Somebody once distinguished between a Jew and an anti-Semite like this: An anti-Semite, he said, is principally hostile towards the Jews as a people. However, begin questioning him about the characteristics and persona of his Jewish accountant and lawyer and he will wax eloquently about their great congeniality, swearing that they are the closest people to him outside of his immediate family. If you ask a Jew his thoughts on his own people he will start quoting, by memory, countless aphorisms such as, “And who is like your nation, Israel, one nation on earth.” Or the one in which G-d lovingly extols His people by saying, “Israel, in you I take pride.” But ask him about his neighbor or the guy who cut him off on the way to shul the other day and those praises will surely turn negative in the blink of an eye.

Anti-Semitism has existed from the genesis of our people. People love to point out certain flaws that might lead to the negative press that Jews get in the world. These are all just excuses; they certainly do not help but they are just as surely not the reason for the hatred either. Although Jew hatred is likely to be with us to the end of time, if there was one way in which we might be able to stem it, as counterintuitive as it might seem, it would be to understand the infinite value embedded within each Jew. As the old saying goes: “Gentiles respect Jews who respect themselves and loathe Jews who don’t respect themselves.”

I saw this as a fitting prelude to a siyum that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ob’m, presented live at 770 Eastern Parkway in Tishrei 1970 at a farbrengen marking the yahrzeit of his mother, Rebbetzin Chana. With the worldwide daf yomi movement currently learning Masechta Yoma, I felt it appropriate to adapt that sichah, originally delivered in Yiddish, to the readers of my column, in English. Coincidentally, for lack of a better term, the siyum on Masechta Yoma shares a verse from this week’s parashah, Acharei Mos: “And he [the kohen gadol] atones on his behalf and on behalf of his home and on behalf of all the Jewish nation.” Chazal famously interpret the term “his home” as a euphemism for his wife, from where we derive that the kohen gadol, who performs the service in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, must at the time be married. It is such a critical requirement that according to some opinions a woman would be designated and ready in the event that the wife of the kohen gadol passed away while he was in the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur, so he could betroth her and continue on with the sacred service of the day. It is important to distinguish Yom Kippur from the daily service of the kohen gadol, which did not require him to be married. While there is an obligation for a kohen to marry a penuyah, as delineated in the Rambam, it does not impact his ability to do the daily service in the Beis HaMikdash.

Yom Kippur is a convergence of the holiest day of the year and the kohen gadol, the holiest person, in the Beis HaMikdash, the holiest place on earth. Why is it so crucial for the kohen gadol to be married specifically at that moment in time?

This question is compounded by the presence of another law in preparation for the kohen gadol doing the avodah on Yom Kippur: He must separate from his wife for seven days prior to doing the Yom Kippur service in the Holy of Holies. If his ability to serve in the Beis HaMikdash on this most sacred of days is contingent upon his being married, then how do we understand this nuance, which has him separating from his wife in preparation for, and during, those very moments? Given the fact that his requirement to be married was a key contingency in his ability to serve in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur it must represent a key component in the level of perfection that the kohen gadol achieved on Yom Kippur. There are, however, two ways in which we can perceive the obligation for the kohen gadol to be married while doing the avodah on Yom Kippur. Either we can view it as part and parcel of the avodah of Yom Kippur, or as an obligation on the kohen individually. This analysis is in line with the famous Brisker style famously known as gavra or cheftza.

The practical implications between these two ways of perceiving this law is with regard to the avodos of Yom Kippur, which are also performed daily, like the korban tamid, the ketores, and preparing the candles of the Menorah. If the obligation for the kohen to be married is a part of the avodah then we could suggest that he would not need to be married for the services that aren’t uniquely relevant to Yom Kippur. According to the second rationale, it is an individual obligation on the kohen himself that would extend as well to the aspects of the avodah that are done daily, too.

The Rambam, it would seem, is in accordance with the second rationale when he writes, “And so the rest of the avodah of this day, like the ketores and the preparation of the candelabra, they are all performed by a married kohen gadol.” If the Rambam would learn in accordance with the first supposition there would be no reason for him to mention that the kohen gadol was married when performing the sha’ar avodos. We could shed further light upon this based on an explanation of the Mishnah, “And he atones on his behalf and on behalf of his home” and the exegesis of Chazal that “his home” is a euphemism for his wife. Why couldn’t the Mishnah write directly, “And he atones on his behalf and on behalf of his wife.” The Rebbe is asking: What do we learn from the term “home” that the term “wife” doesn’t impart to us? 

