Is repentance an essential part of the atonement process on Yom Kippur? Or does Yom Kippur have the power to offer atonement even when repentance is lacking?
The Gemara on today’s daf offers contradictory responses to those questions. One baraita compares Yom Kippur to sin offerings and guilt offerings, which will only bring about atonement if the individual who brings them has the proper intention while doing do. Another baraita points to the passage in Sefer Vayikra (23:28) that states that “it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.” This is understood to mean that even someone who works on that day and does not fast or recognize it as a Holy Day, nevertheless is granted atonement.
Abaye suggests that there is no contradiction, rather these are the teachings of two different Sages. Rava argues that it is all one opinion, and that the baraita that teaches that Yom Kippur does not offer atonement is talking about sins that were performed violating Yom Kippur itself. His argument is straightforward – if Yom Kippur atoned even for sins that violated Yom Kippur, then how would the punishment of karet for working or eating on Yom Kippur – which is listed in the Mishna at the beginning of Massekhet Karetot – ever be applied!?
What logic is there in the fact that Yom Kippur should offer atonement even without repentance?
In his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva (1:1-3) the Rambam states clearly that there can never be atonement without repentance. During the time that the Temple stood, however, the Kohen Gadol served as a representative of the people on Yom Kippur when he brought the unique se’ir ha-mishtale’aḥ – the scapegoat that is thrown from the cliff to Azazel as part of the Yom Kippur service (see 16:5-22). The kohen gadol would recite the viduy – the confession – formula as a representative of the entire Jewish community, which would serve as a form of blanket repentance of the people on Yom Kippur. Today, however, with the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the kohen gadol as a representative of the people, every individual would be obligated to repent on his or her own.