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The Jewish Time Traveler’s Manual

In Tractate Yoma, the Talmud gives us a deep dive into going back to the future

Dovid Bashevkin
July 08, 2021
MISHNA: Seven days prior to Yom Kippur the Sages would remove the High Priest, who performs the entire Yom Kippur service, from his house to the Chamber of Parhedrin, a room in the Temple designated specifically for the High Priest during that period. And they would designate another priest in his stead to replace him lest a disqualification due to impurity or another circumstance beyond his control prevent him from entering the Temple on Yom Kippur.
—Yoma 2a

I have a bit of news your rabbi might have neglected to share with you: One of Judaism’s major holidays is actually about time travel. No, really.

Every Jewish holiday has a central ritual. Rosh Hashanah has the shofar. Sukkot has, well, the sukkah. Passover has matzo. After completing Tractate Yoma, the Talmudic volume about Yom Kippur, I am left wondering what exactly lies at the center of the Yom Kippur experience. Before you answer “fasting,” undoubtedly the Yom Kippur ritual that we have learned to dread the most, understand that it is only given a few pages of mention within the entire tractate. Kol Nidre, the contemporary staple of the start of Yom Kippur services, is not even mentioned at all. What then lies at the center of Yom Kippur? I believe a hint lies in the very name of this tractate: Yoma. Unlike, Tractate Rosh Hashanah (about, you guessed it, Rosh Hashanah), Sukkah (about Sukkot), Megillah (about Purim), or Pesachim (Pesach—but plural), Yom Kippur’s tractate uses an invented name, Yoma, meaning The Day. And this I believe is the first hint in unraveling the great mystery of Yom Kippur’s significance and enduring power. The ritual at the heart of Yom Kippur is time itself. Reading Tractate Yoma is a mystical journey. But the question is not where Tractate Yoma takes us, but when.

Most of Tractate Yoma revolves around the brilliant preparation and choreography of the ritual of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, on Yom Kippur. Unlike any other Temple service, nearly the entire ritual can only be performed by the Kohen Gadol. In fact, the tractate begins with a discussion of what happens if the Kohen Gadol dies. There are many unique features to this service, aside from the fact that they all must be performed by the Kohen Gadol. Most notably, the Kohen Gadol enters the Kodesh Kodashim, the innermost sanctum of the Temple. At no other time of the year was anyone, including the Kohen Gadol, allowed to enter the sanctum which houses the Ark of the Covenant. On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol enters a total of four times, most notably to perform the incense service. During each of the Kohen Gadol’s confessions, he pronounces the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God. Normally, there is a prohibition to pronounce this name. Jews pronounce this name of God—comprising the Hebrew letters yud, hey, vav, and hey—as Adonoi, my master. On Yom Kippur, however, the Kohen Gadol pronounces the tetragrammaton name 10 times. The Yom Kippur of Tractate Yoma is indeed baffling. The destination of The Day may be unclear, but it is certainly taking us elsewhere.

Great is repentance, as one’s intentional sins are counted for him as merits, as it is stated: “And when the wicked turns from his wickedness, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall live thereby” (Ezekiel 33:19).

Which brings me back to the time travel bit.

According to James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History, the notion of traveling through time is a fairly modern concept. He gives credit for the idea of applying the term “time travel,” normally reserved for spatial change, to H.G. Wells’ 1895 work The Time Machine. As the unnamed protagonist in Wells’ classic explains, “Any real body must have extension in four directions: It must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.” Ten years before Einstein’s theory of relativity, time as the fourth dimension was born. Gleick, as opposed to some other authors on time travel, is convinced that time travel is impossible. The only concession he is willing to make about the possibilities of time travel is through memory. He cites Nabokov, “time is but memory in the making.” When we remember, we travel into our past. Memory is our personal time machine. And, explains Gleick, nothing powers that movement to our past like regret. “Regret,” he writes, “is the time traveler’s energy bar.” And on Yom Kippur this is the main course.

There are two philosophical schools of thought on the merits of time travel: presentism and eternalism. Presentists, broadly speaking, only believe in the reality of the present. Eternalists, however, believe that the past, present, and future all exist. To believe in time travel, one likely needs to be an eternalist. For time travel to even be possible, there needs to be a reality of a future and a past to even journey toward. Wells himself wrote as much. In a passage in the original serialized story that was later removed in the final published version of The Time Machine, Wells writes, “To an omniscient observer there would be no forgotten past—no piece of time as it were that had dropped out of existence—and no blank future of things yet to be revealed.” Teshuva, loosely translated as repentance, is an act of time travel—journeying into our past to remediate our wrongs. No wonder, that before we recite the Yom Kippur vidui, the liturgy that delineates our past sins, we affirm God as the omniscient observer. “Nothing is concealed before You, nothing is hidden before Your eyes.” Before, we address our past we must first acknowledge that it continues to exist.

