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What is the Connection between Yom Kippur and the Section of the Arayot?

  • Harav Baruch Gigi
Translated by Kaeren Fish
In tribute to Matityahu Moshe Ben Shlomo Mermelstein z"l
Dedicated by Steven Weiner & Lisa Wise in tribute to
Mr. Yechiel Saiman of blessed memory. 
His presence in our community was such a privilege and treat for us, 
and he is very deeply missed.  
We send our warmest wishes of comfort to his wife Chana 
and to all of their children and grandchildren.  
The beraita in Massekhet Megilla (31b) lists various special readings from the Torah for each of the festivals and holy days. As part of this list, we find the readings for Yom Kippur:
On Yom Kippur, the reading is [from Parashat] Acharei Mot [detailing the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur], and the haftara is, “So says He Who is high and lofty…” (Yeshayahu 57:15). At Mincha, the reading is the section of arayot (forbidden sexual relations), and the haftarah is [the book of] Yona.
Thus, at Mincha on Yom Kippur we read the section from Sefer Vayikra that sets forth the various categories of forbidden sexual relations.
Why was this the reading chosen for this time? Rashi explains that the aim is to arouse the congregation to teshuva in all matters pertaining to sexual immorality:
“[And at Mincha] the reading is the section of arayot” – So that those who have committed sins will abandon them. Because sexual immorality is a common sin, since a person is innately drawn to it and his evil inclination is strong.
The Rambam offers a similar explanation in his Hilkhot Tefilla (13:11):
At Mincha [of Yom Kippur], the reading is the [list of] forbidden sexual relations in Acharei Mot, so that anyone who has violated one of these [prohibitions] will remember and be ashamed, and he will repent.
A different reason is presented by the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, who explain that this reading is meant not as a reminder or rebuke concerning past actions, but rather as a warning:
Since women dress up to honor the day [Yom Kippur], they [the men] therefore need a reminder not to transgress with regard to them.
This image of the women dressing up for Yom Kippur and the special need for a warning as to the prohibited sexual unions may hint to the mishna in Massekhet Ta’anit (26b):
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The most festive Jewish holidays were the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments, so as not to shame those who had no [fine] garments of their own… and the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.
A third exegetical direction, also proposed by the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot (ibid.), views the reading as part of the prayer service and supplication for divine mercy:
A midrashic reason provided for the reading of the section on arayot is that Am Yisrael hint to God, as it were, that just as He warns them not to uncover nakedness, so He should not uncover their nakedness in their sins.
Similarly, R. Avraham ben Natan of Lunel (Sefer Ha-Manhig, Laws of Yom Kippur 354) writes:
I found in the Midrash: Why is the section on arayot read on Yom Kippur? To say: Master of the Universe: You told us not to uncover nakedness; You too – do not uncover our nakedness on Yom Kippur, and make atonement for us for all our sins, and forgive all our transgressions.[1]
We will propose a different perspective on the connection between the section on arayot and Yom Kippur, based on the location of this textual unit in Sefer Vayikra.
From Tahara (Purity) to Kedusha (Holiness)
The prohibited sexual relations are listed in two different places in Sefer Vayikra: first in chapter 18, and then again in chapter 20. The first unit is focused on warning, the second on the punishments meted out to violators. While this structure accords with the principle that “there is no punishment without prior warning” (Sanhedrin 56b), we must still ask why the Torah separates these two units, with chapter 19 – opening with the words, “You shall be holy” – wedged in between. Would it not make more sense to present the warning and punishment together, or at least to have the latter follow directly after the former?
Sefer Vayikra is divided into two parts. The first deals with the Mikdash and its order of service; the second deals with kedusha (holiness) in all its different manifestations. The transition from the first part to the second happens in Parashat Acharei Mot. The Torah reading of Shacharit for Yom Kippur, describing the service of the Kohen Gadol in the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, belongs to the first part of the sefer and represents the climax of all the sacrificial service performed in the Mikdash. The Torah reading at Mincha, with the prohibitions defining sexual morality, is already part of the second part of the sefer, which discusses the holiness of man (as reflected, inter alia, in the avoidance of arayot), the holiness of time (Shabbat and festivals), and the holiness of place (the laws of Shemitta and Yovel).
