Achrei Mot: Temple of the Heart


On Yom Kippur, why does God cleanse us of our sins before we afflict ourselves, not after?

Table for Five: Achrei Mot

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. It is an eternal statute.

– Lev. 16:30-31


Chana Rachel Schusterman, Chasidic Educator / Dating Counselor

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year when we return to G-d from whatever has kept us distant. Our desire is to be forgiven, to reconnect, and become one with G-d.

“For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you.” The word “he” is understood by some as referring to the High Priest, whose temple service was intended to create the interconnection between G-d and the Jew. Others say that “He” refers to G-d Who forgives and reopens the intimate union that the High Priest is working to attain. On this day, “He” reveals the essential core relationship.

Even though we don’t have the Holy Temple today, the Jew performs the Yom Kippur service in the Temple of the Heart. We fast, as we review and evaluate our behavior, aiming to return to the Eternal. On this day G-d bestows purity on the person and forgives.

How does this work? On Yom Kippur in the Holy Temple, when the Kohen Gadol sanctifies himself, likewise, on the inner level, we all go into the Holy of Holies. The person moves closer to G-d through the service of the day. Then he atones and becomes elevated. The Talmud also says that “the essence of the day itself atones.” G-d’s own desire to unite with His people interacts with the Jew’s desire for connection. Through this unification, the Jew receives illumination from above. It is “He” Who atones for you on this day bringing true at-one-ment.


Salvador Litvak, Founder of AccidentalTalmudist.org, Director of the upcoming film Guns & Moses

Shabbat Shabbaton is usually translated as a Sabbath of “rest,” “complete rest” or “solemn rest,” but the English falls short in all three attempts.

Ibn Ezra (12th cent.) comments, “Some say that Shabbat Shabbaton means rest for the soul and rest for the body. Others say that Shabbat Shabbaton means a rest above which there is no other rest. Both words are nouns…They have one meaning. This interpretation is not farfetched.”

The repeated words teach something that is Shabbostik and beyond Shabbostik. Particularly after the repetition of the root THR in the previous verse – more accurately “purify” than “cleanse” – we understand why Yom Kippur opens with introspection, affliction and atonement, and culminates in celebration. It’s not because we break the fast with bagels and lox. The joy begins much earlier if we do Yom Kippur right.

The Sifra states that “He will grant atonement” refers to God, meaning that in our time, when we have no Holy Temple or High Priest to atone for us, God steps into the breach personally. So long as we do the work of atonement, God Godself purifies us. We might have thought that affliction, fasting and atonement are incompatible with the joy we experience on Shabbos. Now we see that Yom Kippur actually elevates our Shabbos joy to a whole other level, Shabbos Shabbason! 

The key is to grasp that Yom Kippur is a gift of the most personal kind, individually designed and delivered to you by our Creator who loves you.


Benjamin Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speechwriter at Mitzvahspeeches.com

How is it that Hashem “affects atonement” to “cleanse you”? The Hebrew words kaparah and tahor aren’t easy to translate into English. Kaparah is usually translated as atonement, but what does that mean? Google’s definition is a “reparation for a wrong.” When you have been hurt or offended by someone, they can ask forgiveness, but if the offense is damaging enough (such as in the case of a betrayal) the nature of the relationship changes. Even when there is forgiveness, the relationship is not what it used to be. But kaparah means the relationship goes back to the way it was before the offense. That is the gift of Yom Kippur.

What is tahor? Other translations use the word “purify” opposed to “cleanse.” Though these are more familiar, tahor really means “normal” or “free of foreign elements.” So purity in a Jewish sense is really about returning to your natural essence.

So my question is, shouldn’t you first “purify” yourself before your relationship with Hashem goes back to normal? Shouldn’t the verse say, “He will cleanse you to affect an atonement?” The answer is no. We don’t need to be perfected in order to return to our relationship with Hashem. He’s not looking for us to be perfect, He’s looking to rekindle the relationship. The magic is that by us returning to that relationship, the effect is that it will purify us. When we desire to have that relationship with Hashem, everything falls into place.


Kira Sirote, Author of Haftorah Unrolled, Ra’anana, Israel

“On this day, you will receive atonement, you will be cleansed.” The “you” in this verse is plural, not singular. The acts of the Kohen Gadol to ensure this atonement, effect it for the Jewish People as a whole. Even if we ourselves as individuals fail to change our behavior and fail to improve, as long as we are part of the Jewish People, we get to start over and try again.

R’ Soloveitchik points out that Knesset Israel, the Jewish People, is in fact its own independent halachic entity. The scapegoat sent on Yom Kippur belongs to that entity and atones for the individual members of that entity as long as they are “inseparably linked to it by an unseverable bond.” R’ Solovetchik goes to great lengths to explain that bond and how it works (On Repentance, The Individual and the Community).

Since this past Tishrei, we no longer need those explanations. We have been shown what it means, viscerally. Jews all over the world talk about how their hearts are aching for their fellow Jews – in captivity, on the battlefield, on campus, in the streets of cities we thought were safe. We cannot sleep, we cannot celebrate, we cannot wish or hope or pray, without an awareness of the pain of Knesset Israel.

And we also see those for whom that bond is being shattered.

Next Tishrei, we will stand before G-d again, as Knesset Israel, different than we were last year.


Abe Mezrich, Author, abemezrich.substack.com

I would have thought the opposite: That because we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur, God forgives us. That Yom Kippur is an exchange.

But that’s not how the verse is written. “You shall be cleansed from all your sins,” the text says. Then: “you shall afflict yourselves.” Because God cleanses, the words seem to say, we self-afflict. There’s a lot to be said about that self-affliction, but I want to put it aside for now. I want to focus instead on the fact that we react.

On Yom Kippur, God gives you this incredible gift. What will you do next?

That is the question of the day.


With thanks to Chana Rachel Schusterman, Salvador Litvak, Benjamin Elterman, Kira Sirote, & Abe Mezrich

Image: “On the eve of Yom Kippur” by Jakub Weinles, c. 1900

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