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Aseret Yemei Teshuva: Insights From an Early Biblical Paradigm

September 17, 2009 by  
Filed under Holidays, Philosophy

Aseret Yemei Teshuva: Insights from an Early Biblical Paradigm

by David C. Flatto

 Bridging the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Aseret Yemei Teshuva have an urgent and distinctive quality that is such a familiar aspect of the Jewish calendar.  Less known, however, is the earliest source for singling out these days.  While rabbinic authorities from the Geonic period onward discuss different customs applicable during this period,[1] the recognition of the unique nature of these days is usually traced back to Amoraic times:

 …it is written, ‘Seek ye the Lord while He may be found (Is 55:6)’…when may an individual [find him]? R. Nahman replied in the name of Rabbah b. Abbuha: In the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.[2]

Pointing to earlier biblical roots, the Rambam in his Guide plausibly suggests that the special standing of these days stems from the penitential essence of Rosh Hashana, preceding Yom Kippur and ushering in a period of introspection and potential transformation.[3]  In fact, another biblical source offers a clear basis for treating these days as extraordinary—the initiation of the Jubilee year.  More, this law offers an instructive paradigm, at least by way of analogy, for how to pass through this window of time

Heralding the start of the Jubilee year, the Shofar blast is sounded on Yom Kippur (see Vayikra 25:9).  Still, the Mishnah proclaims that Rosh Hashana marks the commencement of the Jubilee year (see mRH 1:1).  The Rambam, based on a talmudic passage, traces this to the biblical injunction to consecrate the entire fiftieth year (see Yayikra 25:10).[4]  Ascribing importance to both calenderic dates, the Torah evidently envisions two pivotal moments at the beginning of the Jubilee year.  But how exactly is the relationship between these days to be negotiated?  A tannaitic teaching codified by the Rambam spells out a precise protocol:

From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, slaves where neither released to their homes nor retained as subjects of their masters, nor were fields restored to their original owners.  Rather slaves ate, drank, and rejoiced, with their wreaths upon their heads (ve-atarotehem be-roshehem).  Once the Day of Atonement arrived and the court caused the Shofar to be sounded, slaves were released to their homes and the fields were restored to their original owners.[5]

Dawning at Rosh Hashana, the Jubilee year commences in a gradual manner but only fully radiates on Yom Kippur when all the essential Jubilee laws apply.[6]  During this liminal period—that is precisely during the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—a special halachic status comes into effect.  Here then we encounter the earliest manifestation of the distinctive nature of this period.

*  *  *

Coinciding with Aseret Yemei Teshuva,[7] and significant in their own right, this interval of days, and their precise halachic standing, deserves further exploration.  Ahronim, who rightfully struggle to fathom the import of these days, are puzzled by whether they presume that Jubilee begins at Rosh Hashanah or at Yom Kippur?  While the vital halachic laws only begin at Yom Kippur, already at Rosh Hashana the slave owner must relinquish his proprietorship.[8] In order to elucidate this seemingly arbitrary compromise, the Turei Even advances the following theory: Jubilee commences on Rosh Hashana, assuming that the Shofar is subsequently sounded on Yom Kippur.[9]  Given the uncertainty about the forthcoming blast, the ten days from Rosh Hashana onwards have an indeterminate quality.  Accordingly, the master can no longer work the slave (since the blast may be sounded which would retroactively forbid such subjugation), but he still may not be freed (since the blast may not be sounded). 

[Note that on a structural level, this indeterminacy is reminiscent of the more familiar dimensions of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  As both are days of judgment (differentiated in our liturgy by writing and sealing), the interim period between them is marked by uncertainty, where the benoni is held in abeyance (tluyin ve-omdin)]. 

Despite the ingenuity of this explanation, it fails to account for all the legal details, and more basically mischaracterizes the essence of these days.[10]  On a technical level, the exact same rationale should mandate releasing property from the title holder (all the while not transferring it back to its previous owner), and prohibit working the land (as a necessary stringency).  Moreover, a careful examination of the Rambam’s formulation reveals that the halacha does not treat this period as having a doubtful status.  For in addition to confirming that the slave cannot be enslaved nor set free, the Rambam adds a positive description of what the former slave does during these ten days (“Rather slaves ate, drank, and rejoiced, with their wreaths upon their heads (ve-atarotehem be-roshehem)”).  Uncertainty would never impose such an affirmative requirement. 

Actually, the former slave’s behavior makes little sense, especially according to the Ture Even’s analysis.  Prior to the Jubilee, the person’s status quo is slavery.  Jubilee releases him from his master, and his freedom is restored.  Yet his behavior during these ten days neither reflects what he is (a slave) or what he was (a commoner), but rather an entirely different persona:  an aristocrat who is adorned with luxuries. 

