Each year on Yom Kippur, we read lines from this week’s Torah portion that teach us about appropriate observance during this High Holy Day. And within this reading we find the defining line, “It shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves [v’initem et nafshotaichem]; it is an eternal decree” (Leviticus 16:31). Although we are not eating or doing anything that affirms our physicality, is Yom Kippur really meant to “afflict” us as a fast of suffering?
The sentence from the text seems almost inherently contradictory. We are told to “afflict” ourselves, but we are also told that the day is a “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” The Sabbath is the ultimate joy of the week; its joy is so important that we defer personal mourning of shivah and even postpone the painful communal observance of Tisha B’Av until the next day if it falls on Shabbat. If the weekly Sabbath has that much power of joy, then wouldn’t Yom Kippur, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” have even more?
The Oral Torah is even more specific. “There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur” (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7). As the Sabbath of Sabbaths, it is a day of joy. One of the two most joyous of the year! If this is true, then how can this integrate with the earlier statement that we shall “afflict” ourselves?
The answer lies in the word “v’initem.” Often translated as “you shall afflict,” the three-letter root, anah (ayin, nun, hey), has two nearly opposite meanings. In Exodus 1:11-12 we read how the word relates to the Egyptian taskmasters who made the Hebrews suffer by “afflicting” them. But as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, has pointed out, the same three-letter root is used when we are told to “sing out and say before the Lord,” referring to the bringing of our first fruits (Deuteronomy 26:5). There it is celebratory. Rabbi Riskin goes even further, suggesting a translation of the phrase “v’initem et nafshotaichem” as actually meaning, “You shall enable your souls to sing, to rejoice.”
Both the Mishnah of ancient times and a great modern scholar and rabbi lead us to celebrate on this day of fasting. And they’re not alone. Maimonides, in his codification of the laws of Yom Kippur, teaches that we are letting our bodies rest (lishbot) from food, drink, etc. not as a prohibition but in order to gain a sense of re-creation and repair. Like all Shabbats, this Sabbath of Sabbaths gives a much-needed rest; this time for our entire body to rest so that we can transcend the physical and repair ourselves in the deepest of ways.
So, which is it? Are we to afflict ourselves and suffer or are we to celebrate and sing joyously?
To me, the answer seems clear, given the multiple texts, and the Mishnah is straightforward: Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, one of the most joyous days of ancient Israel and a time to gratefully celebrate. This makes even more sense when we consider our fundamental belief in the power of teshuvah, that all who sincerely seek forgiveness (and act accordingly) are guaranteed absolution. What could be a cause for greater celebration than to know that our prayers for forgiveness are answered? Yom Kippur is a demonstration of the amazing love that God has for us: that we can be and are forgiven. The realization of that truth allows the fasting of my body to become a deep and refreshing cleanse rather than an act of suffering to achieve penitence.
Like all Shabbats, there is a solemnity to the joy of Yom Kippur. It is not a day for frivolity, but for the deeper joy that comes with a sense of wholeness and awareness of God’s love. Our Torah portion is filled with details about what is to be done on Yom Kippur. We need to take the steps, do the actions required to achieve teshuvah; and then “v’initem et nafshotaichem” becomes an injunction for our souls to rejoice.
May we all experience deep joy this fall when Yom Kippur comes; and remember not only the words of this portion, but also of Psalm 100: “Serve God with gladness, come before Him with joyous song!”