Yom Kippur means “The Day of Atonement.” Some view it as a frightening day full of regrets of the past and anxiety for the future. However, Chasidic philosophy sees Yom Kippur as the day of pure delight. On a simple level, Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness–the day when we all going to be forgiven, cleansed, and atoned. What is not to be happy about? Moreover, it is a day when we get our personal rendezvous with our Heavenly Father, and with ourselves. The last prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neila (“closing”). It is usually interpreted as the closing of the doors of prayers when the penitent feverishly trying to squeeze another prayer before the doors are shut. In Hassidic teachings, the Neila is viewed completely differently—it is the most cherished time when we enter into the private audience with our Heavenly Father and the door is shut behind us, so we are left alone with G-d—one-on-one (yeidut), so to say. From another perspective, this is the only time during the year, when our highest level of the soul—yeida—is revealed. This is the time when we meet our true selves. Isn’t it something to look forward to? But it goes much deeper than that. To understand why, let us start with the day before—Erev Yom Kippur, the Eve of Yom Kippur.

Erev Yom Kippur is considered a semi-holiday—a festive day, on which we do not say taanun (penitent prayers) and on which we wear festive attire and eat two festive meals (as required on holidays).

This is rather strange. The Eve of Yom Kippur is one of the Ten Days of Repentance (Asseret Yemei Teshuvah). Shouldn’t we be busy regretting past mistakes (and, indeed, we do!) and repenting our evil ways, instead of indulging in sumptuous meals? Moreover, it’s the day before Yom Kippur—the day on which every person is judged, and everyone’s fate is sealed for the next year. In a moving prayer of Yom Kippur called Unetane Tokef, it is stated,

On Rosh Hashanah they are inscribed, and on the fast day of Yom Kippur they are sealed: How many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die….

Mazor Rosh HaShanah, Unetane Tokef

Who doesn’t know this prayer? Who doesn’t cry reciting it? Most people understandably experience some anxiety before the awesome day of judgment (Yom HaDin). This is why Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are together called Yomim Naroyim—the Days of Awe. So, why the festive meals on the Eve of Yom Kippur? Furthermore, the Rabbis require us to eat more than usual, which is counted to us as merit. How strange . . .

Turning to Yom Kippur itself, the Torah says:

It shall be unto you a Sabbath of solemn rest (Shabbat Shabbaton), and ye shall afflict your souls; in the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening unto evening, shall ye keep your Sabbath.

Leviticus 23:32

Since the Torah mentions the ninth day (of the seventh month—the month of Tishrei—and we indeed begin the fast on the ninth until the evening of the tenth), the sages of the Talmud explain that the Eve of Yom Kippur—the ninth day of Tishrei—is also part of the atonement, even though there is no fasting. The sages say, “This teaches that one who eats and drinks on the ninth is credited as if he fasted on both the ninth and tenth” (Beraot 8b).

This is most puzzling. Why would eating on the Eve of Yom Kippur be considered fasting? And why does the Torah require us to fast on Yom Kippur in the first place? Yom Kippur is a yom tov (a holiday), and on holidays fasting is forbidden. Moreover, it is called Shabbat Shabbaton—the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the holiest day of the year. On Shabbat, it is forbidden to fast. So why do we fast on Yom Kippur? And why the additional prohibitions against other bodily pleasures—five in total—on Yom Kippur? And what does it all have to do with teshuvah(“repentance”)—the main mitzvah of the day? The answers to all these puzzling questions are found in one word—ta’anug or “delight.”

Kabbalah and the Hassidic philosophy of Chabad devote much attention to the concept of ta’anug (delight or pleasure). In Kabbalah, ta’anug is associated with the pnimi’ut HaKeter—the innermost aspect of the sefirah[1] of Keter (“Crown”),[2] which precedes the universe of Atzilut and the entire seder hishtalshelut—the ontological chain-like order of created worlds. In Lurianic Kabbalah, ta’anug is associated with the partzuf[3] of Atik Yomin (“the Ancient of Days”)[4]—the highest partzuf. The concept of ta’anug is so important to Kabbalah that it is sometimes used as a metaphor for Ein Sof—“the Infinite” (literally “Without End,” i.e., G‑d).[5]

