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25 Sivan 5762 - June 5, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
A Fresh Start: Understanding Yom Kippur Katan

by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis

A Day of Repentance

A few minutes before reciting Yom Kippur Katan, I tried to illustrate the tremendous importance of this tefilloh to a close friend, with the following story. A talmid chochom once told the Steipler that his brothers had passed away at the age of sixty. He was approaching that age and was concerned that perhaps there was some type of Heavenly decree on his family.

The Steipler told him that he should be scrupulous to recite Yom Kippur Katan every month, for this tefilloh has the power to annul such decrees. For some time he followed his advice and made sure to say Yom Kippur Katan every month.

One night as he was eating supper, his wife reminded him to say Ya'aleh VeYovo in bentching. Taken aback he responded that he did not realize that it was Rosh Chodesh today. That very month he passed away (Cited in Peninei Kehillos Yaakov p.39).

After listening carefully to my words, my friend replied "Sometimes stories like that are difficult to accept. However this one I believe one hundred percent, because his son is sitting behind you."

The dual nature of Rosh Chodesh is brought out by the tefillas Musaf. It is a time for teshuvoh, as we say in it, "You gave Rosh Chodesh as a time for atonement." However it is also a Yom Tov, as we say, "and [when the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt] we shall all rejoice in the Temple service." Repentance is generally characterized by supplications and fasting, while Yom Tov is marked with Hallel and good food. How do these go together in Rosh Chodesh?

Perhaps in response to this duality, our Sages instituted Yom Kippur Katan prior to Rosh Chodesh. The name of this tefilloh originates with the great kabbalist HaRav Moshe Cordovero. He called it Yom Kippur Katan, for it serves in place of the korbon se'ir of Rosh Chodesh which made atonement for the transgressions of the previous month (Mishna Berurah 417,3). It is generally said the day before Rosh Chodesh, unless Rosh Chodesh comes out on Shabbos or Sunday in which case it is pushed forward to Thursday (ibid. 550,11). In this way one can enter Rosh Chodesh in the midst of teshuva and tefilloh, and start off the new month on the right foot. Yom Kippur Katan is not said before Tishrei, Cheshvan, Iyar and Teves.

A Day of Fasting

In addition to the special selichos and viduy after tefillas minchah, some have the custom to fast on the day that Yom Kippur Katan is recited. If one intends to fast on that day he must accept the fast upon himself during minchah the day before. The first time he does so he should stipulate that this is not with the intent to fast every month (Mishna Berurah 417,3).

Fasting erev Rosh Chodesh creates a conflict between the repentant and festive natures of the day, for the end of the fast enters into the beginning of the chag. To resolve this, one should make sure to break the fast promptly at tzeis hakochovim (Response Rama MiPano 79 cited by Mishna Berurah ibid.). According to Kabbalistic opinions, the kedushah of Rosh Chodesh starts at the time of the molad, usually prior to Rosh Chodesh itself (Arizal as cited in Kaf HaChaim 417). Therefore, some have the minhag to break the fast then (Rama MiPano 79 cited by Mogen Avrohom 417; Oruch HaShulchan 417,11).

The Sefer Chassidim writes that it is healthy to fast once a month, and the best time to do this is erev Rosh Chodesh (Sefer Chassidim 97). However one should only view this as a "fringe benefit" and fast with the intention of teshuvoh. Even if one does not fast, it is praiseworthy to make a spiritual accounting of the previous month, and to settle any "outstanding debts" (Mishna Berurah ibid.).

The Real Enemy

An extremely enigmatic phrase appears in the middle of the Rosh Chodesh Musaf, "[Rosh Chodesh serves as] salvation from the hand of the enemy." Who is this "adversary" that the tefilloh makes mention of? The Shulchan Oruch explains that this refers to the yetzer hora who is the number one enemy of the Jewish people (Beis Yosef 423 in the name of the Orchos Chaim).

In retaliation to the yetzer hora, some have the custom to appoint a talmid chochom to say divrei kevushim (literally words of conquering) before reciting Yom Kippur Katan (Mogen Avrohom 579,6). These consist of words of reproof to subdue the evil inclination. The Mishnah suggests that one say: "My brothers, it is not sackcloth or fasting that cause salvation rather repentance and good deeds . . . " (Ta'anis 15a). However the wording can be updated and embellished according to the nature of the speaker and the needs of each generation (Shulchan Oruch 576,2).

