Yesterday evening, Jews across the world embarked on the last staging post of a ten-day pilgrimage that began on Rosh Ha-Shanah with the blasts of the shofar. The word pilgrimage may sound rather old-fashioned. And perhaps, many of us here today have not consciously been aware of making a pilgrimage from Rosh Ha-Shanah to Yom Kippur. The Torah, tells us that the first day of the seventh month is zichron t’ru’ah, ‘a memorial of blasting’,[1] and yom t’ru’ah, ‘a day of blasting.’ The Torah texts then go on to name the tenth day of the seventh month as Yom Ha-Kippurim, describing it as a day of for ‘self-affliction’, without making explicit the connection between these two sacred days. But then, later on in the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we learn that after the return from exile in Babylon in 538 BCE,[2] when the seventh month arrived, the people made pilgrimage to Jerusalem.[3] That particular pilgrimage was an act of communal restoration, as Ezra, the scribe ‘brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding,’ and proceeded to read from the Torah ‘from early morning until midday.[4]

We have not been in exile in a foreign land, but for many of those who flock to services at the beginning of the seventh month of the Jewish year, the yamim norai’m, literally, the ‘awed days’ that span the period that begins on Rosh Ha-Shanah and ends on Yom Kippur, do represent an annual pilgrimage. The early rabbis, who were responsible for restoring and reconstituting Jewish life after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, transformed the pilgrimages of our ancestors to a particular sacred place, into pilgrimages in time. Today on Yom Kippur, in every place where Jews live throughout the world, although we gather in synagogues, in community buildings, in sports halls – in any place big enough to accommodate the throng – the point of our gatherings is not to be in a particular place, but rather to be together and share a particular sacred moment out of the routine of our daily lives. The rabbinic sages crafted a pilgrimage in time for the aseret y’met t’shuvah, ‘the ten days of returning’ from Rosh Ha-Shanah to Yom Kippur; a ten-day pilgrimage in the shape of a shofar, a ram’s horn, calling us in the words of the mediaeval codifier and philosopher, Maimonides, to ‘awake’ from our ‘slumbers’, ‘examine’ our ‘deeds’, and ‘return.’[5]

Yom t’ruah: the ‘day of blasting’ on the first day of the seventh month heralds a time of movement and change. Like an alarm clock, breaking into our sleep, with its insistent demand to get up and start the day, the shofar is a call to action. But then this dynamic period, in which we have the space to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of ourselves, to acknowledge our errors and to approach those whom we have hurt and wronged, draws to a close with the arrival of the tenth day of the month, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is usually translated as ‘Day of Atonement’. The literal translation is ‘day of covering’. Our misdeeds and mistakes of the past year don’t vanish. Provided that we have done what we can to make amends, they are covered over, so that we can begin again. On Yom Kippur, whatever we have or have not done since Rosh Ha-Shanah, and in the absence of the activities and distractions of our daily lives, there is nothing more that we can do except accept our failure, let go of our usual strategies of avoidance and control, and allow ourselves to let the long day lead us towards renewal.

Yom Kippur is a unique day in the Jewish year. So unique that the tractate in the Talmud devoted to Yom Kippur is designated, simply, as Yoma, the Aramaic word which means ‘The Day’. Yom Kippur is the day. The Hebrew word is ha-yom – which has a double meaning: ‘the day’ is also ‘today’. Ha-yom – Today: a day out of time, etched in units of time: from Kol Nidrey in the evening, through Shacharit, the morning service, through Musaf, the additional service, and Minchah, the afternoon service, concluding with N’ilah, the ‘closing’ service. And in addition to these five acts: Yizkor, the memorial service – held in progressive synagogues before N’ilah, and in orthodox congregations after the morning service.

