Yom Kippur

September 13, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Thoughts on Yom Kippur from Rabbi Raymond Apple.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Psalm 8:5 asks a blunt question that is echoed in the Yom Kippur prayers: “Lord, what is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You think of him?”

If we were directing the question to Jean-Paul Sartre, he might say, “Man is the incommensurable idiot of the universe!” Bertrand Russell would tell us, “Man with his knowledge of good and evil is just a helpless atom!” HL Mencken would say, “Man is a sick fly, taking a dizzy ride on a gigantic fly-wheel!”

If these answers are true, one thing is patently clear: Man is wasting his time.

Albert Einstein was candid: “The man who regards life as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”

Why does the world need man, why should he survive, why indeed should he ever have existed at all?

There is a Talmudic discussion (Eruvin 13b) about the question, “Was there any point in God creating man?” The answer is rather sad: “It would have been better if man had not been created… but since he has been created, let him exercise control over his deeds.”

A far more positive view comes from Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat: “Let men ever bear in mind that the Holy One dwells in him” (Ta’anit 11b). Man has God’s image imprinted on his face, deep down in his being. That is what Psalm 8 tells us. What is man? “Man is a Divine Creation just below the angels!”

To be an angel is a burden. To be a human being whose rank is just below the angels is to be more rational than an idiot, more powerful than a lost atom, more purposeful than a dizzy fly. It is to say with Pir’kei Avot 2:1, “The day is short, the work is great, the Master is demanding: it is not your task to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

What is the task? To be a Mensch. The spirit of God within us calls us to emulate the Almighty. As He is wise and compassionate, so should we be. As He loves and forgives, so should we.


Confessing our sins (the “Viddui”) is part of every Yom Kippur service.

There are two versions, the long Vidduí (“Al Chet”) and the short one (“Ashamnu”). Both are alphabetical lists, but the wrongs they confess are not what we would expect.

There is no mention of disdain for keeping kosher, no mention of being unreliable in observing Shabbat, no mention of neglecting the davening, no mention of failing to put on tefillin.

The lists enumerate ethical sins, wrong attitudes like selfishness, callousness and malicious speech, not the kind of things that most of us take too seriously.

What is also unexpected is the way we list the sins – not with a solemn groan of guilt but with an almost joyful mood of elation. You would even think we celebrate the sins, and according to Chassidic custom this is actually the truth – like the cleaner in the palace who sings as she sweeps up the dirt, so do we sing at getting the sins off our chests and cleansing ourselves.

One more strange feature: we do not address our confession to a priest, pastor, rabbi or sage – but to God Himself. Rabbi Akiva says in the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9), “How fortunate you are, O Israel. Before whom do you cleanse yourselves, who grants you atonement? Your Father in Heaven!”


It all began with Un’tanneh Tokef, I don’t know how many years ago.

The Musaf service was intense and impressive. The shule was unusually quiet – apart from a low buzz of davening (and, unfortunately, a certain amount of chatter).

On the whole, even the least spiritually inclined congregants were swaying in time with the choral chant.

The music moved through the powerful themes of the occasion and suddenly the message hit home. Even the chatterers took notice.

No-one failed to realise how every one of us was on the agenda: “Who will live and who will die, who will have rest and who will be disturbed?” The questions on the page were actually about our own very selves! The Heavenly Court was focussing on us!

“On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…” The prayer came to a climax: “Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah” – “penitence, prayer and charity determine the outcome!”

The three words were proclaimed by the chazan, choir and congregation, and the echo reverberated. “Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah…” “teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah…” “teshuvah, tefillah” and “tzedakah”.

If I heard those words once that day, I heard them a thousand times. The building was full of people: the atmosphere was full of words. Which words? … these three words. I held my Machzor but all I saw was the words taking off from the page, taking wing, blowing in the wind.

These themes recur throughout the holydays… “teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah; teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah…”

The Talmud (AZ 18a) tells of the martyr Chananiah ben Teradyon whom the Romans wrapped in a Torah scroll and set on fire. His pupils were powerless to save him. They could only ask, “Master, what do you see?” His answer? “Gevilim nisrafim v’otiyot por’chot, – pages burning but letters flying upwards!”

The day I am talking about, there were words flying upwards wherever I looked. No one had set us on fire (except metaphorically). No one was burning us, but Chananiah ben Teradyon was in our midst and the echo was uncontrollable. I reached out to take hold of the words but they only reverberated and slipped out of my hands.

Teshuvah: repentance, return… the first word almost mocked us. We needed to capture the word and let it restore and re-shape our Jewish identity.

Tzedakah: charity, righteousness, compassion… we needed to reach out to the words, to restore and re-shape our society with more love, justice, peace and truth.

Tefillah: prayer, spirituality, devoutness… somehow the second of the three words was the most elusive. How strange it was. The synagogue was full. There was plenty of davening and gusto singing, but many hearts were empty of spirituality – and in some places, the constant buzz of gossip recalled “tziftzuf m’tzaf’tz’fim” (“birds’ chirping”).

The Chafetz Chayyim tells about the old woman whose fruit stall was knocked over by ruffians and the apples flew everywhere. What did the old lady do? Picked up the stall, gathered as many apples as possible, and was back in business.

That’s an example for us, said the Chafetz Chayyim: when your thoughts go flying, recapture as many as possible and try to restore your kavvanah.

I let my eyes roam – for how long, I don‘t remember. I really saw people’s thoughts flying off in every direction.

What blew them around was the people around me who could no longer just daydream, the people who had somehow lost control over their ideas, the sound patterns that sent musical notes everywhere, into every corner, up to the ceiling and down to the floor. The words of the heavy prayer book which themselves were often so heavy and complicated… the words awakened even my own susceptibility to distraction.

When I realised what was going on, I tried to assert my strength. I tried to grasp the errant alphabet and (echoing a peasant in the time of the Besht) to say, “God, please help us catch hold of the flying Hebrew letters and turn them into words and prayers for us!”


One Response to “Yom Kippur”
  1. Maxine Finberg says:

    Excellent article by Rabbi Apple. Every Rosh Hashanah I am profoundly moved by the prayer inspired by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz.

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