Atonement and the Day of Atonement


Yom Kippur


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Repentance and Yom Kippur

By Avi Lazerson

Yom Kippur is the day of divine forgiveness; the day that G-d accepts our prayers that our sins be erased. The Talmud, tractate of Yoma, teaches that there are three types of atonements and each one has its own particular requirements concerning repentance. These are related to three different types of transgressions. Let us clarify:

The first type of transgression is when a person willfully refrains himself from performing a positive mitzvah, a divine command in which G-d has told us to do something. Upon repenting for his (sin of) omission, the person is immediately forgiven and does not have to wait for Yom Kippur for any atonement.

The second type concerns the transgressing of a negative commandment, like: Thou Shall Not Do Something… When the person repents, his complete atonement is withheld from him until Yom Kippur and only then on this day can he achieve proper atonement.

The third type of atonement is one regarding the most serious sort of sin. It concerns a transgression in which the punishment is death, either by the heavenly courts or by rule of the earthly courts. In a sin such as this, repentance is withheld and even Yom Kippur cannot atone for it, rather it is only sufferings in this world that can relieve him from divine punishment in the next world.

* * *

Let us understand the difference between the types of transgressions and their requirements for atonement. A sin of omission, which is neglecting to perform a positive commandment, means that the person has missed the opportunity to bring G-dliness down into this physical world. Each time a positive mitzvah is performed, holiness is drawn down into the world. His need for atonement is due to his neglecting to sanctify the world when he had the opportunity. Since his sin of omission did not cause spiritual damage in the world, therefore when the person repents, he is forgiven immediately.

However when a person transgresses the will of G-d and violates a prohibition, he has rebelled against his Creator, and has caused a schism between himself and G-d. In addition, he has given the forces of Evil extra power to bring wickedness into the world. The evil has now become a part of him and the world as well; therefore he must do extra work to expel it from his soul and the world. This requires regret plus the atonement that is granted on Yom Kippur.

The third type of sin, that which is punished by death is one in which a very grievous evil was brought into the world. The terrible "blemish" on the person's soul is too great to be removed via repentance and atonement. In order for him to be purged of such a blemish to his soul, he must endure punishment in this world. Since our courts do not have the power to enforce the law of the Torah, his punishment will be through heavenly interaction in his life, causing him physical and mental anguish.

* * *

Now although the concept of repentance is the subject of many scholarly books and discussions, we must realize that repentance and fasting are two distinctly different concepts. During the time of the Temple, a person who sinned would bring an animal sacrifice and its blood and fats would be offered on the altar. Today we understand that we, by fasting, cause a reduction in our blood and fat. This is our way of offering ourselves as an offering to G-d.

The concept of repentance (in Hebrew: t'shuva) has unfortunately been made into a notion that only non religious people must do, but religious people do not need any repentance. Nothing could be further from the truth!

All of us, being that we are human, are guilty of transgressions. We must introspect to find the indiscretions and offences to G-d and then uproot it from our souls. The more we look into our hearts, our deeds and see the motives that brought them into being, the more we can see how we have become separated from our G-d.

Now although repentance is required, it is not final step. We should go further. As an example, if a friend embarrassed you in public, you would be correct to expect an apology. If he were a decent sort, he would examine himself to see what it was that caused him to do such a nasty act and uproot it from his character. This is the minimum of repentance; we must admit to God our improprieties. Then we must request forgiveness from Him.

However, this does not mean that the relationship is back to where it was. You would be wary of a person who would publicly embarrass you. Your relationship with him would no longer be the same. Even if he apologized, and you forgave him, the relationship after the forgiveness would not be the same; you would be wary of him. Therefore it is incumbent upon this person to mend this relationship by showing you that he is now a person to be trusted. Bring a gift is one manner to elicit improvement of a ruined relationship.

We utilize Yom Kippur in the same manner. We should use this day to get even closer to G-d, for who is as great as He? We must dwell on His goodness as it manifests itself in our life.

Don't waste Yom Kippur merely listening to the beautiful melodies of the various prayers; use this special day to get closer to G-d who only desires our closeness. This is the day in which He awaits our approach, but it is we who must take the initiative.


from the October 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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