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“Who Purifies You” – The Repentance of Yom Kippur

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Translated by Alex Tsykin


For on this day He will atone for you to purify you, of all of your sins before God you shall be purified. (Vayikra 16:30)

Rabbi Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you?  Your Father in Heaven. (Mishna Yoma 8:9)

In this verse and mishna we read about two processes of purification: God purifies Israel and Israel purifies itself. What is the purification for which we are responsible? Rabbeinu Yona explains:

It is a commanded that a person should waken his spirit to repent on Yom Kippur, as it says: “Of all your sins before God you shall be purified” (Vayikra 16:30). Accordingly, Scripture commanded us that we should purify ourselves before God with our repentance and He will atone for us on this day to purify us. (Sha'arei Teshuva 2:5)

The great innovation of Rabbeinu Yona is that there is a special commandment to repent on Yom Kippur; we are required to purify ourselves on this day. On the other hand, God also purifies us on Yom Kippur. This leads us to ask: How does God purify us on Yom Kippur? To answer this question we will explore the importance of repentance.

Repentance is the central commandment of Yom Kippur, and the Rambam strongly emphasized its significance:

Great is repentance, as it draws man close to God, as it says: “Return, O Israel, to Hashem your God” (Hoshe'a 14:2)… That is to say, if you repent – you will cleave to God. Repentance brings closer the distant; yesterday he was despised by God, repudiated, distanced and made disgusting, and today he is beloved and desired, close and a friend… How great is the significance of repentance! Yesterday he was separated from Hashem, the God of Israel… and today he cleaves to God… (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:6-7)

Even so, there is something fundamental that troubles us about repentance. Can we truly repent? We are troubled by the despair of Adam, who did not believe in his ability to repent. Adam said to God after the sin: “The woman whom you placed with me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it (va-okhal)” (Bereishit 3:12). Chazal expounded upon this verse:

“And I ate” (ve-akhalti) is not written here, but rather, “and I will eat” (va-okhal) – I ate and I will eat. (Bereishit Rabba 19:12)

Adam thought he would never merit repentance, for after his exile from the Garden of Eden, he would certainly eat again from the forbidden fruit; he would surely sin again. In light of this, we similarly ask ourselves: Is there really any chance that we will not return to our own sins in the future? This question is strengthened by the Rambam’s words:

And what is repentance? That a person should leave behind his sin and banish it from his thought and should resolve in his heart that he will not do it again… and he should regret the past… and the Knower of Mysteries [i.e., God] will attest about him that he will never return to this sin… (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:2)

The Rambam sets a high standard here – that the Knower of Mysteries should attest that the person will never return to this sin; but who can attain this level of piety?

The Lechem Mishneh here notes that the simple meaning of the Rambam's words is different. It does not say that he should never sin again, but that God “will attest about him that he will never return to this sin,” as though he were asking God to testify on his behalf. Here too we are puzzled: Who has the strength to ask God to bear witness for him that he will not return to the sin?

After the Confession service on Yom Kippur, we say “and strengthen our hearts that we should leave the way of evil,” but is this sufficient? Is repentance effective if it is unaccompanied by certainty that the sin will not be repeated?

            To answer this question, we must return to the words of the Rambam, and examine the apparent contradiction within them. At the beginning of Hilkhot Teshuva the Rambam writes:

How should one confess? One says: “Please, O God, I have sinned inadvertently, I have sinned deliberately, I have rebelled against You, and I have done such and such, and I hereby regret and am ashamed of my actions, and I will never return to this”; this is the essence of confession. (1:1)

The Rambam writes something similar in the second chapter as well:

And the Knower of Mysteries will attest about him that he will never return to this sin… And he should confess verbally and say these things that he has resolved. Anybody who confesses verbally and does not resolve to leave [the sin] behind is as one who immerses himself in a mikveh while holding an insect, in which case the immersion is ineffective until he discards the insect. (2:2-3)

Based on these two halakhot, the element of “resolution for the future” forms an integral part of confession. Even so, later on in the same halakhot, the Rambam writes:

The confession which Israel has practiced is: “However, we have sinned,” and that is the essence of confession. (2:8)

The Rambam records the standard formulation for confession and says nothing about resolution for the future. As we noted above, resolution for the future is not a part of the Confession of Yom Kippur. Rather, we suffice with the prayer requesting “that we should not sin again.”

To explain the words of the Rambam, we should examine the difference between the usual commandment to repent and that of Yom Kippur. In principle, resolution for the future is an integral part of repentance. However, on Yom Kippur there is a special kind of atonement. The Tana'im disagreed over whether Yom Kippur atones only for those who seek repentance, or if it atones even for those who do not repent. The Rambam ruled that Yom Kippur only atones for penitents; however, it seems that there is a distinction between the repentance of Yom Kippur and repentance throughout the year. During the year, we need to repent “by the book,” making sure to resolve not to sin again. However, on Yom Kippur, anyone who merely says “we sinned” is considered a penitent and is automatically entitled to request that he not sin again. It is true that this form of repentance lacks a true resolution for the future; however, the great power of Yom Kippur is that even this repentance is effective.