In the Torah, Yom Kippur is referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton.[6] The usual translation is ‘the Sabbath of Sabbaths.’ Interestingly, in the Torah, Shabbat is also referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton.[7] Further, the Torah also uses the expression Shabbat Shabbaton in connection with the land. We read: ‘In the seventh year, there shall be a Shabbat Shabbaton for the land.’[8] So, what exactly does Shabbaton mean? The usual translation of Shabbaton in all these instances is ‘solemn rest’. But since the word ‘solemn’ has no connection with the root meaning of Shabbat, Shin Beit Tav, to ‘cease’, it makes more sense to translate Shabbaton as an intensification of the word Shabbat. So, perhaps, ‘complete Shabbat’ gets closer to the meaning.

However, sorting out how best to translate Shabbaton does not get us nearer to making sense of the fact that Shabbaton is not used uniquely of Yom Kippur. Indeed, apart from the references to Shabbat itself and to the sabbatical year, the first day of the seventh month is also designated as ‘Shabbaton’,[9] as is the first day of Sukkot, the seven day festival that begins on the 15th day of the seventh month, and the eighth day that follows the Festival.[10] This suggests that while what is most unique about Yom Kippur is its particular character as the Day of Atonement/covering, it also shares a very special quality with other sacred days designated as Shabbaton.

We could say that all the sacred days of the seventh month are Shabbat-like, and this is made clear in Leviticus chapter 23, the section of the parashah, Emor that sets out the biblical festival calendar. Each of these days is designated as mikra kodesh; each one a ‘sacred convocation’, on which work is prohibited. In a significant sense, the seventh month of the year echoes the seventh day of the week. Nevertheless, the full expression Shabbat Shabbaton is used only of the seventh day of the week, the seventh year and Yom Kippur. This suggests that Yom Kippur shares a deeper link than any of the other sacred days with Shabbat.

To understand this connection more fully, we need to delve a little deeper into Shabbat itself. Halakhah, Jewish law focuses on the central feature of Shabbatceasing from work. Although the Torah proscribes work on Shabbat, aside from the examples of lighting fire, collecting manna, and gathering firewood,[11] it does not detail the activities that constitute work. It is not accidental that in setting out the laws concerning Shabbat observance, the rabbinic sages drew on the tasks described in the building of the mishkan, ‘tabernacle’[12] from which they identified the 39 categories of prohibited work. [13]

Within Liberal Judaism, while acknowledging the distinction between the six working days and Shabbat, the emphasis is less on what you must not do on the seventh day, and more on experiencing the special qualities of Shabbat. As the 16th century song puts it: Yom zeh l’Yisraeil ora v’simchah; Shabbat m’nuchah: ’This day is for Israel a day of light and joy; a Sabbath of rest’. [14] And in the words of the ‘second’ Isaiah, read as part of the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning, Shabbat is oneg, ‘a delight’.[15] Liberal Jews, too, sing V’sham’ru v’ney Yisra’eil et-ha-Shabbat – ‘The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath.’[16] However, from a Liberal Jewish perspective, the dimension that is stressed is the opportunity Shabbat offers for renewal of the body and the soul. As this passage from Exodus chapter 31 concludes: on the very first seventh day, the Eternal One shavat va-yinafash – ‘ceased from work and was refreshed’ – literally, was re-souled or ‘re-beinged’; the related noun, nefesh, means ‘being’ in the Torah.[17]

Shabbat is a day for refreshment and renewal. It is also a day of liberation. Extrapolating from the two versions of the Ten Commandments found in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy,[18] for the rabbinic sages, Shabbat was both zikaron l’ma’aseh v’reishit – ‘a memorial of the work of Creation’ and zeicher li’tzi’at Mitzrayim – ‘a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt’.[19] Liberation implies not only freedom from the daily round of work, but also freedom from oppression. Moreover, when we greet each other, we say Shabbat Shalom; we wish each other a ‘peaceful Sabbath’: Shabbat is a day for peace; and a day for ‘wholeness’ – shaleim. Shabbat gives us a taste of what the rabbinic sages called ha-olam ha-ba, ‘the world to come’,[20] and what Liberal Jews refer to as the Messianic Age;[21] the future time, when, in the words recorded by the prophets, Isaiah and Micah, antagonists will ‘beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks and learn war no more’.[22]

