The Revelation of Yom Kippur

Rabbanit Dena Freundlich

Midreshet Lindenbaum Faculty


Virtually all Jewish holidays reenact an historical moment that was of great consequence in Jewish history.  The goal of recreating the event is not simply to remember that it once occurred but to re-experience it ourselves each year.  On Yom Kippur, however, we do not seem to recreate any specific historical occurrence.  We spend the day in shul, fasting and praying.  The primary mitzvah of the day is inui – afflicting ourselves by refraining from eating, washing, marital relations, anointing ourselves with creams, and wearing shoes – which does not seem to reenact any particular event.

Though the Torah never explicitly links the observance of Yom Kippur with any specific moment in history, the date on which the Torah commands us to observe Yom Kippur is way-too-coincidental for it to be merely a coincidence.  If one calculates the chronology, as Rashi does in his commentary to Shemot 33:11, it emerges that the tenth of Tishrei, the date of Yom Kippur, was the very day on which Moshe came down with the second luchot!  On the surface, the reason for the confluence of Yom Kippur and the giving of the second luchot is that God giving Moshe the second tablets signified that He had forgiven the Jewish people for Chet HaEgel, a very appropriate phenomenon to invoke on Yom Kippur as we beg God to forgive us for our sins.  That is certainly true, but I posit that the significance of the connection is far more profound.

We often think of the giving of the second luchot simply as an addendum or coda to the first Matan Torah.  But what’s amazing is that an examination of the pesukim reveals that the second luchot were given amongst a revelation of their own, a revelation which rivaled that of the initial Matan Torah and may even have surpassed it as being the most intense Divine revelation in the history of the world!  In the pesukim, the giving of the second luchot is completely intertwined with another narrative – the revelation of the Thirteen Middot HaRachamim, God’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (“HaShem HaShem Kel Rachum Ve’Chanun…).  In Shemot 33:18, in the middle of his negotiations with God to attain forgiveness for Chet HaEgel, Moshe requests, “Har’eini na et kevodekha – Show me your glory,” to which God acquiesces with, “Ani a’avir kol tuvi al panekha ve’karati be’shem HaShem lefanekha – I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of God before you.”

God then continues that Moshe will not be able to see His face since no human can withstand the intensity of such an experience, and thus, “V’haya ba’avor kevodi ve’samtikha benikrat hatzur v’sakoti khapi alekha ad avri vahasiroti et kapi v’ra’ita et achorai ufanai lo yei’ra’u – And it shall be that when My glory passes by that I will put you in a cleft of the rock and will cover you with My hand while I pass by; and I will take away My hand and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”  It is in the pesukim immediately following this awe-inspiring promise of Divine revelation that God commands Moshe to carve out the second set of tablets (Shemot 34:1-4). The pesukim then describe the revelation of the Thirteen Middot, and it is only in the afterglow (literally – see Shemot 34:29) of this experience of the Divine that Moshe actually inscribes the tablets with the Ten Commandments and brings them down to the people.  Thus, the giving of the second luchot was not simply the conclusion of the initial Matan Torah but was accompanied by its own independent experience of intense Divine Revelation, the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes.

Furthermore, not only was the revelation of the Thirteen Middot an experience of Divine revelation, but it may have been even more powerful than the initial Matan Torah itself.  By Matan Torah, the people experienced God amongst thunder, lightning, smoke, and clouds, while by the Thirteen Middot, God showed Himself to the greatest degree that a human being could possibly withstand (see Shemot 33:19-23).  In addition, by Matan Torah, God revealed of Himself by sharing His laws, but by the Thirteen Middot, He revealed His qualities, His personality, so to speak!  In fact, it was not after Matan Torah that Moshe’s face glowed, but only after this Thirteen Middot revelation (see Shemot 34:29)!  Thus, though Matan Torah is unique in that it was a revelation to the entire nation, the revelation that accompanied the Thirteen Middot is unrivaled in terms of the quality and intensity of the revelation – the degree to which God allowed Moshe to experience Him.

We can now go back and answer the question of: What event are we supposed to be reenacting on Yom Kippur and what is its significance?  The answer is that we relive the giving of the second luchot because it was probably the greatest moment of revelation in history.  Thus, it would seem that the central theme of Yom Kippur is not teshuvah but revelation!

Amazingly, once one is sensitized to the fact that revelation, closeness with God, is the essence of Yom Kippur, this theme can be found everywhere.  The climax of Yom Kippur during the times of the Beit HaMikdash was the Kohen Gadol entering the Kodesh Kadashim – the one and only day of the year that a human being could do so.  The Kohen Gadol entering the Kodesh Kadashim is a reenactment of Moshe, the representative of the nation, going up for the most intense encounter with God that is humanly possible!

Furthermore, each of us on Yom Kippur plays the role of the Kohen Gadol and experiences preparing to enter the Kodesh Kadashim and encounter God as Moshe did when he received the second luchot.  The most prominent of the five inuim is not being able to eat and drink, which we usually think is to show that we are not focusing on our physical needs.  However, one of the miraculous aspects of Moshe’s time in shamayim was “lechem lo achal u’mayim lo shatah – He didn’t eat bread or drink water” (Shemot 34:28).  Fasting is thus not just about removing ourselves from the physical, but is our way of reenacting Moshe’s encounter with the Divine.

Similarly, we refrain from wearing leather shoes – just as Moshe was instructed by the Burning Bush, “Shal ne’alekha me’al raglekha – Remove your shoes from your feet” (Shemot 3:5).  In fact, the Gemara Berakhot 62b derives from this pasuk a general prohibition against ever wearing shoes on the Temple Mount – Shoes are inappropriate when in the presence of the Divine.  Likewise, marital relations are forbidden on Yom Kippur, which is strikingly reminiscent of the fact that Moshe separated from his wife since he could receive prophecy at any moment, and of the fact that before Matan Torah, all Jews were instructed to refrain from relations with their wives in preparation for their encounter with God (Shemot 19:15).  Clearly, our observance of the five inuim does in fact re-enact an historical event – We are recreating a moment of revelation!

On this Yom Kippur, may we all focus on improving ourselves and our relationship with HaShem so that we can truly be worthy of experiencing a sense of closeness with God, the essence of Divine revelation.