Chapter 18, which introduces the section devoted to kedusha, starts by prohibiting imitation of the customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites:
And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them: I am the Lord your God. In the manner of the land of Egypt, where you dwelled, you shall not act; and in the manner of the land of Canaan, to which I will bring you, you shall not act, nor shall you follow their laws. You shall perform My judgments and observe My laws, to follow them; I am the Lord your God. And you shall observe My laws and My judgments which, if a person does them, he shall live by them, I am the Lord. (Vayikra 18:1-4)
The conclusion of the chapter likewise warns against following the ways of the other nations:
Do not defile yourselves in any of these things, for in all these the nations which I cast out before you were defiled. And the land was defiled; therefore I punish its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. You shall therefore observe My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations – neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger who dwells among you. For all these abominations were committed by the men of the land who were before you, and the land was defiled. So that the land will not vomit you out also, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nations that were before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations – those people shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore you shall observe My ordinance, that you do not commit any of these abominable customs, which were practiced before you, and that you not defile yourselves in them; I am the Lord your God. (Vayikra 18:24-30)
Bnei Yisrael are told that their right to live in Eretz Yisrael is dependent on them distancing themselves from the customs of the Egyptians and of the Canaanites, and on observance of the mitzvot of the Torah. Mitzrayim and Cana’an are sons of Cham, who was characterized by licentiousness and who uncovered his father’s nakedness. The nations living in Eretz Cana’an defiled the land with their actions and were expelled as a result of their abominations. Bnei Yisrael have to represent the sovereignty of God, obeying His instructions and distancing themselves from the behavior of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, so that the land will not expel them as it expelled the nations that were its previous inhabitants.
Similar instructions to those that form the framework of chapter 19 are also to be found as the framework for the section on arayot in chapter 20. These prohibitions are introduced with two general verses: “Sanctify yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. And you shall observe My statutes and perform them; I am the Lord Who sanctifies you (Vayikra 20:7-8). They conclude with a similar exhortation:
You shall therefore observe all My statutes, and all My judgments, and perform them, that the land into which I bring you to dwell will not vomit you out. And you shall not follow the practices of the nation which I cast out before you, for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said to you, You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess it – a land that flows with milk and honey; I am the Lord your God Who has separated you from the peoples… And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you shall be Mine. (Vayikra 20:22-26)
The verses forming the framework of chapter 20 seem to repeat what we were already told in chapter 18, but with an important addition – the matter of sanctity: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy… And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you shall be Mine.”
The significance of the concept of holiness is that for Am Yisrael, “natural” is not enough. A person has to introduce elements of holiness into every sphere of his life. The supreme value is not “the sanctity of life” – a principle that speaks to all life, including the regular and mundane – but rather “a life of sanctity.” One attains this higher level of life via chapter 19 – “You shall be holy…” which imbues Jewish life with holy content. The chapter includes many different mitzvot, some belonging to the realm “between man and God” while others belong to the inter-personal realm, all inseparably intertwined. The message arising from the chapter is that by observing these mitzvot, a person sanctifies his life and makes it holy.
Another notable feature of chapter 19 is the unique relationship between man and God. Chazal note that Parashat Kedoshim was given over at a Hak’hel ceremony, since it is the basis for most of the major bodies of law in the Torah. They also note that all of the Ten Commandments are mentioned here (Vayikra Rabba 24:5). God is portrayed in this chapter not as the Ruler Who issues commands, but rather as a Presence within our reality, and as manifest in every mitzva: “I am the Lord your God.” Life as depicted in chapter 19 is life lived with God, before God: “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Tehillim 16:8). This is the meaning of “a life of sanctity,” and this is the meaning of the command, “you shall be holy,” with which the chapter opens. Chapter 19 is the formative code for a person who seeks to live his life in a state of sanctity.