Essentially, the former slave assumes the air of nobility, a rather remarkable, but curious, transformation given his humble background.   While the underlying tannaitic description may be downplayed as a hyperbolic embellishment, the fact that the Rambam codifies this behavior in his Mishneh Torah lends normative force to this prescription.  Indeed, I would suggest that assuming this guise for ten days is a purposeful mandate which touches on the profound underlying theology of the Jubilee, and all cycles of return.

It would seem that the purpose of these days is to momentarily represent the boundless potential enabled by the Jubilee system, which misunderstood can almost have an opposite connotation.  At first blush the recidivism of this scheme implies an inherent futility with an almost depressing quality.  Seeking to escape the corrosions of time by restoring the status quo ante suggests the impossibility of progress: transcending what is requires reverting to what was.  Yet, precisely at the onset of the Jubilee, during its crucial ten day inauguration, a different prospect emerges: what can be.  Instead of enslavement, or quotidian life, a person affirms his capacity for a majestic future.  For ten days he behaves not as he is, not as he was, but how he could, one-day, be, if he galvanizes his freedom in a new direction.  While the past has no shackles, nobility only lies in the future.

I would suggest that a similar mood pervades Aseret Yemei Teshuva.  Left to the freedom of charting one’s own path, man drifts astray, and as the calendar resets the penitent is apparently beckoned to return—lashuv—to his point of departure.  Described in these terms, teshuva reflects a sad existential reality where man seems all but doomed.  Debunking this characterization, the ten days of renewal impart an altogether different message.  Rather than being only understood as a desperate purgatory where the penitent is plagued by the doubt of his or her pending judgment—caught between his present sinful state and his past innocence—[11]these days evoke the potential of a transformed future. 

Mirroring the onset of Jubilee, Aseret Yemei Teshuva consists of ten transcendent days borrowed from an ennobled world, a world that can be.[12]  In their wake, and with restored pre-lapsarian innocence, we embark on a hopeful journey forward to an alluring, and now slightly familiar, destination.


 [1] See Teshuvot Hageonim Hahadashot 190; Seder Rav Amram Gaon (Seder Ashmorot); Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 3:4; Raavyah 529 and 547, Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayim 581, 602-3, etc.

[2] Bavli Rosh Hashana 18a, Yevamot 49b, 105a.  See also Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3, Bavli Berachot 12b, Keritut 5a, Horayot 12b, etc.

[3] See Guide for the Perplexed 3:43 (see also his comments in Hilchot Teshuva 3:4).  This idea is reminiscent of the well known comment of the Ramban (Vayikra 23:36) regarding the chol hamoed status of the Omer days between Pesach and Shavuot. 

[4] See the Rambam’s Mishnah Commentary on mRH 1:1 (relying on the rabbinic sources cited in the next note).

[5] Hilchot Shemita veYovel 10: 14, based on Sifra Behar (Parsha 2, Perek 2) and the braitta cited in Bavli Rosh Hashana 8b.  The fact that the Rambam codifies this position is noteworthy, given that there apparently is a counter position in Hazal (see Bavli RH 8b), and also considering his halachic stance earlier in chapter 10 (see Sefas Emes on Rosh Hashana 8b).  See below for an additional implication that emerges from the Rambam’s codification of this tannaitic teaching. 

[6] I.e., the three definitional laws defined in the previous halacha (10:13): blasting the shofar, returning slaves home, and restoring fields to their previous owner.  Regarding declaring the year sacred and working the land, see Minhat Hinuch on Mitzvah 42, 331-35. 

[7] On a more homiletic scale, I would also note that the plight of slaves is relevant to all Jews who assume this status as part of their liturgic identity during the penitential season.  Likewise, some have noted the parallel language describing wreaths upon heads (atarotehem be-roshehem) which the Rambam uses here and in Hilchot Teshuva 8:2.  From this latter source we can clearly discern the importance of this expression, as the Rambam unpacks its loaded allegoric content.

[8] See also Rambam Hilchot Erechin 4:24, and the comments of the Lehem Mishnah and Mishnah La-Melech ad loc.  See also the discussion in Minhat Hinuch (cited in note 6 above).

[9] See his commentary on Rosh Hashana 8b.

[10] While the Turei Even may be correct in explaining the rationale why the individual is no longer enslaved but still not freed (although perhaps there is an alternative explanation), this analysis remains in the background.  Rather than characterizing the interim days as reflecting halachic doubt, and accordingly requiring requisite humrot, they have a positive and definitive quality, as explained below.

[11] Which, admittedly, is the connotation of some of the sources cited in notes 1 and 2 above (e.g. Bavli Keritut 5a and Bavli Horayot 12b).

[12] Various Minhagim of Aseret Yemei Teshuva may reflect this higher ideal.  See, e.g., the discussion regarding pat akum and purity during this period in Raavyah 529, Rosh (Rosh Hashana 4:14), Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayim 603, etc.

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