Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is the concluding day of the ten-day journey of t’shuvah, ‘return’; of repentance. But what is the point of our repentance? Repentance is not an end in itself. If it were, the journey would only be from the past to the present. But Jewish teaching is concerned with the work of renewal and repair for the sake of the future. So, the goal of the journey of t’shuvah reaches beyond repentance, forgiveness and atonement to tz’dakah; to the task of practising ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ after the yamim nora’im, the ‘awed days’, are over.


Tz’dakah is usually translated as ‘charity’. But the root meaning of charity, the Latin concept of caritas, is very different from the root meaning of tz’dakah. Caritas centres on the feelings of love that move us to feel compassion for others and to take action to support them, both materially and emotionally. Tz’dakah, based on the root Tzadi-Dalet-Kuf and related to the word tzedek, ‘justice’, focuses on the imperative of just action.[1] Emotions cannot be compelled, so righteous acts that are dependent on our feelings are useless. We may feel moved to help others, but we may not. Tz’dakah, by contrast, is a commandment. It is our obligation to put right what is wrong in relation to the poor, including the homeless, those who are oppressed and persecuted, and, specifically, the most vulnerable groups in society, identified in the Torah as the stranger, the orphan and the widow.[2]

In the haftarah[3], the biblical reading from the Prophets, on Yom Kippur morning from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 58, the prophet decries observance of the rituals of Yom Kippur that are not accompanied by acts of righteousness (58:5-7):

Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Eternal One? / Is not this the fast I choose: to release the shackles of wickedness and untie the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break off every yoke? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?

The unknown prophet who speaks in the later chapters of the Book of Isaiah was addressing the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. The prophet’s words also address us and are just as relevant to the society we inhabit. So, how will we respond? We know that we live in a world in which injustice is rife. What will we do about it? Our ten-day t’shuvah journey concludes at the end of Yom Kippur, and then it will be our task to harvest the fruits of our repentance with acts of tz’dakah on behalf of the poor, the homeless and the persecuted, and by challenging injustice in every place.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

  1. The most famous phrase about justice in the Torah is in Shof’tim, Deuteronomy 16:20: Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, ‘Justice, justice, shall you pursue’.

  2. Significantly, the word tz’dakah is used in relation to restoring the garment of a poor person given in pledge (Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 24:10-13). The code in Ki Teitzei also mentions all three of these categories of vulnerable people (Deut. 24:17 to 22). See also: K’doshim, Leviticus 19:9-10 and 33–34

  3. Haftarah means ‘conclusion’. The haftarah is the concluding Scriptural passage taken from the biblical books of the N’vi’im, Prophets, and read on Shabbat and festival mornings.