A First Look at R. Yitzchak Arama’s View of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippu

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Torah introduces Yom Kippur with the service of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, in Acharei Mot, sha’ar 63 in Akeydat Yitzchak. Because I generally fail to pay enough attention to hagim until they’re upon me, I left only one week for us to discuss ideas of Yom Kippur, and am therefore skipping the first two thirds of the sha’ar, going to the part I found most immediately relevant to Yom Kippur. Ve-od hazon le-mo’ed, I hope we merit reaching that part of the book to study the rest together.

Changing Our Clothes, Changing Ourselves

The Torah hangs much of the atonement of Yom Kippur on the service the Kohen Gadol performed in the Bet Ha-Mikdash. R. Arama reads the service symbolically, as a way to show us how to construct or reconstruct our lives. [He leaves me to wonder whether he might also mean some of the atonement is based on the hope we learn from the service and therefore are on track to do better next year.]

For example, he points to the multiple changes of clothing the Kohen Gadol undergoes over the course of the day (the Kohen Gadol changes clothing for each kind of service, as we will see). Shabbat 114a tells R. Arama changes of clothing are symbolic because the Gemara asks “who is wise? He who knows how to change his garment.”

[The Gemara was talking about whom we can trust to return a lost piece of clothing based on the person’s say-so, his/her recognizing the item. In our versions, the Gemara says “a Torah scholar who cares –is makpid—to flip his garment.” According to Rashi, the “flipping” is to hide the seams. R. Arama here takes it more homiletically.]

To him, the idea a wise person knows how to change his/her “garments” means also the wisdom to change his/her traits and customs/practices. People tend to stick to their inborn natures, as clothing to skin, where wisdom shows new paths to adopt, ways to step outside ourselves for the better.

The key lies in allowing wisdom to overcome nature, so much so the person comes to want what started as an external idea taught by wisdom. Success comes when the person has changed garments totally, turned them pure white (he uses a phrase from the Torah’s declaring ritually pure a person with tzara’at whose entire body had become white from the lesions. The person fully engulfed by tzara’at returns to ritual purity, the Torah says, and R. Arama speaks here of a person fully engulfed by wisdom.)

Ideally, in his view, we alter our nature, overlay our inborn character and tendencies based on what wisdom teaches, to the point our nature and instincts are reborn.

The Kohen Gadol’s Changes of Clothing

He sees the process dramatized in the service of Yom Kippur. The Kohen Gadol starts the day in his own clothing, then changes into bigdei zahav, the golden garments he wears throughout the year, to offer the regular daily sacrifice and musaf, the additional holiday sacrifice of Yom Kippur (although it is particular to Yom Kippur, every holiday has such a musaf, so it is not part of the special services of Yom Kippur).

To R. Arama, the passage symbolizes the need we just discussed, for each of us—including the Kohen Gadol– to step out of ourselves, in this case for him to become his best possible self for daily and additional needs. (He goes from being all about himself, as shown by his personal clothes, to his best public self.)

From there, the Kohen Gadol changes into the bigdei ha-bad, the plain linen garments for the special Yom Kippur service. R. Arama thinks it shows the value in a life of limits (dispensing with the fanciness implied by the golden garments), seeking full cleanliness in all people’s ways and desires. They are the keys to entering the Kodesh, for him, the Holy of Holies, the inner part of the Temple, and for us, achieving higher levels of perfection/closeness to Hashem.

After finishing, the Kohen Gadol switches back to his personal clothing, to read the Torah to the people. It shows the Kohen (and we) returns to himself after a concentrated attempt at self-improvement, to find he has changed, his ordinary life has moved to a different and better plane (as we can hope will be true for us). R. Arama thinks the later services of the day show he has become better, because the Kohen Gadol performs some Yom Kippur related activities in the bigdei zahav, the golden garments from the rest of the year. He has elevated himself, some of what originally was too august for him to do in the year’s service clothes now can be.

[R. Arama is reading the service to teach us times of self-improvement are supposed to inform the rest of life, are supposed to be put into action in an ordinary life. He is not calling for complete cloistering or withdrawing.]

He has a bit more on the avodah, but this is the piece I found most stimulating to productive thought. I want to move on to other pieces of his Yom Kippur puzzle.