Shabbat is a day set apart. The sacred in Judaism is that which is ‘set apart’ – from the Hebrew root, Kuf Dalet Shin. The first mention of the sacred in the Torah is in the first reference to the seventh day in the first account of Creation: ‘God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it’ – va-y’kaddeish oto.[23] So, if the key feature of Liberal Judaism’s approach to Shabbat is not ceasing from the thirty-nine categories of prohibited work, the challenge for Liberal Jews is, how do we set Shabbat apart? How do we make Shabbat distinct? We have all the special ingredients of Shabbat at our disposal: Shabbat is ‘light and joy’; ‘a delight’; a day of ‘rest’, peace’ and ‘liberation’; a time for physical refreshment and spiritual renewal – so what can we make of them? And how do we grapple with the core meaning of Shabbat – to ‘cease’ from work – without making the seventh day of the week a series of ‘don’ts’?

I respond to these questions in an article that will be published in an anthology in October. More pertinent right now is for us to ponder the connections between these Shabbat ingredients and Yom Kippur, which as we have seen, like Shabbat, is Shabbat Shabbaton.

Of course, there are major differences between Shabbat and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur does not centre on ‘light’, ‘joy’ and ‘delight’; and while enjoying the physical pleasures of life – like food and sex – are integral to Shabbat, Yom Kippur is a day of absolute self-denial. On the surface then, Shabbat and Yom Kippur could not be further apart. On the other hand, like Shabbat, Yom Kippur is a day of rest and peace, and above all, a time for spiritual renewal. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the philosopher-mystic rabbi, who was actively involved in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, wrote a wonderful book, entitled, The Sabbath.[24] For Heschel, after the destruction of the Temple, the primacy of sacred space in Jewish life was replaced by sacred time. He writes:[25]

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the day itself, the “essence of the day”, which, with man’s repentance, atones for the sins of man[26] [Heschel’s emphasis].

Jewish ritual may be characterised as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time [Heschel’s emphasis].

For Heschel, on Shabbat as on Yom Kippur and the other sacred days of the Jewish year, we enter into ‘a Palace in time’,[27] a time apart from the everyday world. ‘Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space’, he writes, ‘on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time,’[28] And further:[29]

To set apart, one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilisation, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds other greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

Today we have come together to share a unique moment, which holds out the hope that whatever has transpired over the past year, we can renew our lives and begin a new year without carrying the past as a burden on our backs. Heschel reminds us that we don’t have to wait for Yom Kippur to find the spiritual refreshment and restoration we need. Each week, whatever has transpired during the six working days, we can pause and enter into another dimension, offering possibilities for renewal. Heschel’s, The Sabbath, was first published in 1951. More than six decades later, we live in a 24/7 society that seems entirely in thrall to ‘the idols of technical civilisation’. For many people, apart from practical considerations that make it very difficult to ‘cease’ on the seventh day, our attachment to our smart-phones and other technological devices, keeping us ever switched on and tuned in, makes it well-nigh impossible. It’s hard not to conclude that our need for ‘a palace in time’ is more urgent than ever. ‘The Sabbath is a day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilisation’, writes Heschel [his emphasis].[30] May the experience of Yoma – The Day – this sacred time of Yom Kippur, inspire and encourage each one of us to practice this art more frequently. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Yom Kippur Shacharit 5776 – 23rd September 2015

