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Yom Kippur | The Festival of Freedom

Rav Yehuda Shaviv
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When we hear the appellation "the festival of freedom," we immediately think of Pesach. Indeed, Pesach is the time of our freedom as a nation; Yom Kippur, however, is the festival of freedom of the individual, of each and every one of us. We can see this clearly if we examine the special Yom Kippur which took place once every fifty years - the Yom Kippur of the Yovel (jubilee year), when slaves would be free to go home and fields would revert to their original owners:

"Between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur [of Yovel], slaves were not free to go home, but neither were they enslaved to their masters, nor did the fields revert to their original owners. Rather, the slaves would eat and drink and rejoice with their crowns on their heads. As soon as Yom Kippur arrived, the court would sound the shofar, and the slaves would return to their homes, and the fields reverted to their original owners." (Rambam, Hilkhot Shemitta Ve-yovel 10:14)

Although slaves would cease working on Rosh Ha-shana, and would even rejoice during the intervening days, they did not enjoy total freedom until the shofar was sounded on Yom Kippur. After all, the essence of freedom is the ability to return home, to return to oneself - as well as the new possibility to reside anywhere:

"'And you shall proclaim liberty (dror)' - Rabbi Yehuda said: Why is the word 'dror' used? Because it indicates that [the freed slave] is free to reside in a dwelling." (Torat Kohanim)

"This emphasizes that the freeman may dwell wherever he pleases, and he is not under the control of others." (Rashi, Vayikra 25:10)

Another aspect of this freedom is expressed in the law requiring each person to sound the shofar on Yom Kippur of Yovel:

"It is a positive commandment to sound the shofar on the tenth of the month of Tishrei during the jubilee year, and this commandment is given over first to the court ... but every individual is also obligated to sound the shofar." (Rambam, ibid. 10:10)


On Rosh Ha-Shana, it is possible for one to fulfill his obligation through hearing another person's shofar. However, on the Yom Kippur of Yovel, one must sound his own shofar. On this day of freedom, then, it becomes clear that each individual has a personal and unique inwardness that he must express through his own shofar blasts.

In truth, however, it is impossible to express this freedom unless the entire society is free, with all of the People of Israel living in the Land of Israel and each person dwelling in his inheritance:

"Since the tribes of Reuven and Gad and half the tribe of Menasheh were exiled, the jubilees ceased, as it is written: 'And your shall proclaim liberty in the land to all of its inhabitants' - when all of its inhabitants are present. This applies when the tribes are not all mixed together, but rather each one dwells according to the proper arrangement." (Rambam, ibid. 10:8)

True freedom for the individual is inextricably bound up with true freedom for the whole nation. The message of Yom Kippur is integrally connected, then, to the time of national freedom - Pesach.

Although all that we have said relates to the Yom Kippur of Yovel, it is nevertheless relevant to us every Yom Kippur.




Just as the proclamation of freedom ushers in Yom Kippur of Yovel, so too we commence Yom Kippur annually with the annulment of vows (hatarat nedarim). This phenomenon is unparalleled in Jewish communal prayer. The annulment of vows would appear to be legalistic and technical; in fact, the ancient sages debated whether it applied to past or to future vows. Nevertheless, the essence of hatarat nedarim is the complete liberation from all bondage.

There is no bondage stronger than that of a vow, which, even though assumed voluntarily, assumes the status of a Torah prohibition. On Yom Kippur, the congregation proclaims in chorus that all of their vows are null and void, and so a person is no longer imprisoned in fetters; rather, he is a freeman standing on the threshold of the holy day.

Nevertheless, all of this is merely a prelude to freedom. The dissolution of these bonds makes freedom possible, but it does not constitute freedom, for freedom has its own positive content. Let us now examine several aspects of the freedom of Yom Kippur.




1. Majesty:

Just as Rosh Ha-shana is a day of proclaiming God's majesty, so is Yom Kippur. On both days, we bless 'the holy King,' and prior to that we pray, "Therefore, instill Your fear in all Your creatures ... and may You, Lord our God, reign exclusively...' (Indeed, there are differences between the aspect of majesty on Rosh Ha-shana and that on Yom Kippur, but this is not the place to enter into these distinctions.)

Through recognition, proclamation, faith, and acceptance of the majesty of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, every individual derives his personal freedom. For divine majesty nullifies any other form of enslavement and returns a person to the original state of freedom in which God created him.

2. The Giving of the Torah:

Yom Kippur is the day that the second tablets were brought down by Moshe, and is considered by Chazal to be the day of the giving of the Torah. And as Chazal taught, "A person is not free unless he is occupied with Torah study."

3. Repentance:

As long as a person has not repented of his sins, he is chained to them and enslaved to his impulses. True repentance frees a person and helps him to acquire true freedom: "Repentance strives for an original and true freedom, which is a divine freedom devoid of any vestige of servitude whatsoever" (Orot Ha-teshuva 5:5). The day on which repentance is most effective is Yom Kippur, for on that day everyone is commanded to repent:

"Yom Kippur is a time of repentance for all: for the individual and the community, it is the culmination of pardon and forgiveness for Israel. Therefore, all are obligated to repent and to confess their sins on Yom Kippur." (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 2:7)




Paralleling the three types of freedom enumerated above, we may now see the connection between Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage holidays (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot).

1. God's majesty was apparent in the world in its full strength at the time of the exodus from Egypt, and was proclaimed in the song of those saved at the sea:

"And they willingly accepted His majesty upon themselves. Moshe and the people Israel answered You in song with great joy, and they all said: 'God will reign forever and ever!'" (from the liturgy)

2. Shavuot also celebrates the giving of the Torah.

3. Sukkot, "the time of our joy," is also connected to individual and communal repentance. At the joyous celebration, simchat beit ha-sho'eva, the celebrants used to proclaim their repentance:

"Our [idolatrous] forefathers who were here had their backs turned to the holy Temple ... whereas our eyes are turned to God and we are dedicated to God." (Mishna Sukka 5:4)

"The penitents said: 'Happy is our old age that atoned for our youth.' And everyone said, 'Happy are those who never sinned; but those who sinned should repent and will be forgiven." (Gemara Sukka 53b)

Just as Sukkot is "the time of our joy," we find that Yom Kippur was also a day of abundant joy, and the last mishna in Ta'anit teaches: "There were no days as good for Israel the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur."




A Jew stands on the threshold of Yom Kippur, his vows and voluntary prohibitions annulled, and he feels free of all fetters. Once has repented of all his sins and cleansed his soul, he may receive the Torah and may pronounce God to be his King. Then he concludes Yom Kippur with the formulation said once a year: "You set man apart from the beginning, and You considered him worthy to stand before You." The human being standing erect in prayer before his Maker - that is the essence and the pinnacle of liberty.

(Translated by Miriam Lambert and Ronnie Ziegler)



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