The Necessity of Forgiveness

A bit later in the sha’ar, R. Arama includes foregoing one’s full honor and rights as important qualities in an heroic person, all the more so in a king—human or divine—the father/Father to the nation, the nation turning to Him either as children or as slaves, hoping for grace and kindness. Besides the value of generosity as a way to forgiveness, it also reduces the chances of further rebellion.

For example, if a subject of a human king knows s/he has been sentenced to death, with no way out, rebellion (private or public) is the only way to escape death. The king is better advised to find a way to commute sentences, to give the subjects confidence in the king’s love, inspire them to hope and attempt to never sin again. Hashem acts that way, is hanun ve-rahum, compassionate and merciful, in no way desiring the death of the wicked.

The other reason to open avenues to forgiveness is to forestall the despair any honest personal accounting would produce, R. Arama says [a vital point I think many of us miss: were we to evaluate ourselves according to strict justice, we would all fall very short. That’s not a knock on strict justice, it’s a reminder to ourselves of how much we let ourselves miss the mark.]

As Tehillim 130;3 says, if Hashem were to track all our sins, none of us could stand. Were we to think of strict accounting as the whole story, we would (Gd forbid) be forced to deny Hashem, as do other heretics. [He does not quite explain; I think he means many of us are unable to be honest about what we deserve and would choose to believe something else, however untrue, to avoid the consequences of an honest self-appraisal. He implies this is the starting point of all heresy, people’s discomfort with the world as it is, their seeking a more self-servingly pleasant one.]

Hashem tried to help by giving the Jewish people Yom Kippur, one day a year to atone sin, unwitting, knowing, even malicious. The experience of being forgiven eases people’s way to refraining in the future, and enhances their awe of the forgiving King.

[It would be easy to exaggerate the point he has made. A king cannot always forgive, and if every punishment inspired rebellion, R. Arama would be saying there’s never room for it. He does not address my concerns specifically, although I think his continuation backs my understanding.]

The Mix of Justice and Mercy

The need for the kindness of atonement comes from humanity’s inability to survive on a justice-only standard. As Bereshit Rabbah 12 says, Hashem originally thought to create a world of pure justice, saw it could not survive, and joined rahamim, mercy, to din, justice.  R. Arama interprets “originally thought” to mean what Hashem could have done, with the later realization a truth about human beings. We are unable to discipline ourselves enough to live with strict justice, as Kohelet 7;20 tells us, no person can do only good and not sin.

Hashem went a step further than joining mercy, put mercy first, as shown in the Name Hashem Elokim, Hashem usually taken as the Attribute of Mercy, Elokim that of Justice.

The Yamim Nora’im

To reflect the two pieces in Hashem’s reaction to our deeds, we have Rosh HaShanah, the Yom Ha-Din, Day of Justice or Judgment, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh HaShanah 16b gives the famous image of the Day of Judgment, the books of Life and Death opened, the completely righteous written for life, the completely evil written for death. Those judgments are pure, on the merits alone, as befitting the day.

He argues the delay of a decision about the beinonim, people neither completely righteous nor completely evil (read: just about all of us) is also a matter of din, of strict judgment. People of a mixed record do not fit either book [take your average person, who has done some good deeds, some perhaps extraordinary good, who also falls short, sometimes egregiously short. Life or death? In a regime of strict justice, I think R. Arama is saying, there is no answer. The person might deserve death in five ways, let’s say—ate hametz on Pesah, worked his field knowingly on Shabbat, etc.—but also might have acted well in ways supposed to guarantee continued life. With contradictory indications, R. Arama seems to me to mean, justice cannot respond without more evidence. It’s a subtle point.]

Yom Kippur was set aside as a day of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, within the letter of the law.

There’s more, as there always is with R. Arama, but this is a reasonable stopping point, he having this year taught us two valuable elements of our approach to Yom Kippur: the day is about learning to change, to take our original garments and turn them into ones worthy of service of Hashem in all ways, and, second, it is a day where we do not have to worry we will be treated strictly, as long as we make the proper approaches, recognize our wrongs, and commit sincerely to doing better in the future. Gemar Hatima Tova.

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