Ra’anana Community Kollel

Day of Atonement?

Ariel Abrahams

One of the heartening aspects about life in Israel is the universal identification with Yom Kippur. Stores close, traffic ceases, even the communication & entertainment channels are off the air. People promenade along what are usually busy highways. A country unified on the Day of Atonement! Atonement? Sin! Responsibility! Accountability! For a small island in time a busy people identify with these all-important values.

Indeed it is heartening, but is atonement all  that easy? Are a few hours of prayer, together with a fast, sufficient to erase a year of aveirot ? 

The Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 1;4) outlines 4 categories of aveirot & their corresponding kapparah - atonement .The greater the aveirah  the more it takes to gain atonement:

1.   Transgressing a positive commandment (charity, tefillin ,learning Torah )- by inaction , is lowest on the scale of aveirot. Atonement is effective whenever one repents all year round. In fact, Yom Kippur is not a necessary component of this teshuvah process.

A negative command (eating non-kosher food, shaving with a razor ) is more severe and repentance alone is not immediately effective. Only together with the intense sanctity of Yom Kippur is atonement complete.

.Moving up the scale of severity -a negative command that carries with it the penalty of kareit (eating on Yom Kippur, chametz on Pesach) or where the penalty is death (doing one of the 39 Melachot on Shabbat ) in such instances repentance & Yom Kippur alone are insufficient. Something more powerful is required to expunge the effects of this severe sin. Atonement is not complete until yissurim -suffering - serve to cleanse and eradicate the scourge of the sin.

4    The ultimate sin is chillul Hashem - desecrating G-d’s name by sinning publicly. Even after having undergone the 3 components -teshuvah, Yom Kippur , and suffering, atonement is still pending .Only with death, is the desecration of G-d’s name, as it were, corrected and atonement complete.

What seems to emerge is that for the more lenient aveirot such as (1) transgressing a positive commandment, Yom Kippur is unnecessary! And for the more severe aveirot (3,4) negative commandments that carry with them penalties of kareit or death, Yom Kippur is insufficient! Yom Kippur atones only for (2) the lighter of the negative commandments! The Rambam provides us with a new and sobering perspective .The Day of Atonement is not as simple as would seem!

There is a fascinating Minchat Chinuch (364; 33), which at first glance paints an even bleaker picture for our chances of atonement on Yom Kippur.

There is a well-known rule that where there is danger to life one may commit any aveirah (aside for idolatry, murder, and adultery) if there is a chance that it will help to save a life. Hence in a life-threatening situation when a person must eat immediately and the only food at hand is non-kosher he is required to eat it.
Generally speaking in life and death situations, time is of the essence and one cannot afford to procrastinate .One acts immediately irrespective of the level or type of aveirah involved. However the Gemara (Yoma 83a) rules that where possible, one is to keep the severity of the aveirah to a minimum. Thus, in a given situation of pikuach nefesh where the danger is not imminent and there is time to think (otherwise one must act regardless) one has to choose for example between eating forbidden shmitta fruit, (after the time of biur has elapsed, which involves contravening a positive commandment) or eating non-kosher (-a negative command that carries the penalty of Malkot-39 lashes) and is more severe; one should rather eat the Shmitta fruit- the lesser of the 2 aveirot.

   Let us consider a similar situation on Shabbat where one must eat in order to save his life. The choice is to either eat non-kosher (a negative command with the penalty of malkot) or to go slaughter a kosher animal, thereby transgressing one of the thirty-nine forbidden melachot of Shabbat (which carries the death penalty). Based on our principle of minimizing the severity of the aveirah what would it be preferable to eat? Seemingly it would be better to eat non-kosher (the lesser of the two aveirot) and keep Shabbat, than to transgress Shabbat and eat kosher. In fact, Shulchan Oruch (O.C. 328 :14) rules otherwise! Surprisingly it is better to eat kosher and desecrate Shabbat by slaughtering the animal, than to keep Shabbat and eat non-kosher. Why?

