Judgment Tempered With Mercy

May 9, 2009

9 min read


Is Yom Kippur a day of atonement or a day of judgment?

For on this day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before the Lord shall you be cleansed. (Leviticus 16:30)

A day of atonement and cleansing does not feel like a day of judgment. Yet we know that the final seal on a person's fate for the following year is stamped on Yom Kippur. It is the final day of the Days of Awe, which are all days of judgment. In what way does Yom Kippur differ from the rest? What is the meaning of this day of judgment, on which decisions regarding life and death are finalized, and which is considered a day of spiritual cleansing?

Nachmanides (Vayikra, 23,24) explains that the difference between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is that Rosh Hashana is a day of judgment that is tempered with mercy, whereas Yom Kippur is a day of mercy that is tempered with judgment. We shall attempt in this essay to plumb the deeper meaning of these words.

Let us begin our search for the quality of this day with the Talmud.

Rabbi Ami taught: "The numerical value of the word haSatan, meaning 'the Satan' in Hebrew is 364 (heh=5, shin=300, tet=9, nun=50, for a total of 364)." Explains the Ran: "The days of the solar year are 365; there is one day where the Satan has no permission to do his thing; that day is Yom Kippur" (Nedarim, 32a).

Does this mean that man has no free will on Yom Kippur? Obviously not! The Torah itself outlines the consequences of failing to observe the fast of Yom Kippur or the prohibition against work; obviously people have the free will to do as they wish on Yom Kippur as on any other day. What significance does the Satan's day off have for us? And for that matter who is the Satan?



Reish Lakish taught: "Satan, the Evil Inclination, and the Angel of Death are all one and the same" (Baba Basra, 16a).

Thus the negative force is subdivided into three parts:

  • it urges people to commit sins, (evil inclination);
  • it then prosecutes them for performing these sins in the heavenly court, (the Satan);
  • and finally carries out the sentence of death issued by the heavenly court as retribution for the commission of sins.


These negative phenomena are all elements that exist in the world as it is today. In the World to Come, there is no death. Just as there is no death, there is no Evil Inclination, and there is no sin and nothing to prosecute. Thus the entire personality of the Satan is one that exists only in our world. We all hope to experience the sphere of existence where the Satan will not be present at all.

This world has wars and tribulations. The Evil Inclination, the Satan, and the Angel of Death has power to rule in this world, but the World to Come has no tribulation or sighs or subjugation; it has no Evil Inclination, no Satan and no Angel of Death as it is written, "He will eliminate death forever and my Lord God will erase tears from all faces" (Isaiah, 25:8) (Ozer Midrashim, 146).

If the Satan has a day off on Yom Kippur, this means that Yom Kippur is really a day that belongs to the World to Come rather than this world. Indeed the Yom Kippur service attests to this in many ways. The one that is most germane to our topic is the following: The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, called out the forbidden God's name in public 10 times on Yom Kippur. The significance of this is clear from the following passage of the Talmud.

"And God will become King over all the earth; on that day God will be One and His Name will be One" (Zechriah, 14:9). Is He not One today? Rabbi Acha bar Chanina said: "The World to Come is not like this world. In this world upon hearing good tidings one says, 'Blessed are you etc. Who is good and does good,' and upon hearing bad tidings one says, 'Blessed are you etc. the True Judge.' But in the World to Come all the blessings will be, 'Who is good and does good.'"

"And His name will be One" -- is His name not One today? Rabbi Nachman bar Yizchok said: "The World to Come is not like this world. In this world God's Name is written with the letters Y/H/V/H, whereas it is pronounced with the letters A/D/N/Y (spelling Adonay, meaning Lord or Master), but in the World to Come it will be all one. It will be both pronounced with the letters Y/H/V/H and written with the letters Y/H/V/H" (Pesachim 50a).

The Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur was referring to God by the name He has in the next world, not by the name He goes by in this one. The Satan has power in our world, and therefore God can only be described here as A/D/N/Y, the Lord and Master, whereas in the next world, where the negative force of the Satan does not exist, God is clearly the only Being.

Thus the first point about Yom Kippur is that it is a slice of time that belongs to the next world rather than this one. By fulfilling the commandments of the day Jews are elevated temporarily to the heady existence of the World to Come where there is no Satan.



The next point concerns the 13 Attributes of Mercy. One of the things we do on Yom Kippur in each of the prayers is recite the 13 Attributes of Mercy several times. The recitation begins each time with a special emphasis on the introductory phrase, which is repeated separately by the reader and the congregation each time the 13 Attributes of Mercy are recited, as though it was a significant phenomenon in and of itself, not merely an introduction to what follows: "God passed before him and proclaimed..." (Exodus 34:6).

Rabbi Yochanan said: "If this wouldn't be expressly written in the Torah, we would not even be allowed to think it. This teaches you that God wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like the leader of the congregation (who is a messenger of the entire congregation) and showed Moses a method of prayer. He told him, "Whenever Israel sins, they should pray in this manner in front of Me, and I will forgive them" (Talmud, Rosh Hashana, 17b).

But what is so unthinkable about this? How does this differ from other matters that God taught Moses?

Jewish tradition offers the following interpretation. The difference between this world and the next is based on the manifestation of God that is present in each. God created this world and manifests Himself in it with His name Elohim. It is for this reason that the Divine Name Elohim is interpreted to refer to the Attribute of Justice. This world is a place where the Satan is also allowed to have power, where the fierce battle between good and evil is constantly raging, and where there is judgment.

