is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the mishnah can be understood as follows: Repentance still requires Yom Kippur (in order to complete the atonement) whereas Yom Kippur does not require repentance (but atones even without it).

The Gemara’s reading assumes that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi disputes only the question of whether or not repentance, by itself, can ever effect atonement without the power of Yom Kippur. He never questions the notion that people must personally address the wrongs they have committed toward others. All agree there is no ritual shortcut around this difficult and essential component of repentance.

Read all of Yoma 85 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 5th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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