Philo lived in the days of the New Testament (20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E.) in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria had a huge Jewish population, about half of the city, and was also one of the largest cities in the Roman empire. The number of Jews in Alexandria rivaled the Jewish population in all of the land of Israel in those days.
Philo was a pioneer in attempting to harmonize Greek philosophy and Judaism. He is famous for using allegorical methods of interpreting texts from the Hebrew Bible. His writings are a major witness to ideological and historical events informing the New Testament.
As we approach Yom Kippur (begins Sunday night, September 27), consider some well-written words by Philo on the meaning of the feast of Yom Kippur:
The feast held after the “Trumpets” is a fast. Perhaps some of the perversely minded who are not ashamed to censure things excellent will say, “What sort of a feast is this in which there are no gatherings to eat and drink?” . . . For it is in these and through these [acts of unmitigated surrender to fleshly pleasures] that men, in their ignorance of what true merriment is, consider that the merriment of a feast is to be found. This the clear-seeing eyes of Moses, the ever wise, discerned and therefore he called the fast a feast, the greatest of the feasts, in his native tongue a Sabbath of Sabbaths, or as the Greeks would say, a seven of sevens, a holier than the holy.
Philo’s reference to the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” is to Leviticus 16:31 and 23:32 which refer to Yom Kippur as a Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of Sabbaths or a Sabbath of Complete Rest.
Astute readers of the Bible should say, “But there are other days also called a Shabbat Shabbaton.” You are correct (Exod 31:15; 35:2; Lev 23:3; 25:4 used of the regular weekly Sabbath and of the Sabbath year).
So how, then, is Yom Kippur a unique Sabbath of Sabbaths? This exact question was posed to a Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Rimanov. He replied:
Regarding Shabbat, it is written, a Sabbath of Sabbaths unto Hashem, but about Yom Kippur it is written, a Sabbath of Sabbaths unto you. For on Yom Kippur we draw the sanctity of the heavens down to earth. -Artscroll Yom Kippur, p.57
So while every weekly Sabbath and every Sabbath year is a Shabbat Shabbaton to God, Yom Kippur is the only one said to be so for us.
And how can a fast be a feast? It is my experience, and I hope Musings readers will write and confirm, that the emotional experience of Yom Kippur exceeds even the feast of Sukkot in intensity. It is a mournful kind of joy, perhaps, but on Yom Kippur we feast in the transformation and nearness to God that repentance brings.