Classic Reprint: Yom Kippur as the Sabbath of Sabbaths

This is an old post re-posted. A few perfect thoughts for the season.

philoPhilo 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 Friday night, September 17, 2010), 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.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Holidays, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Classic Reprint: Yom Kippur as the Sabbath of Sabbaths

  1. dicemixbeath says:

    I am new to Messianic Judaism and am still learning about the feasts. Thank you so much for posting this. I have one question: Does it Biblically say to fast? I don’t know Hebrew so I can’t translate for myself, but I checked on and “self-denial” or “afflict yourself” as it says there doesn’t seem to translate to “fast,” but I’m just wondering.
    thanks for your help!

  2. Beth:

    Great question. Let me answer it from two angles.

    First, the Chumash (the biblical books of the Torah) often does not give specifics, but only general directions. God leaves it up to the judges of Israel to set the standards and traditions. The tradition of Israel, unanimous, is that afflict yourselves means fast (and a few other things). Those who cannot fast for health reasons should eat bland food.

    Second, it is likely that Isaiah 58 is about Yom Kippur. If so, fasting has been the tradition since before the 8th century BCE.

  3. Pingback: Classic Reprint: Yom Kippur as the Sabbath of Sabbaths « Messianic Jewish Musings | Latest News And Trends

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