Yom Kippur: On guiding human relations, sexuality

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The Talmud tells us that we read, on Yom Kippur morning, the chapter of the Torah that describes the special services in the Tabernacle on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16). In the afternoon, we then read a chapter of the Torah (Leviticus 18) that enumerates prohibited sexual relations (Megillah 31a).

It makes sense to read about the ancient services for Yom Kippur, the only day of the year when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies.

But why should we read about prohibited sexual acts?

Perhaps, as Rashi suggests, it is because we need reminders to abandon our transgressions on Yom Kippur, including sexual transgressions that are common — and attractive.

Or perhaps the Torah reading recalls a custom of ancient times, now largely forgotten, that puts the whole spirit of Yom Kippur in a new and different light.

Imagine the activities and the mood in your synagogue on Yom Kippur. Then consider this Mishnah:

"Rabbi Shimon ben Galmiel said: There were no festivals in Israel like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the young women of Israel went out in borrowed white dresses (in order not to embarrass someone who did not have her own)…and danced in the vineyards. And what did they say? `Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself'" (Mishnah Taanit 4:8).

As they danced, some young women advised the bachelors to choose for piety: "Grace is false, and beauty vain, but a woman who fears God is to be praised" (Proverbs 31:30). Others urged the men to choose based on a woman's accomplishments: "And they will praise her in the gates for her deeds" (Proverbs 31:31).

Others said, "Pay attention to beauty, for a wife is only for beauty"; still others, thinking of physical attributes, said, "A wife is only for children" (Taanit 31a). Please excuse the unfashionably blunt talk that the Talmud attributes to our ancestral mothers.

Apparently, the afternoon of Yom Kippur seemed an especially appropriate time for matchmaking. It was matchmaking of a type conducted by the young people themselves, not sedately arranged by the older generation — though I imagine that the older generation might have gotten involved after the holiday, working out the practical details.

The rabbis of the Talmud were not troubled by this activity on the holiest of days.

"It makes sense that this happens on Yom Kippur, which has reconciliation and forgiveness. On this day, the second tablets of the Decalogue were given," representing reconciliation between the Jews and God (Taanit 30b). If the renewal of our alliance with God appears to be in place on this day, so too does establishing new marital relationships.

Look at this from a different angle: Having achieved forgiveness before God, we celebrate by contracting marriages.

The Jerusalem Talmud extends the connection between Yom Kippur and weddings, proclaiming, "A bridegroom has his sins forgiven" (Bekurim 3:3).

Drawing on this parallel, various Jewish customs call for the bride and groom to fast on their wedding day, recite the Yom Kippur confession in their prayers and wear the symbolic garments of Yom Kippur.

The equation apparently works in both directions. One who establishes a new marital relationship likewise has the opportunity to renew a relationship with God.

I sometimes try to imagine the atmosphere of those dances in the vineyard: Everyone excited, nervous, a little light-headed from fasting, a little scared and a little tired — but who can feel truly tired at a time like this?

May we all experience the close of this Yom Kippur as an occasion of unmitigated joy, of excitement, of anticipation at the prospects of renewed relationship with ourselves, with each other and with God.