The Jerusalem Post

Why is Yom Kippur the happiest day of the year? - opinion

 VA'ANI TEFILATI (Yoram Raanan) (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
VA'ANI TEFILATI (Yoram Raanan)
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)

Barring an extreme sadomasochist personality, how could knowing one’s life is on the line make this day not only happy – but the happiest day of the year?

It seems that everybody knows something about Yom Kippur. All you have to do is name the day and you’ll get some kind of a reaction. But there are two things you might not know about this day.

The first is that the Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) calls it “the happiest day” of the year. Our classic image of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is of fear and trepidation. It is the culmination of a 10-day trial that begins with Rosh Hashanah, as we await a “who will live and who will die” decree upon our heads. Barring an extreme sadomasochist personality, how could knowing one’s life is on the line make this day not only happy – but the happiest day of the year?

Part of the answer is found in how we define happiness.

How do we define happiness?

In Hebrew, there are many words for happiness and joy. One of the most popular is simcha (from the root sameach). This word is also associated with the Jewish holy days as in the expression “chag sameach” (happy holy day) – Yom Kippur being the grandest of all holidays.


The key question is: What generates the type of happiness that is defined as simcha? If happiness is defined as physical pleasure, then there is nothing to be happy about with Yom Kippur. But if happiness is the ability to move away from the false perceptions we may have of ourselves to see the reality of who we really are, then there is no greater joy than this.

 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)

OUR LIVES fluctuate between light and darkness. As Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead sings: “Sometimes the light is all shining on me, other times I can barely see.”

How often are we just so busy whittling away the years? “Lately it occurs to me what a long strange trip it’s been.”

Who am I as an individual? Who am I as a human? Who am I as a Jew? Who am I as a pure soul? Then comes that hard stop called Yom Kippur, a full day of total disconnect from the things we think of as our life support such as eating, drinking.

While King David wrote, “Darkness doesn’t hide anything from You,” (Psalm 139:12) the Kotzker Rebbe noted, “If I know the darkness is from You, it’s not dark.”


The important word here is “know.”

Yom Kippur enables us to transcend what our eyes see and focus instead on what our brains, inspired by divine light, can show us instead. We can learn to own our lives and own our future.

We can free ourselves from our dark baggage and the corrupted expressions of our personalities and claim our lives. No matter what mistakes we have made, no matter what apparent horrors or nightmares we have lived through, our soul can be set free from that darkness through the gift of self-revelation provided by Yom Kippur, and that can become our happiest day.

A careful look at the first letter of the word simcha reveals a lot. This first letter is the Hebrew letter shin.

In mystical literature, the letter shin is used to represent aish, fire, and Shechina (Divine Light). It also represents shalom (peace), and shalem (whole) and its very structure suggests conflict resolution: The letter has two outer lines, one from the left and one from the right that join with the middle line into a collective single point forming the base of the letter. Conflict resolution is based on appreciating the truth and wisdom contained in those who differ from you. The shin is also the visible letter on the outside of the tefillin that is worn as a crown on the head – a receptor transmitter for divine connection and peace – and infers a happiness that comes from wholeness and peace and illuminated wisdom.

People like the terms left-wing and right-wing, but no bird can fly without both wings. When we allow ourselves to listen to the other side two things happen – we will hear them (even if we don’t agree with them) and they will hear us (even if they don’t agree with us either). This is the pathway to peace.

Whenever Hillel argued with Shammai, he would first allow Shammai to speak. He would then repeat what he heard, to make sure Shammai agreed that he had heard correctly, and only then did Hillel present his side. And although they disagreed severely on certain issues in Jewish Law regarding the subject of marriage, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 88b) says that nevertheless their followers had no hesitation in marrying people from among each other’s camps.

And the fact that Hillel always listened first is one of the reasons that Jewish law follows the school of Hillel.

THE OTHER thing about Yom Kippur is that it is also the day of receiving of the Torah. There is no darkness that can stand before the light of the Torah. On Moses’s third trip up Sinai he brought down the second tablets on Yom Kippur. (The first trip was for the first tablets, luchot habrit, and the second was to atone for the people having made the Golden Calf.)

The first to learn about Moses’ experience on Sinai directly was his brother Aaron, who became the first high priest. Thus, the Yom Kippur service of the high priest, in the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, intrinsically connects to the receiving of the Torah.

The Gemara (Berachot 7a) describes the solemn and climactic entry of the high priest into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur (the only time a person allowed to enter it) as if he were actually entering the “sanctuary on high,” and standing before the Divine Throne of Glory.

And even today, ever since the period of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of Torah study to Yavne – where the rabbis were forced to preserve the Temple service in the guise of daily prayer – in Yom Kippur machsorim (festivals prayer books) we continue to reenact with our voices those services from the Holy of Holies that connect us directly to receiving the Torah.

These services keep alive the direct, collective memory of our receiving the Torah from Sinai, through the legacy of Aaron, who is known as a rodef shalom – a person who pursues peace. 

The writer is the creator of the free-access website The People’s Talmud (, dedicated to sharing Talmudic wisdom. A Jewish educator for more than 40 years, he is currently the ‘Gangsta Rebbe’ at TorahTech in Tel Aviv.