"A Day of Unity" The Sefat Emet on Yom Kippur

Intro: The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) was one of the later Hassidic Masters, living even into the beginning of the 20th century. Heir to the Gerrer Hassidic dynasty, he ascended to leadership when he was only twenty-three (having already lost both his parents as a young boy). He was not underprepared, however, and quickly became one of the most scholarly and prolific Hassidic Rebbes, writing extensively on the Talmud as well as the Torah. He was also certainly one of the most poetic Hassidic voices, and his writing is so gorgeous that one sometimes forgets what a keen and precise reader of text he was. Here he gives us a careful analysis of a classic Mishnah [rabbinic teaching] about Yom Kippur that leads him to a novel reframing of the entire holiday as a Day of Unity.


איתא במשנה עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין יוהכ"פ מכפר עד שירצה את חבירו כו'.

דהנה ביוכ"פ נעשין בנ"י אחדות אחד... וכמו שיום זה מאחד כל הימים כן מתאחדין בו כל הנפשות. כי באמת הנפשות קרובין. רק ע"י החטאים בא הריחוק ופירוד.

כמ"ש עונותיכם היו מבדילין ביניכם לבין אלקיכם. ויש עבירות שגורמין פירוד בין אדם למקום ויש שגורמין פירוד בין אדם לחבירו. ויתכן לפרש מבדילין ביניכם ממש. וגם בין אלקיכם כנ"ל. וצריכין לתקן ב' מיני פירוד אלו.

וז"ש עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אינו דוקא גזילה וכדומה. רק עבירות שגרמו פירוד בין אדם לחבירו כמו לא תשנא כו' אחיך כו' וכדומה.

ועד שירצה את חבירו פי' שיחזור להיות רוצה ואוהב את חבירו כמ"ש חז"ל ואהבת לרעך כמוך זהו כלל גדול בתורה.

וביוהכ"פ שמתכפרין העבירות נעשין בנ"י אחד.

It says in the Mishnah that, "For sins between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones. But for sins between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone, until the one who has done wrong appeases the other." (Yoma 8:9)

This is because on Yom Kippur, the Children of Israel become one unified whole... Just as this one day unifies all the previous days [by taking account of them], so do all souls become united on this day. Because the truth is, these souls are inherently close to one another. But through sins come distance and separation.

We know it is written: "Your sins have divided you from your God." (Isaiah 59:2) But there are sins that cause separation between people and God, and then there are sins that cause separation between one person and another. So we should read it this way: "Your sins have divided you, and divided you from your God." And we have to fix both of these types of separation.

And when the Mishnah speaks of "sins between one person and another" it is not only talking about theft and crimes like that. But also the types of sins that cause separation between one person and another, such as transgressing laws like,"Do not hate your fellow in your heart..." (Lev. 19:17).

And when it says "until the one who has done wrong appeases the other," that means until there is real love and peace between them. As our sages have said, "Love your neighbor as yourself" - that is the greatest principle of the Torah.

So on Yom Kippur, when these kinds of sins are forgiven, the Children of Israel become One.


1. The Sefat Emet claims that all souls are inherently close to one another. What does that mean, and do you think it is true?

2. How do our sins drive us apart? What kinds of sins is the Sefat Emet most concerned with?

3. How does this description of Yom Kippur change your understanding of the holiday? What would it mean to see the day as a time to become unified with all the people of Israel, or even all the people of the world?

4. What does it feel like to "become One" with other people? Have you had experiences of that feeling?