But Tractate Yoma does not frame Yom Kippur as a travel into our past. Instead, Yom Kippur is a journey into our future to reshape our past. That is why specifically on Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol over and over again pronounces the tetragrammaton. The present is divisive. Looking at God’s world through the lens of a present moment is like peering through a peep hole. You only see a slice of the picture—and in that picture there is suffering, absence, loss, and evil. The four-lettered name of God is a mashup of the Hebrew words haya, hoveh, v’yihiyeh—the past, present, and future. Until the end of times, we are forbidden from pronouncing that name because it undermines the very reality of the unredeemed present world we live in. The evil and wrongs that exist prevent us from fully declaring the name of the Omniscient Observer. We can read it and know it’s there, but it can’t be fully expressed. On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol journeys into our collective future where the divisions of each moment cease. Yom Kippur is the expression of the tetragrammaton as articulated through time. As Rav Yitzchak Hutner describes, “the Jewish experience of the Day of Atonement is an anticipation, a foretaste, a temporal and temporary incursion into history, of the end-time.” Yom Kippur is our time machine into the future.

And this is what he would say in his confession: Please, God, I have sinned, I have done wrong, and I have rebelled before You, I and my family. Please, God, grant atonement, please, for the sins, and for the wrongs, and for the rebellions that I have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before You, I and my family, as it is written in the Torah of Moses your servant: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). And the priests and the people who were in the courtyard respond after he recites the name of God: Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and all time.

Why do we travel to our future in order to address our past? Normally we go to the past to change the future—on Yom Kippur we travel to the future in order to change our past. Eventually, the Talmud explains, the world is headed toward teshuva. The world yearns for reconciliation, but right now we are stuck in the middle of our fragmented unfolding stories. Skipping to the end of a book shows you what kind of narrative you are in the middle of reading. Yom Kippur reminds us that ultimately the entire narrative of the world is headed toward a redemptive future that we, through teshuva, can become a part of. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the religious universe is long, but it bends toward teshuva.” By embodying our collective future on Yom Kippur, we reimagine the arc of our past mistakes. Our failures become merits—each messy step of our past brings us closer to our conciliatory future. By glimpsing ahead, each moment of our imperfect past becomes a chapter in our perfected future. The ending of Yom Kippur changes the narrative trajectory of our lives.

Enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim. The service in the inner sanctum, the Kodesh HaKedoshim, features prominently throughout the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur service. To glimpse into that future time of redemption, the Kohen Gadol walks alone, intimately into the one place on earth of complete unity. In there, alone with God, on the holiest day of the year in the holiest place in the world, the Kohen Gadol can grasp our anticipatory future and bring it into the present. And even though we don’t have the rituals of the Kohen Gadol anymore, we can still access that inner sanctum in those private moments in our hearts on that most holiest day of the year. Absent a Temple, we each become the Kohen Gadol, peering into our future from the inner sanctum of our hearts. On Yom Kippur, like the Kohen Gadol described in Yoma, we wear white clothes.

As Yom Kippur closes, during the Neilah service, it has become a nearly universal custom to say seven times “Hashem hu HaElohim,” Hashem—the tetragrammaton—is our Lord. We are exiting the time machine and returning to the world of multiplicities, as that plural name of God, Elohim, suggests. Hashem hu HaElohim. We are all wearing white clothes of purity today, tomorrow is back to the basic wardrobe. Hashem hu HaElohim. Even though a redeemed future has not yet arrived, we can bring that possibility into our present. Hashem hu HaElohim. Our past, however ugly, can have a new ending. Hashem hu HaElohim. To embrace Yom Kippur is to believe that your life is part of the redemptive narrative of the world. Hashem hu HaElohim. Even in the mundane tomorrow, Yom Kippur demonstrates our capacity to transcend. Hashem hu HaElohim. If we can connect to our future, we can transform our past. Hashem hu HaElohim. Even after we exit the inner sanctum, its vision endures.

הדרן עלך מסכת יומא והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.