Yesterday, we noted the Sefat Emet’s remark in his commentary to the Talmud (Yoma 87a) that the requirement to seek forgiveness before Yom Kippur from those whom we have wronged applies even to those who feel unwarranted grievance. Based on the Gemara’s account of Rav repeatedly seeking forgiveness each year before Yom Kippur from another rabbi who was unjustifiably angry at him, the Sefat Emet concludes that we are to try to reconciliate with anyone who feels resentful towards us, even if we are certain of our innocence. As we saw, the Tolna Rebbe explained the Sefat Emet’s theory based on a passage in the Sefat Emet’s Torah commentary (Yom Kippur, 5651) stating that reconciliation is required as part of our effort to create peace and unity on Yom Kippur. We are to ask forgiveness not simply in our quest for atonement for our wrongdoing, but additionally, for the purpose of bringing Am Yisrael together by breaking down the barriers that separate between us and our fellow Jew. Therefore, the requirement to seek reconciliation applies irrespective of guilt.
The Tolna Rebbe suggested applying this theory to explain the Mishna’s description of the procedure followed when the kohen gadol would meet the elder kohanim in preparation for Yom Kippur. Due to the influence of the heretical Sadducee sect during the Second Temple, which occasionally succeeded in having its members appointed to the high priesthood, the elders were compelled to elicit an oath from the kohen gadol promising to follow the halakhic tradition when performing the Yom Kippur service. Nobody was permitted to accompany the kohen gadol as he entered the Sanctuary for the special Yom Kippur incense offering, and so there was no possibility of ensuring that he followed the halakhically required procedure, as opposed to the procedure advocated by the Sadducee movement. Therefore, the elders would have the kohen gadol take a solemn oath before Yom Kippur that he would perform the service properly. The Mishna (Yoma 18b) relates that after administering the oath, the elders would weep. The Gemara (19b) explains that they wept because they suspected the kohen gadol of heresy, and wrongfully suspecting an innocent person constitutes a grievous sin.
The question naturally arises as to why the elders wept, considering that they had no choice but to administer this oath. As the Rambam explains in his Hilkhot Avodat Yom Ha-kippurim (1:7), the proliferation of Sadducee beliefs during the Second Commonwealth necessitated this oath, given the concern that the kohen gadol would secretly perform the service in accordance with the Sadducee interpretation of the law. Why, then, did the elders need to feel guilt over the possibility of wrongfully suspecting an innocent kohen gadol, if this was necessary due to the circumstances?
In light of the Sefat Emet’s theory, the Tolna Rebbe explained, the answer becomes quite clear. Before Yom Kippur, we are to endeavor to break down the barriers between us and our fellow Jews, including those barriers which we are not guilty of erecting. The fact that the elders were perfectly justified in suspecting the kohen gadol and imposing an oath does not change the reality that this created tension between them and him. The weeping was necessary as a means of easing these tensions, as it showed the kohen gadol that the elders felt uneasy about having to suspect him, that they much preferred to presume his innocence. This was done in an attempt to break the emotional barrier that the suspicion and oath created, fulfilling the requirement to do our utmost to eliminate any and all feelings of tension and resentment among Jews in preparation for Yom Kippur.
The Tolna Rebbe added that this might also explain why the Rambam included in his codification of the laws of Yom Kippur the description of the elders weeping after administering the oath. The Rambam wrote his Mishneh Torah as a halakhic work, not a historical work, and it thus might at first seem puzzling that he found it appropriate to mention the elders’ weeping after the kohen gadol’s oath. The explanation might be that this weeping was not simply a natural response, but a halakhically mandated response, in fulfillment of the obligation to seek reconciliation before Yom Kippur. The elders wept in order to ease the tensions wrought by their necessary suspicion of the kohen gadol, and their weeping was thus incorporated into the Rambam’s presentation of the laws of Yom Kippur, as it demonstrates the need to seek reconciliation before Yom Kippur even from those whom we are not guilty of having wronged in any way.