In Our Father's Merit

After the selichos of Yom Kippur Katan, the shaliach tzibbur recites a number of Aramaic phrases, all beseeching Hashem to save us in the merit of our forefathers. Each of these lines is followed by the congregation's response: Bedil Vay'avor (in the merit of "Vay'avor" i.e. reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Hashem).

Why the sudden shift from Hebrew to Aramaic? Although our ancestors were spiritual giants, nonetheless we are afraid that the prosecuting angels could point out some minute transgressions, affecting their merit. In order to counteract this, this part of the tefilloh is said in Aramaic, the only language that the mal'ochim do not understand (Rav Yaakov Emden in Siddur Beis Yaakov).

Precision In Prayer

The Yom Kippur Katan tefilloh concludes with a lengthy viduy composed by Rav Nissim Gaon. The absolute purity and righteousness of the author clearly expresses itself through the lofty content of this prayer. So much so that one can only feel somewhat inadequate in repeating the claim of Rav Nissim that he utters the words with "complete humility, a broken heart, a downtrodden spirit, fear, trepidation and awe" -- to mention a few of the expressions that he employs. Even great rabbonim like HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l felt hesitant to recite these exalted words. Rav Auerbach therefore recommended that one should preface the viduy with the following phrase, "Rav Nissim Gaon was accustomed to say . . . " (Halichos Shlomo 15,1). In doing so one credits these thoughts to their originator, and does not assert that he has such piety.

Some might view Rav Shlomo Zalman's ruling as an excessive concern for detail, for perhaps in other matters we are not so punctilious. Yet when it comes to our prayers, such an attitude is indeed warranted. Since G-d is absolute Truth, all our prayers to Him must be absolutely true, containing not even the minutest element of falsehood (Rashi Yuma 69b).

King Dovid said, "Those who speak falsehood should not appear in front of My eyes." (Tehillim 101:7). Because of the importance of absolute truth in prayers, we must be especially careful to ensure that all of the content of our prayers is one hundred percent accurate, especially during Yom Kippur Katan, a time of repentance.

The Power of Return

A woman once wrote to HaRav Moshe Feinstein, admitting that although she had committed a severe transgression, she had reached a level of regret in which she could truly say that Hashem could testify upon it. How should she proceed in her repentance?

After praising her highly, Rav Moshe suggested that she should recite the entire book of Tehillim every month, and that erev Rosh Chodesh she should say the viduy of Yom Kippur Katan. He added that if she were doing so at home, she should omit the fourth paragraph. In that paragraph we confess the transgressions of the entire community, and such a statement can only be made in the presence of a minyan (Responsa Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4,117).


One of the most moving moments of Yom Kippur occurs during Krias Shema, when we recite the words boruch Sheim Kevod malchuso Le'Olom Vo'ed out loud. This tefilloh is usually recited quietly for, unlike the rest of the Shema, it is not a Torah verse. Since on Yom Kippur we are similar to angels, and they recite these words out loud, we follow their example. Do we achieve this level on Yom Kippur Katan? How can we say these words loudly?

In order to resolve this issue, another question must be answered. There are many phrases that we say in the course of tefilloh that are not Torah verses. Why must we generally say boruch Sheim quietly?

Some poskim suggest that since these words constitute a separation between the first and ensuing lines of Shema, we say them quietly in order to minimize the interruption. According to this understanding, on Yom Kippur Katan, when we say these words independently of the rest of Shema, it is permitted to say them loudly (Tzlach Pesochim 56b). In doing so we hope this will remind us of Yom Kippur and prepare our hearts to return to Hashem.

The Light of the Moon

Kabbalistic writings mention another reason for Yom Kippur Katan. The Divine Presence is compared to the moon. Just as the moon is constantly waxing and waning, so too Hashem's Glory seems tarnished through His hiddenness (Yesod VeShoresh HoAvodah 9,1). Rosh Chodesh is a rectification for this, for at the start of the month the moon begins its ascent to its fullness. The korbonos and avodoh of the day also serve to amend this deficiency (Mishna Berurah 417,3).

The moon is stmbolic of the Jewish People. During the course of our history we are constantly in a process of waxing and waning, always with our hearts directed towards the final redemption. May it be Hashem's will that in the merit of Yom Kippur Katan, He should bring to fulfillment the verse that we recite at the end of Kiddush Levonoh (Yeshayoh 30,26), "May the light of the moon return to shine with the same intensity as the light of the sun and the light of the seven days of Creation" Omen.

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