As we reach the last pages of this long journey called Masechet Yoma, I cannot help but be struck by two contrasts. The first is between chapters one through seven of the tractate and chapter eight. While the first seven chapters delved, sometimes in gory detail, into the minutiae of Temple worship and sacrifice on Yom Kippur, chapter eight is more familiar to us. Here we have information about the ”normal” practices of Yom Kippur – fasting, no bathing, and finally, as if as an afterthought, a few words on repentance. The two sections seem disconnected.
The second contrast is similar – our “normal” experience of Yom Kippur versus the day as it was commemorated in the Temple. While most Jews think of Yom Kippur as a hard but uplifting (or endless) day spent in synagogue, focused on prayer, the Gemara paints an entirely different picture. In the Temple, most people were spectators at a fabulous, colorful show put on by the High Priest, with starring performances by animals, incense and a large supporting cast. At the end there was a festive procession and a big party. Even if you have a large break-fast with all the mishpocha, I doubt it looks like the scene when the High Priest is escorted home and then the women go out to dance and grab a man.
So are there two Yom Kippurs, the Temple one and the post Temple one? In a sense there are. As I wrote at the end of Masechet Pesachim, the reality of post Temple holidays is radically different than what happened in Temple times. Besides the technical changes, the feeling at the end of the day was not the same. As Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun eloquently wrote decades ago, Yom Kippur today is like the experience of a lover writing her absent beloved letters. She writes letter after letter, remaining faithful to him, but she does not receive an answer. In Temple times, if the service was done right and the people were worthy, the answer to whether it would be a good year was immediate. The red string turned white and the High Priest emerged unscathed from the Holy of Holies. Of course there was a jubilant procession at the end of the day! Today, even if we feel that our day was well spent on prayer and repentance, there are no certainties, no response telling us that we will have a good year. Everything is murky and unclear.
The rabbis who lived after the destruction of the Temple were faced with this terrifying change. How could they imbue this day, so focused on Temple worship and ritual, with an alternate holiness, one that still remembered what was really meant to happen? Of course, many of the laws of the day were not new. The Torah commands fasting and the rabbis already understood that Yom Kippur was meant to be a day for repentance. But while repentance is a Biblical concept, it was often tied to sacrifice. Can there be full repentance without sacrifices? The rabbis seem to say yes here in the final pages of Yoma:
“Rabbi Matya ben Ḥarash asked Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya when Rabbi Elazar was in Rome: Have you heard the teaching that there are four distinctions in the process of atonement that Rabbi Yishmael would derive? He said to him: They are not four but three distinctions, and repentance is necessary with each one.” (Yoma 86)
Sometimes repentance needs to be aided by Yom Kippur – the day itself brings atonement. The rabbis were aware that there were no sacrifices that could be brought and so instead they emphasized the full process of repentance, including a confession, not just a resolution to do better. They extol the beauty and the virtues of true repentance: great is repentance which brings the redemption, great is repentance where your sins are turned to merits (!) (Yoma 86). Maimonides took these ideas even further in his masterpiece on the laws of teshuva, where he waxes lyrically about the power of repentance:
“How superior is the degree of repentance! But yesterday was this sinner separated from the Lord God of Israel. . . But to-day he is connected with the Shekinah . . . he cries and receives answer momentarily . . . he observes commandments, and they are received with pleasure and joy” (Mishnah Torah Hilchot Teshuva 7:7)
Alongside powerful thoughts on repentance; customs and liturgy evolved through the years to incorporate something of the Temple into our Temple-less Yom Kippur. We recite a long section that goes through all the steps of the avoda, the special Yom Kippur service, and we even prostrate ourselves on the floor, mimicking those who heard God’s name in the Temple courtyard. We say confessions (vidui) numerous times like the High Priest. Many have the custom to wear white, like the High Priest’s special Yom Kippur garments, and to stand throughout the day, as there was no sitting in the Temple. And many, particularly men, have the custom to visit the mikveh before Yom Kippur.
The mikveh is very important to the avoda. The High Priest must immerse five times in the course of the day, with each clothing change. This is not because he has become impure, something unlikely in the confines of the pure Temple, but to spiritually prepare for the next stage of the avoda. This is a fascinating shift in mikveh use. Normally immersion in the mikveh is a technical thing. Something made me impure and now I have to purify myself. But in Second Temple times, particularly among the sects and early Christians, mikveh begins to take on a spiritual, transformational dimension as well. That is what is happening with the High Priest and that is why men visit the mikveh on erev Yom Kippur today.
This brings us to Rabbi Akiva’s powerful concluding words in the last Mishnah of Yoma:
“Rabbi Akiva said: How fortunate are you, Israel; before Whom are you purified, and Who purifies you? It is your Father in Heaven, as it is stated: “And I will sprinkle purifying water upon you, and you shall be purified” (Ezekiel 36:25). And it says: “The ritual bath of Israel is God” (Jeremiah 17:13). Just as a ritual bath purifies the impure, so too, the Holy One, Blessed be He, purifies Israel.” (Yoma 85b)
Rabbi Akiva comforts us with the knowledge that even without a Temple, indeed even without a mikveh, we can still achieve atonement and start again because God is our purifier. אשריכם ישראל, how fortunate are we to have God and how fortunate are we to have teachers like Rabbi Akiva! Hadran alach Masechet Yoma.