We asked above how it is that God purifies Israel on Yom Kippur. The answer is that the repentance of Yom Kippur, though lacking a resolution not to sin again, is nonetheless accepted by God. God purifies all of us and enables us to be counted among the “penitents,” even though the process of repentance is not truly complete.

To be among the purified penitents on Yom Kippur, one’s repentance must be sincere. Chazal expounded:

“Listen to my song and hear my prayer from lips without deceit” (Tehillim 17:1): “hear my prayer” – that is the regular prayer; “from lips without deceit” – that is musaf. What is written afterward? “From before You will come justice.” (Yerushalmi Rosh Ha-shana 4:8)

Penitents are accepted and purified, as long as they speak honestly.


The perspective that God does not denigrate repentance, even when it is not complete, is also present in the story of Cain. The verse states: “And Cain left from before God” (Bereishit 4:16). The Midrash explains that it is as though Cain “deceived Heaven.” Even so, the Midrash adds:

Adam encountered [Cain] and asked: “How were you judged?” He said: “I repented and it was received.” Adam began to weep: “This is the power of repentance and I had not known!” Immediately Adam stood and said: “A song of praise for the day of Shabbat: It is good to confess (lehodot, usually meaning ‘to thank’) to God…” (Tehillim 92:1-2). (Bereishit Rabba 22:13)


Adam says a song of praise for the day of Shabbat, and acknowledges that it is good to confess before God. Adam sees the disgraceful repentance of Cain, who deceived Heaven yet whose words were accepted. Now he understands that even partial repentance can be effective, and it too is accepted by God.


We still need to ask: How can we suffice with the short statement: “However, we have sinned?” Is there not a need for a deeper and more comprehensive confession? The answer to this is based upon a Gemara in Yoma:

Rav Huna said: If a person sinned and then repeated the sin, it becomes permitted to him. Is that possible?! Rather, it is as though it were permitted to him. (Yoma 86b)

A person who loses control of the brakes in the way of sin, as it were, cannot stop. The sin diminishes one’s awareness of the commandment and therefore one begins to feel that every sin is permitted to him.

To combat a sin that is so wide-ranging, there is a need to accept the Torah, through which one gains both an awareness of being commanded and a recognition of sin. Yom Kippur is the day on which the second tablets were received; it is a day on which we return to the Torah, and we return to Him who gave the Torah. Therefore, the basis for the repentance of Yom Kippur is the recognition of sin. For this recognition, the simple statement “however, we have sinned” is sufficient. This is the essence of repentance on Yom Kippur.


This short statement of confession on Yom Kippur – “however, we have sinned” – reveals the individual’s inner will. The Rambam discusses the question of one’s inner will in his ruling regarding the court’s forcing a man to give his wife a get:

If a person who may be legally compelled to divorce his wife refuses to do so, the court may lash him until he says, “I consent”… One whose evil inclination attacked him, causing him to ignore a commandment or to transgress a prohibition, and was lashed until he did what he was required to do or refrained from what he was prohibited from doing – he cannot be regarded as a victim of duress; rather, he has brought duress upon himself by submitting to his evil thoughts. Therefore, this man who refuses to divorce his wife, inasmuch as he wants to live as one of Israel, to fulfill all commandments and to distance himself from all prohibitions, and it is his evil inclination that is forcing him – therefore once he is lashed until his inclination weakened and he says, “I consent,” he has granted the divorce willingly. (Hilkhot Geirushin 2:20)

We learn from the Rambam that there are two opposing forces within each Jew: the basic desire to “live as one of Israel, to fulfill all commandments and to distance himself from all prohibitions,” and, on the other hand, the impulsive desire to sin which is brought on by the attack of the evil inclination. We must determine which is one’s main desire: the deep, permanent desire to good, or the temporary desire to do evil? The answer can be found in the Midrash:

“I am black and beautiful” (Shir Ha-shirim 1:5) – I am black during the week and I am beautiful on Shabbat; I am black during the year and beautiful on Yom Kippur. (Yalkut Shim'oni, Shir Ha-shirim, 982)

On Yom Kippur, Israel’s secret is revealed: their main desire is to do the will of their Father in Heaven.

The relationship between Yom Kippur and the days of the year is similar to the relationship between Shabbat and the days of the week. On Shabbat nature returns to its original form, and it becomes beautiful once again. Adam, who realized the power of partial repentance – such as that of Yom Kippur – sang a song of praise for the Shabbat, a song of praise for the revelation of the internal desire which certainly wishes to do good. The internal desire is revealed on Shabbat, and with even greater strength on Yom Kippur, which is called “Shabbat Shabbaton.”

The central blessing of Amida on Yom Kippur ends with the words, “and aside from You, we have no king to pardon and forgive us.” This is strange. Would we have thought that anybody else could pardon us, such that it was necessary to emphasize that God pardons and forgives us? The answer is that God not only pardons us, but He descends to the depths of our desires as well. Only God knows that our inner desire is to do His desire.

When one says, “However, we have sinned,” he reveals that his desire is to do the will of his Creator, that he wishes to belong to the community of penitents, about whom it is said, “Who purifies you?  Your Father in Heaven.”

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