The Gemara in masechta Shabbos states, “Reb Yose said: “In my life I never referred to my wife as ishti or my ox as shori, rather my wife as beisi (my home) and my ox as sadi (my field).” Rashi explains there that with the word “beisi” he was referring to the primary force in the upkeep of the home and everyone within it, and with the word “sadi” (my field) he was crediting the ox with maintaining a luscious and healthy field. These statements of Reb Yose in the Gemara in Shabbos seem to be describing Reb Yose’s worldview. Reb Yose saw everything based on its ultimate purpose and objective. When he saw his wife he saw the fulfillment of an entire beautiful home and family within it. When he saw his ox he saw the completion of his field which the ox worked tirelessly to achieve.

Reb Yose’s colleagues saw things on a more immediate level, appreciating the everyday importance of the role of the woman in the lead-up towards the ultimate goal. This, too, is based on halachah in line with the obligation of bringing joy to one’s wife in the first year of marriage before any children appear upon the scene and to lavish her with gifts before yom tov in fulfillment of the law of v’semach es ishto. However, as stated, Reb Yose had a different path and perspective wherein he saw marriage as an opportunity to fulfill the obligation of p’ru u’revu and to fulfill the G-dly intention of developing the earth with mankind. Therefore, when he saw his wife, he did so in the context of the ultimate fulfillment of these obligations. It emerges in light of all this that the importance of the kohen gadol to be married was in order to fulfill his potential greatness in the convergence of the greatest person on the greatest day in the holiest place. 

Chazal say anyone who does not possess a home is not called by the name Adam. Therefore the Kohen, who epitomizes the stature of the adam and is the adam ha’shalem, needs to be someone who sees his wife as the ikkar of the house in the manner that Reb Yose did.

This is why the verse employed the term “beiso” rather than the more direct “ishto,” to emphasize the importance of the kohen  adopting this worldview of Reb Yose all of his days. This is connected seamlessly with the conclusion of the masechta in line with the tradition of highlighting the beginning and end of a masechta during a hadran. The masechta concludes with an aphorism of Rebbi Akiva, which we will sing communally on Lag B’Omer in just a few days: “How fortunate are you, Israel, before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven. As the verse states: ‘And I will sprinkle upon you pure waters and you will be rendered pure.’ And it states: ‘G-d is the mikvah of the Jews. Just as a mikvah purifies the impure so, too, G-d purifies the Jews.’”

In order to arrive at an understanding in the connection between the opening and concluding Gemaras we first need to analyze and pose questions on these words of Rebbi Akiva.

What was Rebbi Akiva seeking to teach us by saying that G-d purifies the impure, which is obvious and can be backed up by a number of biblical proof texts? In the previous Gemara, we are taught by R’ Elazar ben Azaryah that the atonement of Yom Kippur requires one to appease his fellow that he wronged and that the purification occurs before havayah. What does Rebbi Akiva teach us that we didn’t already know from R’ Elazar ben Azaryah?

Furthermore, in supporting his thesis Rebbi Akiva cites two proof texts whose origin is in Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel when he seemingly could have brought a more accurate supporting verse from the Torah in, “Before Hashem you will be purified.” Why did Rebbi Akiva need to cite two verses altogether, which indicates that there was something lacking in the first one that required the second one? 

We began by highlighting the fact that the law for the kohen to be married is a law with regard to the kohen himself as opposed to being an extension of the avodah of Yom Kippur. As such, we explained that this required that he be married for all aspects of the service, including those which were done daily in the Beis HaMikdash. We see the same idea in motion in the conclusion of the masechta with regard to the atonement and purification that is generated on Yom Kippur. From the words of R’ Elazar ben Azaryah we only learn that the day of Yom Kippur provides atonement. According to him, it’s possible to suggest that the source of the atonement is in the holiness of the day itself. Therefore, Rebbi Akiva came to add to the words of R’ Elazar ben Azaryah in teaching us that the atonement and purity stem from within each and every Jew, which is why he begins his statement with the words “Ashreichem, Yisrael,” “How fortunate are you, Israel,” indicating that the atonement of Yom Kippur comes from the unique relationship that we as Jews enjoy with Hashem. In order to support this claim, Rebbi Akiva cites two verses from Nach: “And I will sprinkle upon you pure waters and you will be rendered pure;” as this verse is a reference to the future redemption, it is proof that G-d delivers atonement and purity outside the holy environment of Yom Kippur.