The concept of pleasure or delight is very important to the philosophy of mind as well. It is at the core of what is known as the “hard problem of philosophy.” The problem is, How can a subjective experience arise from the physical brain? No reductionist approach can account for a subjective experience. Subjective conscious experiences are called “qualia” (or “quale” in singular).[6] An experience of pleasure is an example of qualia. While neuroscience has identified the hormone of pleasure, dopamine, it in no way explains the raw ineffable subjective feeling of pleasure. The highly subjective nature of quale[7] in general and pleasure in particular point to the subject who experiences the pleasure. Some philosophers argue that although pleasure, like other qualia, feels intensely physical and real, qualia cannot be physical and must be metaphysical.[8] No reductionist argument can account for the subject who experiences the subjective experience.

When we talk about human pleasure (or qualia in general), we are led to conclude that a nonphysical soul—the ultimate I—is the subject of any experience. When we talk about divine pleasure, it must be the essence of G‑d that “experiences” ta’anug. For this reason, the revelation of the divine ta’anug (and the associated sefirah of Keter and partzuf of Atik Yomin) that takes place on Yom Kippur is considered the revelation of the divine essence.

Chabad philosophy distinguishes between two types of delight—ta’anug hapashut (simple pleasure, or pure delight) and ta’anug hamurkav (complex pleasure). Pleasure caused by externalities, such as food, drinks, music, ideas, etc., is considered a complex pleasure (taanug hamurkav), because the nature of the thing that causes pleasure profoundly affects the way we experience that pleasure. Different foods have different tastes. People enjoy dry wine and sweet wine with different foods and in different circumstances because they are so different. The complex pleasure of food and drink is considered one of the lowest types of pleasure. The smell of fragrant herbs and flowers is a more refined type of complex pleasure. Delight in hearing beautiful music, in reading beautiful poetry, or in seeing a beautiful painting is a higher kind of pleasure. The delight in understanding profound ideas is higher yet. And the highest of all is the delight that comes from understanding deep insights from learning Torah, Kabbalah, or Hassidic philosophy. But these are still complex pleasures (ta’anug hamurkav), no matter how refined.

All of these types of delight are complex because they are greatly affected by that which gives us pleasure and delight. These pleasures have another common denominator: they fill a void, something we have missed and therefore desire. Food gives pleasure because a hungry person desires and needs food in order to exist. Once one is satiated, food stops giving pleasure. A lack of knowledge or understanding sends us on a quest to discover the missing knowledge. Once we gain that knowledge, it satisfies the need for understanding and, therefore, ceases to cause delight. And so on.

G‑d’s delight, on the other hand, is very different. G‑d is infinite and perfect; He lacks nothing. G‑d’s delight is the delight of being. G‑d delights in Himself, as it were. It is a self-referential construct. This is ta’anug hapashut—simple delight, which is entirely introverted and unaffected by any externalities. It is a simple pleasure of being alive, uncomplicated, and unadulterated by anything external.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (a.k.a. the Baal HaTanya or the Alter Rebbe) explains in his discourse on Tzimtzum that ta’anug hapashut is the source of life—makor ayim—and the source of forgiveness.[9] (See ma’amar Lehavin Mah Shekasuv B’Otzros ayim in Likkutei Torah, Vayikra.) It is this level, ta’anug hapashut, that is revealed on the day of Yom Kippur. The level that is the source of life—makor ayim—is higher than any sin, which is why forgiveness comes from that level.[10] But it is also a level of delight.

Now we can understand why we fast on Yom Kippur. This fast is not the mortification of our bodies (as all other fasts are). Rather, on this day, the ta’anug hapashut (simple delight) is revealed, and it cannot be diluted and overpowered by complex delights that come from physical pleasures. Just as the prophets of old used to practice hitbodedut (meditation in seclusion, to quiet all senses) to hear the voice of G‑d, so too, the Jewish people quiet their desires and refrain from physical pleasures by fasting and otherwise, as prescribed by Jewish law, to experience ta’anug hapashut—the simple delight of G‑d.