Rabbeinu Nissim (Yoma 4b) explains that one must look at two factors when evaluating the importance of a mitzvah. 1 The level or quality of transgression under question. 2.  The frequency or quantity of transgressions being committed.   

Desecrating Shabbat by slaughtering an animal is qualitatively more severe than eating non-kosher, but it involves only one action. Eating non-kosher on the other hand is qualitatively not as severe, but quantitatively it involves more prohibitions. For every morsel of non-kosher food there is an additional aveirah. Regarding shechita the aveirah is done in one action.
Argues the RaN it is more serious to commit many small aveirot , than to commit one severe aveirah. Thus it is better to desecrate Shabbat by slaughtering the animal, which entails only one action, albeit severe; than to eat many morsels of non-kosher, which involves many aveirot.

This principle has many halachic & ethical ramifications. Imagine a house with light streaming through the windows. One can block the light by attaching a solid shutter .In a situation where there are only thin curtains, if there are enough of them, they too will eventually shut out the light. Similarly mitzvot are compared to light which illuminate the soul - Ki ner mitzvah vetorah ohr
''. Conversely aveirot act as a barrier between G-d and us. An Aveirah ,however small,l if committed repeatedly will serve as a barrier as great as the worst of sins.

Minchat Chinuch suggests that when referring to the Rambam’s four categories of aveirot and atonement, one must evaluate not only the quality of the sin (that is to say- whether it is a transgression of (1) a positive command, or (2) a negative command, if it is (3) a transgression that carries a penalty of kareit or death or (4) if there is a desecration of G-d’s name). One must also evaluate the frequency or quantity of a given sin! Thus if one has committed a lesser sin which on the Rambam’s scale would gain atonement with teshuvah alone, or teshuvah together with Yom Kippur etc; one has to determine the frequency of this lesser sin .If this sin has been repeated manifold than it is more serious than one of the more severe aveirot! Consequently atonement can only be effected for this lesser sin by fulfilling the same requirements & components as one of the more severe aveirot.

A few sentences of Lashon Hara a day if compounded, will take on the severity of an aveirah as great as chillul Shabbat! Even Yom Kippur will not atone for this oft-repeated sin!

Truly a frightening prospect for hopes of achieving a complete kaparah on Yom Kippur!
Is atonement then almost beyond our grasp? Is there so little atonement on The Day of Atonement?

Minchat Chinuch (364:35) gives us cause for hope.

The Gemara (Yoma 86b) explains that there are two types of repentance: repentance out of ‘fear’ and out of ‘love’. Repentance can be out of fear of G-d’s wrath, punishment, suffering etc. This is a repentance that doesn’t truly comprehend the effects of sin on the soul. It is a repentance of self-interest. Nevertheless one does gain atonement. It is about this type of repentance that the Rambam outlines four different processes of teshuvah and atonement.

There is a more intrinsic form of repentance where one recognizes the impact of sin, its dulling of all that is sublime and spiritual, how it separates us from the source of holiness and serves as an iron curtain between us and G-d. If repentance is motivated by a desire to return to G-d to be cleansed of sin-that is repentance of love .In fact for every sin committed in the past, one is rewarded with a corresponding mitzvah! Every past sin serves as a catalyst of contrition and a search for the spiritual.

This type of teshuvah explains Minchat Chinuch is not bound by the constrictions of the categories of sin and atonement outlined by the Rambam. Such an elevated repentance is so intense that atonement is not restricted by Yom Kippur, yissurim , or death .Atonement is immediate and complete.

One lesson to be drawn is the importance not only the quality of our actions but also the frequency of our actions - for the good or the bad.

Lashon hara is not only qualitatively harmful .In a short while an astonishing number of words can be spoken, each word a separate sin.

Similarly the mitzvah of learning Torah is the greatest of mitzvot -
.'' Vitalmud Torah kineged kulam”. Quantitatively it is also the greatest. In one minute one can learn tens of words, each one a separate mitzvah!

May we all merit to do a complete teshuvah, gain atonement and have a gemar chatimah tovah.

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