Furthermore, from the verse of “V’zarakti” (I will sprinkle), it is understood that the ultimate purification with the future redemption will be generated from within the Jew himself regardless of his or her spiritual standing or lack thereof. This verse is a fulfillment of the words of R’ Meir who said: “Even when a Jew falls into the clutches of sin he or she remains the child of G-d.” As such, it makes sense to suggest that the purification of Yom Kippur also doesn’t come as a result of the day but rather due to the great stature of the Jew. However, the verse of “V’zarakti” doesn’t go far enough in supporting that claim and therefore Rebbi Akiva saw a need for an additional verse, from Yechezkel, in “G-d is a mikvah of the Jews,” a verse that, unlike the previous one, which will occur at the redemption, describes a situation that is much less rosy with regard to the Jews fulfilling the will of G-d. Notwithstanding that, however, the verse still attests to G-d acting as a purifying mikvah for the Jews amidst their impurity. However, if Rebbi Akiva’s objective was to highlight G-d’s willingness to draw us close despite not heeding His word, why was there a need for the first verse, which is centered on the redemption?

The main distinction between these two verses is in the manner of purification, with the first one occurring through sprinkling pure waters and the second one by immersing in a mikvah. Haza’ah, sprinkling waters, occurs from the pure upon the impure and from another entity, whereas immersion in a mikvah occurs from the impure person himself immersing in the pure waters of the mikvah. However, specifically haza’ah purifies from corpse impurity.

This is reflective in the spiritual realm as well, where immersing in a mikvah is a situation where a person possesses the wherewithal to immerse himself in the mikvah using his own avodah. However, if we are dealing with someone who is spiritually dead and unable to immerse, they require haza’ah—hence the need for the first verse. However, since the second verse contextually is referring to a time and place where the Jews are on a spiritually healthy level, Rebbi Akiva also needed to cite the second verse which described a different reality in order to prove that the manner of purification in the first verse can be unleashed in all situations and not only where the Jews are on a healthy spiritual footing.

On the other hand, the first verse possesses a benefit that the second one lacks, which is why it was cited first, since it indicates that the purity stems from the Jews. Although the purification comes from above due to the relationship between Hashem and His people, that is specifically regarding haza’ah, which is used to purify someone who came in contact with a corpse. However, although a mikvah occurs by the person immersing himself in the water, still the purity comes from G-d purifying the Jews.

This addresses yet another nuance in the words of Rebbi Akiva when he says: “Just as a mikvah purifies the impure…” Who else does a mikvah purify if not one who is impure? Rebbi Akiva could have omitted the word “temeim” and “es Yisrael” altogether. The novel teaching of Rebbi Akiva was that there are certain impurities that can be addressed by immersion in a mikvah and others that require sacrifices after the immersion is performed. Therefore, Rebbi Akiva said “just as a mikvah purifies the impure”—that is that they are pure from the lighter impurity and at the same time impure from the more severe impurity.

With this Rebbi Akiva was teaching us that it is possible to do partial teshuvah. If a person turns around and finds himself submerged in layers of iniquity and he is at a loss to address them all and at risk of being crushed under their load, he can address certain aspects of those wrongdoings while addressing the others at a later date in a more auspicious time.

Every masechta consists of a conglomeration of many variant sugyos, stories, and legal analyses, which often leaves the student at a loss to formulate a coherent moral and message to take with him in his life. In a masechta that deals with the most significant person in the holiest place at the holiest time, the Rebbe gleans a message of hope and inclusion for every Jew at every station in life, representing the soul of masechta Yomi, which, in the final analysis, is less about the holiness of the time and more about the inherent holiness of each and every Jew. 

Yochanan Gordon can be reached at Read more of Yochanan’s articles at


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here