Now we can also understand why eating and drinking on the Eve of Yom Kippur is counted as fasting as well. It is because both are related to delight—the leitmotiv of Yom Kippur. On the Eve of Yom Kippur, we cannot fast, so we experience complex pleasures—ta’anug hamurkav—from food and drinks as preparation for experiencing a higher form of delight, simple delight—ta’anug hapashut—on Yom Kippur itself.

This also helps us understand the connection to teshuvah—repentance. During the year, we are busy pursuing transient pleasures and instant gratifications. This pursuit pollutes and corrupts our sense of true delight; it dulls our spiritual senses. Therefore, before we can partake of G‑d’s delight, we must experience regret and divest ourselves of all those physical pleasures that overwhelmed our senses. Only then can the subtle voice of G‑d be heard, and simple delight can be experienced.

Thus, Yom Kippur is a day of pure delight. We need to cleanse ourselves of the impure delights experienced during the year so we can partake of the pure delight of godliness on Yom Kippur.

In the Torah, Yom Kippur is called Yom HaKippurim—in the plural. Kabbalah interprets Yom HaKippurim as “a day like Purim” (Tikunei Zohar 57b). The Tikunei Zohar explains that in the Messianic future, Yom Kippur will be transformed from the day of fasting to the day of feasting—the day of delight, just like Purim. Understanding this on the intellectual level gives us today a foretaste of how Yom Kippur will be observed in the future.

I wish you a delightful Yom Kippur and a delightful New Year!


[1] A sefirah is a divine emanation. There are ten sefirot (pl. of sefirah): Keter, okhmah, Binah, esed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netza, Hod, Yesod, and Malut.

[2] Keter is called “Crown” because it crowns all other sefirot as they are arranged in the Tree of Life. It is so sublime that the Zohar calls it “the most hidden of all hidden things.” The Bahir, states, “”What are the ten utterances? The first is supreme crown…” It is also the source of Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which are revealed on Yom Kippur. Keter is hidden and unknowable, as it precedes the first intellectual emanation, okhmah.

[3] In Lurianic Kabbalah, partzuf (divine visage, countenance, or configuration) is a dynamic configuration of inter-included sefirot. Thus, for example, partzuf Aba (“Father”) is the sefirah of okhmah as it includes all ten sefirot.

[4] Atik Yomin (“the Ancient of Days”) is an appellation for G‑d (or, more precisely, a certain level of godliness) used three times in the Book Daniel. It is called “ancient” because it is the “earliest” (not in the temporal sense, but in the logical sense) source of creation that causally precedes all other levels. Atik Yomin is the inner partzuf of Keter. The external partzuf of Keter is Ari Anpin—the “Long Visage”). Atik Yomin is identified with the divine delight (ta’anug), whereas Ari Anpin is identified with the divine will (ratzon).

[5] Taanug is sometimes used as a metaphor for Ein Sof for the following reasons. As explained in footnote 4, ta’anug is identified with the innermost level of Keter and Atik Yomin, the uppermost partzuf. While this level is not knowable, it is the highest level we can point to as the source of creation. This is why Daniel used Atik Yomin as an appellation for G‑d. Furthermore, delight or pleasure is the most primary emotion closely identified with the essence of a being.

[6] Frank Jackson defines qualia as “certain features of the bodily sensations especially, but also of certain perceptual experiences, which no amount of purely physical information includes.” Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” The Philosophical Quarterly 32, no. 127 (1982): 127–136. According to Daniel Dennett, qualia are ineffable, intrinsic, private, and directly apprehensible by consciousness.

[7] The subjective nature of qualia was emphasized by Thomas Nagel in his frequently cited paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” in The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–450.

[8] This assertion is based on the inverted spectrum thought experiment, proposed by John Locke. See John Locke,  “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, (1689/1975), II, xxxii, 15.

[9] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Likkutei Torah, Vayikra, maamar Lehavin Mah Shekasuv B’Otzros ayim.

[10] Furthermore, the sefirah of Keter is above time. Consequently, when ta’anug (which is the innermost aspect of Keter) is revealed, past sins can be atoned for and errors can be rectified in the present time—on the day of Yom Kippur. That is why the sages of the Talmud stated that it is the day itself that atones for sins.