Yom Kippur and the Book of Deuteronomy

The Book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Five Books of Moses, is composed of a number of motifs and themes that are also pillars of the Yom Kippur liturgy. 

 PRAYING NEXT to the salt formations on the Dead Sea. (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
PRAYING NEXT to the salt formations on the Dead Sea.
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

While Yom Kippur falls on the 10th day of the new year, it is nestled in and surrounded by the teachings and insights of the annual weekly readings of the fifth book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, Deuteronomy. This last book of the Five Books of Moses consists of, as biblical scholar Jeffrey Tigay points out, “five retrospective discourses and poems that Moses addressed to Israel in Moab shortly before his death (Deuteronomy 1:6-4:43, 4:44-28:69, 29-30, 32, 33), plus two narratives about his final acts (chapters 31 and 34).”

That holy book – which includes towering speeches by Moses summing up all he and the Israelites had experienced through their 40 years together – is composed of a number of motifs and themes that are also pillars of the Yom Kippur liturgy. 

The first, as Rabbi Sara Cohen points out, “is the concept of review and repetition.” In Deuteronomy, Moses retells the story of the Exodus. During the 10 Days of Repentance, we recount the events of our lives during this past year. Cohen also teaches that repetition, as a pedagogical tool, is an important part of the spiritual journey, as we read in the paragraph after the Shema, “veshenantam,” “and you will repeat them” (Deuteronomy 6:8). 

Interestingly, we note the three-letter root for veshenantam and shanah, as in Rosh Hashanah, is shin-nun-hey. Both include repeating: a year is the time it takes the earth to complete/repeat its cycle around the sun, and one of the most effective ways to learn and remember is by repeating. In many ways, repetition – the cycle of day and night, the seasons, the beating of the heart, our breathing – is the key in which the composition of the symphony of the universe is written. The power of the Yom Kippur liturgy is enhanced by its repetitive nature.

An additional theme we find in Deuteronomy is renewal and recommitment. Flora Richards-Gustafson explains, “God wanted his people to obey him wholeheartedly, thus the emphasis Moses places on obedience to God and the commandments. In chapters 27 to 30, Moses celebrates the recommitment of the covenant with promises of blessings from God, but warns his people of the curses that would follow disobedience, showing that God set the terms of the covenant renewal.” 

 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)

Yom Kippur ideally is the culmination of our re-engagement with Jewish values and a Jewish way of life, including a heightened awareness of the consequences of our choices and decisions.

In that engagement, we do not see ourselves oriented as an individual, but rather as a member of the collective Jewish people. The prayers of Yom Kippur (think of Ashamnu, the confessional list), as one of many examples, are said in the plural. That is another echo from Deuteronomy. 

Eugene E. Carpenter mentions, “The unity of Israel and the solidarity of brotherhood are emphasized” throughout the material. In 3:18-20, the point is made that members of the various tribes are brothers. The phrase ‘all Israel’ (kol yisrael) is employed 12 times and the word for brother(s) [ah/ahim] is found 28 times (1:16; 3:18, 20; 10:9; 15:3, 7, 9, 11). The use of the term ‘brother’ inspires obedience to commands concerning relationships within Israel; it encourages the hearer to see Israel as the family writ large.” 

Reconstructing Judaism scholar Mel Scult reminds us of an analogous teaching of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan: “Every member of a family must aim to be as effective a means as possible to the welfare and happiness of every other member, as well as of the family as a whole. Every person in a neighborhood, community, civic or political group must aim to surrender to a large extent his own individuality by functioning as a means to some good beyond himself.”

“Every member of a family must aim to be as effective a means as possible to the welfare and happiness of every other member, as well as of the family as a whole. Every person in a neighborhood, community, civic or political group must aim to surrender to a large extent his own individuality by functioning as a means to some good beyond himself.”

Mel Scult

Yom Kippur is also described as a “shabbat shabbaton” (Lev. 16:13; 23:32), the Sabbath of Sabbaths. In Moses’s retelling and reviewing within Deuteronomy, we find an account of the giving of the Ten Commandments including the mitzvah of Shabbat (5:12-15). The Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am wrote, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews,” pointing to the centrality and importance of Shabbat to maintaining Jewish identity. The same can be said of Yom Kippur as a cornerstone of Jewish identity.

Yom Kippur is a cornerstone of Jewish identity

One of the most powerful moments of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the haftarah – challenging us to walk the talk of the day:

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,

and oppress all your workers.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

(Isaiah 58: 3-7)

This message of economic justice is also derived from the words of Deuteronomy including a call for workers to be paid on time (24:14-15), honesty in commerce (25:13; 27:17-19, 25) and rest from work (5:12-15) to name a few.

Before the final sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur, we recite the Shema, also found in Deuteronomy (6:4). It reads, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The operative word: hear. Commenting on that particular sense, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, “Most civilizations have been cultures of the eye. Judaism, with its belief in the invisible God who transcends the universe, and its prohibition against visual representations of God, is supremely a civilization of the ear.”

Fittingly, the Torah reading for Shabbat after Yom Kippur this year is Ha’azinu, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak: and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distill as the dew, as small rain upon the tender herb, and as showers upon the grass: because I will call on the name of the Lord: ascribe greatness to our God. God is the Rock, whose works are perfect: for all God’s ways are justice.” (32:1-4)

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak: and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distill as the dew, as small rain upon the tender herb, and as showers upon the grass: because I will call on the name of the Lord: ascribe greatness to our God. God is the Rock, whose works are perfect: for all God’s ways are justice.”

Deuteronomy 32:1-4

There is a natural connection between hearing the long-blast tekiah gedolah shofar sound ending Yom Kippur and hearing the opening words of Ha’azinu the Shabbat after Yom Kippur, with its auditory motifs. The relationship between Yom Kippur and Deuteronomy reminds us that the work of Yom Kippur – while heightened that day including those themes we find in both: review and repetition; renewal and recommitment; a collective orientation; Shabbat, the pursuit of economic justice – is a year-long, daily process.

The writer, a rabbi, teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and at Bennington College.•