Richard MatherRichard Mather writes and edits for Israel News Online. He has also written for the Jewish Media Agency, Poetica Magazine, Drash Pit, Voices Israel and Chabad Lubavitch’s Holiday Times Magazine. He lives in Manchester, England.
What does Yom Kippur mean to Noahides?
The Talmud states that Yom Kippur atones for those who repent but it does not atone for those who don’t repent. How does this apply to Noahides who are not expected to attend synagogue or fast for 25 hours? Do Yom Kippur and the preceding Days of Awe apply to Noahides at all?
Let me explain. I am a Noahide. Noahides are gentiles who observe the Noahide Way, a universal moral code which comprises the six commandments given to Adam (according to the Talmud's interpretation of Genesis 2:16) and a seventh precept, which was given to Noah after the Flood. This ancient code was the faith of Noah, Shem, Abram, Job and possibly even Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. These great men had strong ethical beliefs, and enjoyed a fruitful relationship with G-d. Shem, for example, is believed to have been Melchizedek, the King of Salem or Jerusalem, who brought out bread and wine and blessed both Abram and G-d.
Returning to the subject of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yoel Schwartz (a senior lecturer at Dvar Yerushalayim yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof) agrees that it is not a Noahide fast. However, he does say that repentance is indeed a Noahide necessity. So how do Noahides, who are not supposed to imitate Jewish festivals or create new ones, earn Hashem’s forgiveness for wrongs done to Him and to people?
The Tanakh tells us that repentance is available to everyone. The Book of Jonah, which is the Haftarah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, is a crucial text for Noahides because it relates Hashem’s concern for the inhabitants of Nineveh – all of whom were gentiles. Despite Jonah’s reservations, the Ninevites eagerly accept his message of repentance. As a result, the gentiles of Nineveh are spared destruction.
The simplicity of the Ninevites’ repentance, as well as the abundance of G-d’s mercy, is wonderful. The king of Nineveh takes off his royal robes, covers himself with sackcloth and sits in the dust. He calls on his people to stop eating and drinking, and to renounce violence and corruption. The king urges the Ninevites to call on G-d. And as it says in the Bible, when Hashem saw how the Ninevites turned from their evil ways, He relented.
During Yom Kippur Noahides are not required to cease eating and drinking like the Ninevites. But Judaism’s holiest day is a timely reminder for Noahides to make amends with other people and to seek forgiveness from G-d, whom we should thank for His benevolence. Prophet Isaiah tells us to “seek Hashem when He can be found; call upon Him when He is near” (55:6). If Yom Kippur is the time when Hashem is “near” to man, it is a good opportunity for Noahides to ask for forgiveness and to make a mental note not to keep making the same mistakes.
Isaiah’s words echo Leviticus 18:5 in which Hashem commands the Israelites to “guard my statutes and my laws which, when a man [Ha-Adam] does them, he shall live through them.” Notice how G-d says “man” rather than “Israelite.” So what statutes are men expected to keep? For the Jews, it is the 613 mitzvot. For non-Jews, it is the Noahide Way, which commands the establishment of courts of justice and prohibits idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, theft and cruelty to animals.
Of course, very few Noahides will have committed an outright act of theft, for example. But the prohibition against theft – like the other Noahide Laws – is actually a category heading under which a number of smaller commandants are compiled. For instance, the injunction against theft includes refraining from cheating (“You shall not defraud your neighbor” – Leviticus 19:13) and not using false weights and measures ("You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in length, in weight, in quantity” – Leviticus 19:35). Depending on the rabbinical authority, there are not just seven laws, but 30 or even 66 commandments which Noahides are expected to keep.
And of course, there are minor transgressions, such as gossiping, ignoring a beggar in the street, lying to our wives, husbands and employers, etcetera. Given time to reflect, most of us would acknowledge that we are guilty of something and that some kind of redress is required – an apology, perhaps, or donating money to a charity for the homeless. Obviously, we don’t have to wait for the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur to make amends but the High Holy Days are a great opportunity to amend our behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done.
Because Yom Kippur atones for sins against G-d and not for sins against man (unless the injured party has been appeased), Noahides must earnestly seek forgiveness from others by making amends and making any necessary restitution. Part of the process of teshuva (repentance, literally “returning”) is acknowledging the emotional anguish our words and actions may have caused. As well as easing our conscience, teshuva brings a person closer to Hashem, especially if our repentance is rooted in love of G-d rather than fear. When someone repents out of love, his or her sins are counted as virtues.
In other words, teshuva is transformative because it turns our intentional sins into merits. Indeed, some rabbinical authorities argue that the repentant sinner is greater than someone who has never committed a sin.
So as Jews gather in synagogues to recite the Kol Nidrei prayer, Noahides may want to reflect on their own faults and moral failures, and ask G-d for His forgiveness. And if that person is truly sorry and has sincerely tried to make amends, then Hashem is sure to show His mercy. And G-d willing, that person will be inscribed in the Book of Life and be granted a happy new year.