The Bible commands us to “afflict our souls” on Yom Kippur as part of a Day of Turning back towards God. Our tradition generally makes a place for physical pleasures because God created a good world that we are commanded to enjoy. Once a year we deny ourselves those pleasures and focus entirely on our spirituality.
The vague command to afflict our souls is open to abuse. Without guidance, people could go too far – or not far enough. Rabbinic Judaism generally looks at these general statements and tries to make them as specific as possible. God cares about what we do. That means our tradition always strives to specifically define Biblical commandments. Rabbinic tradition defines five specific afflictions:
First is fasting. We neither eat nor drink the entire day of Yom Kippur. We spend a lot of time eating; on this day it would take away from personal growth. Further, fasting is uncomfortable. It reminds us of our fragility and mortality. (There are certain exceptions to the fast. Any prescription medications that will lead to a medical risk should still be taken. Pregnant and nursing women should eat and drink small quantities throughout the day. Anyone who would become faint or otherwise put their health at risk should not fast. Torah is given to us that we may live by it, not die by it.)
Second and third is refraining from wearing jewelry and from wearing makeup or anointing. Aftershave would therefore be problematic. Ordinarily we spend time being concerned about our personal appearance and putting on a face for the day. On Yom Kippur that is too much like vanity and so we avoid it to teach ourselves humility.
Fourth is refraining from marital relations. This affliction removes a comfort and a source of physical pleasure for much the same reasons as fasting. Unlike fasting, there are no exemptions to this affliction.
Fifth is to refrain from wearing leather. Ordinarily we allow ourselves to benefit from animals. We eat them as the Torah specifically (if grudgingly) permits in the story of Noah, and we generally derive benefit from leather or other animal products. We usually think of ourselves as superior to the animals, but Yom Kippur is a day for humility. On this day we are no better than the animals. According to Isaiah, we may even be worse, for at least an animal knows its master, but we all too often forget God.
Finally, Isaiah tells us that our sins will be cleansed away and we will become as pure as the driven snow. From this quote it has become the custom to wear white garments on Yom Kippur. That is why I wear a kittel, the white High Holidays robe and a white kippah. It is a good day for a white oxford and for white dresses.
Yom Kippur intentionally puts us a little off balance. We remind ourselves of our mortality and force upon ourselves certain actions of humility. The prayer is that shaking ourselves up a little will help us genuinely change. Reminding ourselves of our fragility reminds us that we depend upon God. Reminding ourselves of humility opens up a chance to change.
May we all be touched and inspired by Yom Kippur this year, and may the afflictions of this holy day cause us to turn back towards God.
May we all be written for a good year,
Rabbi David Booth