In the World to Come, God manifests Himself under the name YHVH. In the World to Come, there is no evil, there is no battle with the Satan, and therefore no judgment.

Although we refer to the world in which the name YHVH reigns supreme as the World to Come, implying that it follows this one we live in now and will only come into being at some future time, this is actually a misnomer. This is true only from our point of view, for we must pass through the travail and battle of this world in order to get to that one. But from God's point of view that world comes first. It is closer to His Absolute Unity and in the process of creation when God assumed His mantle of Creator, He was manifest first as a single entity that is the sole source of all being, with no negative anti-force in existence. From God's point of view, the World to Come already exists.



Because He wanted man to work for his reward, He hid part of the brightness of the light shed by His Presence and made possible the existence of an anti-force in order to provide an arena for man's exercise of free will. From God's point of view, this sphere of revelation where the existence of an anti-force is possible, represents a second, lower level of existence. This is the separate world in which we live at present, where the holy name Elohim is the proper designation for the revelation of God's presence that is manifest.

As we have explained however, Yom Kippur is really a slice of time cut out of the World to Come. In order to achieve this, the manifestation of God in the next world must temporarily replace the manifestation of God in this one. There must be a divine presence that sheds such an overpowering light that the forces of the Satan are temporarily shut down.

On Yom Kippur ordinary reality is pushed out of the way. The divine presence usually present in our world that gives shape to our ordinary reality is intensified and brightened. Since the presence of the anti-force of the Satan is inversely proportional to the brightness and intensity of God's divine presence, as the light of God's presence intensifies, the presence of the Satan is diminished. The voice of the anti-force is turned down. The only voice that is heard throughout the world is the benign voice of the 13 Attributes of Mercy.

We now have made two points. Yom Kippur corresponds to a level of being that is really appropriate to the World to Come, and we access this level of being through our prayers by reciting the 13 Attributes of Mercy.



Let us now look at Nachmanides once again. We explained in the essay on Rosh Hashana that even though the judgment of Rosh Hashana involves the decisions that are made regarding a person's life in this world, these decisions are reached by determining his status in the next world. The basis of consideration on Rosh Hashana of a person's suitability for the next world is his performance in this world.

But this world is the one in which the Satan has a say. He is allowed to prosecute and state his case. The decision whether the person belongs in the next world can only be reached after giving full hearing to what the prosecution has to say, and being able to present an adequate defense.

Yom Kippur begins from the opposite direction. Suitability for the next world is judged in terms of the next world itself, where there is no Satan, and therefore no prosecution. There is no need to present a defense to establish suitability. Thus one is automatically judged suitable. This part is the mercy.

The judgment of Yom Kippur is a consideration of feasibility. On the assumption that a person is suitable for admission into the next world, is it feasible to help him attain entry there given the way he is in this world and given the fact that he has free will? Is it possible to provide him with a life in this world that will guide him into achieving entry to the next one?

The matters under consideration on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are identical. The difference is the starting point from which they are being considered.

On Rosh Hashana, which is a day of judgment mitigated by mercy, a person must establish his right to be present in the next world by answering the objections of the prosecution. One must pass through the dark corridors of justice before he can bask in the sunshine of mercy. On Yom Kippur one is armed with the benefit of the decisions of mercy before he is subjected to the harsh scrutiny of justice.



Let us attempt to bring these ideas down to earth a little more. Jewish tradition teaches us that a person has five levels to his soul. The three main ones are:

  • nefesh which is in his body,
  • the neshama which is the point where he is joined with God,
  • in between, there is the ruach which unites the nefesh with the neshama.


The neshama, which is with God, is in the next world already. The neshama is at the root of being, the nefesh at the furthest extremity.

As long as all the parts of his soul constitute a single integrity, no matter how porous such an integrity may be, a person stretches all the way to the next world. He is a single entity at all levels. He belongs in the World to Come in some fashion. What he needs to do is to straighten out the contradictions and inconsistencies between the various levels of his soul till they fit together in perfect harmony.

But what if he is a split personality, a spiritual schizophrenic?

His nefesh is so far away from expressing the personality of his neshama, that for all intents and purposes there is no correspondence between the two. As all the levels of the soul are fully alive in themselves even when considered independently of each other, such a person really breaks into two people. He is one person down here in this world, on the level of his nefesh, and a totally different person at the level of the neshama, which is with God in the World to Come.

Such being the case, he is treated by God as two separate people who have nothing to do with each other. The nefesh being of this world as it is in the body has one fate and the neshama another.

The commandments of Yom Kippur are two:

  • to refrain from any sort of work as on Shabbat, and
  • to fast (the rabbis extended the commandment to fast to include washing, wearing shoes and sexual intercourse).


The commandments of Yom Kippur are designed to demonstrate that our neshama and our nefesh are parts of a single integral unit that is inseparable. Our nefesh behaves in the same way as our neshama. It neither eats or drinks, or engages in intercourse or labor. It sits the entire Yom Kippur in the synagogue, engaged in prayer and basking in God's divine presence.

Integration of the soul is called teshuva, which means "to return" in Hebrew. Through teshuva we return to ourselves. As long as we are ourselves there is no need to return to God. We are already fully united with His presence.

A day of atonement can be a day of judgment after all. Atonement allows the various parts of the soul to integrate and return to each other once again. When we succeed in this endeavor, the united soul is automatically assured of being able to pass judgment.

Atonement, spiritual purity and judgment really do fit together very well.

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