The story is told of a chasidic rebbe who ended each Tisha B’Av by placing its litany of lamentations, the Kinot, into a pile of religious books to be buried. Since the era of redemption was sure to come during the next year, he reasoned, there no longer was a need for this liturgy.
Each year at this time, a rabbi I know raises a similar question about Yom Kippur: At the end of the “Day of Atonement,” we should commit our High Holy Days prayer books to burial. After all, if we are serious about repenting the litany of sins listed in the liturgy, there would be no need to repent of them all over again next Yom Kippur. We would need a new liturgy with a new litany of sins not covered by the current list.
Obviously, if we were not serious about repenting our sins, we would need to recite the same litany again, but there would be no point to doing so. There also would be no point to Yom Kippur itself. It would be a day of empty ritual, devoid of meaning. Either we are showing our contempt for God by believing that we can put one over on Him, or we are acknowledging to ourselves that we do not really believe that God truly exists.
The question, excellent and provocative on its face, is simplistic. It assumes that we are aware of the sins we commit each year and that Yom Kippur is about atoning for them. Yet we are aware only of our most obvious sins, and Yom Kippur and its liturgy are not about them. Yom Kippur and its liturgy are about learning how to identify those sins that are not obvious.
And those sins are multifarious.
For example, among the sins we atone for on Yom Kippur is bribery. While we may not remember bribing anyone or accepting a bribe, that may be only because we do not understand what is meant by bribery. Bribery is a lot more broadly defined in Jewish law than in common law. A bribe can be a simple and quite innocent act of kindness that was never intended to influence anyone, but could do so nonetheless.
The Babylonian Talmud tractate Ketubot (105b) provides a series of examples of this. In one, a bird landed on the head of a rabbinic court judge “and a man came and removed it. Said [the judge] to him: ‘What is your business here?’ Said [the man to the judge], ‘I have a lawsuit.’ Said [the judge] to him: ‘I am disqualified from being your judge.'”
The man, obviously, is not guilty of giving a bribe; his was an act of kindness. On the other hand, were the judge to hear the man’s case, he would be guilty of accepting a bribe because that act of kindness could cause him to favor this litigant, if only subconsciously.
We should never avoid acts of kindness, but Yom Kippur is there to help us identify how even an act of kindness can lead to sin.
Consider this: Among the sins listed in the Great Confessional that we recite over and over again on Yom Kippur (the Al Chet litany) are: “For the sin we have sinned against You by rejecting responsibility…; by fraud and falsehood…; by swearing falsely…; by breach of trust…; by selfishness.”
In Deuteronomy 8:10, we are told, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you.” From this, we derive the obligation to recite the Grace After Meals, the very first paragraph of which extols God for providing food for all His creatures. It ends with, “Blessed are You, Lord, who feeds all.”
And yet Deuteronomy 14:29 states: “And the Levite, because he has no part nor inheritance with you, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”
Clearly, there is a connection meant between the first commandment and the second; the Torah’s use of “eat,” “satisfied,” and “bless” in both verses is deliberate. Its intent is to tell us that before we can truly “eat and be satisfied,” we must see to it that those who have less also can “eat and be satisfied.”
Put another way, we perjure ourselves each time we say the Grace After Meals if we do nothing to help feed the hungry. That is a “sin we have sinned against You by rejecting responsibility…; by fraud and falsehood…; by swearing falsely…; by breach of trust…; by selfishness.” Even if we do not recite the Grace, failing to feed the hungry violates “responsibility…; trust…; and [un]-selfishness.”
Then there is a huge category of misdeeds under Jewish law that involves our lips and our ears. Overall, these misdeeds are classified as verbal wrongs and include the wrongs known as lashon hara (bad speech) and motzi shem ra (defamation of character). At least 20 percent of the Great Confessional, and perhaps as much as 25 percent, involves verbal wrongs. Rabbinic literature is filled with examples of how easy it is to commit such a sin. Merely reminding someone of a past misdeed can be classified as a verbal wrong, according to BT Bava Metzia 58b-59a. From BT Pesachim 118a, we learn that we can be guilty of committing a verbal wrong merely by listening to what someone else has to say.
This has broad implications. It means, for example, that watching a news program on television could be a verbal wrong. Yet we do not watch news programs in order to sin; we watch them in order to be informed. We need to find a balance between our need to know and our need to avoid committing a sin.
If we merely recite the same words every Yom Kippur, then the rabbi’s question is a proper one. Yom Kippur, however, is not about reciting the same words year after year. It’s about understanding what those words mean in practical terms. It is about learning a little bit more each year about how simple acts can become sinful acts – and about how hard we must work during the year to avoid them.