  1. Leviticus 23: 24.
  2. The Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem in 597 BCE, which is when the first deportations of Judeans to Babylon began. In 530, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians, and in 538, he issued an edict permitting the exiles to return home. See: Jewish People, Jewish Thought. The Jewish Experience in History by Robert M. Seltzer. Chapter 1 (Collier Macmillan, London, 1980).
  3. Ezra 3:1-3; Nehemiah 7:73-8:12.
  4. Nehemiah 8:3.
  5. Hilkhot T’shuvah, ‘Laws of Returning (Repentance)’ 3:4, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides – Moses ben Maimon – also known by the acronym, RaMBaM, 1135-1204.
  6. Lev. 23:32; Lev. 16:31.
  7. Exodus 31:15; 35:2; Leviticus 23:2. In Exodus 16:23 Shabbat is referred to as Shabbaton Shabbat kodesh, which complicates the translation: Shabbat kodesh means ‘sacred Sabbath.’
  8. Leviticus 25:4.
  9. Lev. 23:24.
  10. Lev. 23:39.The eighth day after the seven days of Sukkot is designated as sh’mini atzeret. Sh’mini means ‘eighth’; atzeret is from the root Ayin Tzadi Reish to ‘restrain’ or ‘retain’, suggesting that the eighth day concludes the festival period.
  11. See: Exodus 35:3 concerning the prohibition on lighting fire; Exodus 16:26, for the prohibition on collecting manna; and Numbers 15:32, for an account of the punishment of a man who gathered firewood.

    For other examples of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, see: Exodus 16:29; 34:21; also passages in the prophetic books: Isaiah 58:13, Jeremiah 17:22 and Amos 8:5 (doing business and carrying) and Nehemiah 13:15-18 (treading in a winepress and loading animals).

  12. Exodus chapters 25 through 40 are taken up with the account of the building of the Tabernacle. In Exodus chapter 31, a passage concerning the artisans responsible for building of the Tabernacle (31:1-11) is juxtaposed with a passage prohibiting work on Shabbat, in which the Israelites are exhorted to keep Shabbat as ‘a sign of the covenant’ with the Eternal One (31:12-17).
  13. For a list of the 39 categories of prohibited work, see: Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 (in Seder Mo’eid).
  14. Yom zeh l’Yisrael is attributed to the 16th century mystic, Isaac Luria (1534-72, Safed). See: Siddur Lev Chadash, p. 710, note, re: p.644 (Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London, 1995).
  15. Isaiah 58:13.
  16. Exodus 31:16-17.
  17. See: The second account of Creation – Genesis 2: Then the Eternal [YHWH] God formed the human [ha-adam] dust from the ground [ha-adamah], and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life [nishmat chayyim]; and the human became a living being [l’nefesh chayyah].
  18. Exodus 20:1-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18.
  19. See: Birkat Ha-Yom ‘The Blessing of the Day, recited after the blessing for the fruit of the vine on Erev Shabbat (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 105a). The wine is drunk after both blessings have been recited.
  20. In the Talmud, B’rakhot 17a we read: ‘In the world to come there is no eating, or drinking, nor procreation or commerce, nor jealousy, or enmity, or rivalry – but the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the radiance of the Divine Presence [Sh’khinah]. Is ha-olam ha-ba, ‘the world to come’, in this world or in the afterlife? In his book, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, Simcha Paull Raphael argues that rabbinic literature is ambiguous regarding this question (Shalomi, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009; second edition).
  21. See ‘Road Map to the Messianic Age’, pp. 103-106, in Signposts to the Messianic Age by Rabbi John D. Rayner (Valentine Mitchell, 2006), where, in a sermon given at Pesach in 2003, Rabbi Rayner reflects on the tension between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’, the world ‘as it has been and is’, and the world as it could be.
  22. Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3.
  23. Genesis 2:3.
  24. The Sabbath. Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1951). 14th printing, 1988. With wood engravings by Ilya Schor
  25. The Sabbath. From the Prologue: ‘Architecture of time’, p.8.
  26. Here Heschel is referencing Maiminides’ Hilkhot T’shuvah 1:3 in Mishneh Torah, ‘on the basis of Mishnah Yoma 8:8’ (see Note 6, p.103). Heschel adds in this note that ‘A more radical view is found in Sifra (midrash on Leviticus) to [Leviticus] 23:27, and Shevuot (Babylonian Talmud) 13a.’
  27. This is the title of chapter 1.
  28. The Sabbath, p.10.
  29. Ibid., p.28.
  30. Ibid., p.27.