As noted, the idea of sanctity does not appear in the context of the prohibitions on arayot in chapter 18; we encounter it only when these prohibitions are set forth in chapter 20. Chapter 18 emphasizes the more fundamental concepts of tum’a and tahara; there are actions which disturb the basic human order, such as incestuous relationships. Such actions defile the land, and since Eretz Yisrael cannot tolerate tum’a, it expels those who defile it. Chapter 20 illuminates the more elevated level – the level of kedusha. A person who engages in sexual relations with his close relatives violates his own sanctity and taints the divine image within him. In Chapter 20, the result of the prohibited act is not that Eretz Yisrael expels the sinner, but rather that God abhors this person who has violated his sanctity. If the nation as a whole sanctifies itself, it will merit to inherit Eretz Yisrael – the land that is connected to sanctity, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land that that has God’s eyes upon it from the beginning of the year to its end.
It is not by chance that the section on arayot serves as the first unit of the chapters of kedusha in Sefer Vayikra. These prohibitions are the nation’s basis of holiness, as Rashi comments on the verse, “You shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2): “Be removed from arayot and from sin. For wherever you find a prohibition against ‘nakedness’ – there you find holiness.” For this reason, extra prohibitions on sexual unions are placed on the Kohanim, whose kedusha is greater than that of the rest of the nation. A Kohen is not permitted to marry a divorcee, a harlot, or a woman born of the union between a Kohen and a woman forbidden to him. A Kohen Gadol, who embodies an even higher level of kedusha, is prohibited from marrying a widow, along with the other limitations.
Likewise, the establishment and building of a Jewish home – the opposite of committing any of the forbidden arayot – is defined by Chazal as a process of kedusha. The marriage ceremony – “kiddushin” – includes a blessing over the holiness of Am Yisrael:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning arayot, and forbade us those [women] who are betrothed, and permitted us those married to us through chuppa and kiddushin. Blessed are You, Lord, Who sanctifies His nation, Israel, through chuppa and kiddushin.
A Life of Holiness
What, then, were Chazal trying to convey by selecting the section on arayot as the Torah reading for Mincha of Yom Kippur?
It would seem that they wanted to create a connection between the two parts of Sefer Vayikra. In the Torah reading of Shacharit, we are focused on the Mikdash and its order of service, and the service of the Kohen Gadol. In the reading at Mincha – just before the day draws to a close and the gates of Heaven are closed – we embark on a new life following the atonement brought by the special service of Yom Kippur. The reading at Mincha is meant to lead us out of the holiness of the Mikdash to the holiness on the outside. It comes to remind us of the need for a life of holiness, in which we avoid the prohibitions of arayot that violate and taint the holiness of Israel. It calls upon us to obey God’s statutes and judgments, which sanctify the individual and the nation.
The Torah reading at Mincha is therefore a call to a new life of tahara following Yom Kippur, with the wish, “God – create me a pure heart, and grant me a new steadfast spirit” (Tehillim 51:12). It is with this pure heart that we start the chapters of kedusha in Sefer Vayikra: “Therefore you shall observe My ordinance, that you do not commit any of these abominable customs, which were practiced before you, and that you not defile yourselves in them…” (Vayikra 18:30). From within the atonement of Yom Kippur and the tahara that it brings, we are called upon to answer the call for a new way of living: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the Lord your God.”
[1] Another explanation, which is not mentioned by the Rishonim but is discussed by some contemporary poskim, is that the unit on arayot includes the exhortation, “that one may live by them” (Vayikra 18:5), from which Chazal deduce that it is permissible to eat on Yom Kippur when there is a danger to life. The reading of this unit at Mincha on Yom Kippur thus speaks to those who are ill and for whom further fasting may be dangerous. It reminds them that the risk of pikuach nefesh overrides the other commandments.