Yom Kippur: Looking forward

by Rabbi D. Friedman, Jerusalem

Yom Kippur has a solemnity that is strong. The entire Jewish world halts for 25 hours or more, and is engaged in either our prayers and readings in synagogue, or for the more secular, staying at home and ceasing regular activity. Everyone abstains from eating. Only when the shofar sounds to seal Israel’s prayers for the day, does the heavy solemnity lift itself off and away. Many people feel a profound sense of relief then, as keeping away from food and focusing all day on petitions to Heaven feels incredibly intense, both physically and emotionally.

In history, during the late 2nd Temple period, Yom Kippur also entailed some anxious moments, as the public crowds that gathered in Jerusalem at the Temple courts waited word on whether the goat’s thread had turned to white (from red), indicating that God had accepted Israel’s petitions for that day, and had forgiven their sins.

Our people have carried, and still do, a sense of heaviness and solemnity into Yom Kippur. This may not be the theological ideal, but it is my observation and it is our experience. I imagine most of you can relate with my point here.

I want to look for just a second into the future. What will Yom Kippur be like when Messiah ben David returns home to Jerusalem? I imagine we don’t think of this question very often. Yet the answer can both surprise us, and perhaps lend some light to part Yom Kippur that we miss.

So declares Adonai of the Heavenly Armies: “The fast of the fourth (month), and the fast of the fifth (month), and the fast of the seventh (month), and the fast of the tenth (month) will be for rejoicing and joy, and for good appointed times; so love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19, my translation)

Torah interpretation usually looks at the fast of the fourth month as the fast of the 17th of Tammuz; the fast of the fifth month is the ninth of Av; the fast of the seventh month can either be the Fast of Gedaliah or Yom Kippur. And the fast of the tenth month is the tenth of Tevet. Typically, the idea is that when the Temple is rebuilt, these days of mourning and fasting shall become days of joy and celebrating. The Rambam (d. 1204), the renowned and prolific Bible commentator, wrote that these fast days will be days of celebration in the days of the Messiah. Certainly Zechariah 8:19 would have been understood to refer to the future, since in Zechariah’s day, no changes were conferred to these times.

Additionally, may I bring out that the Hebrew word mo’ed is used here to identify these times? According to Leviticus 23, Yom Kippur is indeed a mo’ed, and it is in the seventh month (today’s month of Tishrei).

Additionally, Isaiah chapter 58 appears to be addressing Yom Kippur, when we read:

Why should we fast, if you don’t see? Why mortify ourselves, if you don’t notice?’ “Here is my answer: when you fast, you go about doing whatever you like, while keeping your laborers hard at work. Your fasts lead to quarreling and fighting, to lashing out with violent blows. On a day like today, fasting like yours will not make your voice heard on high. 

“Is this the sort of fast I want, a day when a person mortifies himself? Is the object to hang your head like a reed and spread sackcloth and ashes under yourself? Is this what you call a fast, a day that pleases ADONAI?

“Here is the sort of fast I want—releasing those unjustly bound, untying the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, clothing the naked when you see them, fulfilling your duty to your kinsmen!” 

Then your light will burst forth like the morning, your new skin will quickly grow over your wound; your righteousness will precede you, and ADONAI’s glory will follow you. Then you will call, and ADONAI will answer; you will cry, and he will say, “Here I am.” If you will remove the yoke from among you, stop false accusation and slander, generously offer food to the hungry and meet the needs of the person in trouble; then your light will rise in the darkness, and your gloom become like noon. (Isa. 58:3–10, CJB)

Why does Isaiah 58 appear to address Yom Kippur activities? This chapter centers on fasting and our ancestors’ behavior during fasting, and is punctuated with what God expects our fast day(s) to entail. Indeed, Isaiah 58:3–7 is included in our Yom Kippur liturgy! Thus, we do have a strong connection here. One contemporary rabbi stated: “I think the speech (Isa. 58:3–7) was actually given as an interruption of a Yom Kippur service, or at minimum is deliberately written as if it were.”

Given the ideal that Isaiah teaches us regarding days of fasting, I wonder if, in the days of Messiah’s return, Yom Kippur will change. Instead of being a day of total solemnity and supplication, will it become a day of serving those in a position of need, and a day of joy . . . even if we fast? On the other hand, Messiah Yeshua taught “when the bridegroom is present, there is no need for fasting” (cf. Mt. 9:15). Perhaps the fasting element of Yom Kippur will not exist in future days. On the other hand, we are instructed in the Torah l’anot to “afflict our souls” on Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:20), meaning to make the day difficult, which we’ve always interpreted as fasting. This is Torah from Mt. Sinai, which Messiah will not cancel, but will demonstrate and establish, as he did in the 1st century.

May we enter this Yom Kippur and experience what it was created to be; may we not be overwhelmed by solemnity, but may we able to reach out to others on this very day, as Isaiah wrote.


Russ Resnik