Jews do not often talk about Satan and hell, but Yom Kippur has a surprising and meaningful relationship to the demonic. This is not surprising given that it is the day on which we loudly list our sins over and over again by reciting the Ashamnu and Al Chet prayers.
Most Jews stick to the list in the machzor but some get more creative and try meticulously to recount all their personal misdemeanours. Surely Satan should revel in all this wickedness, it should be his favourite day, but the Talmud says it differently: “Satan has no power to act as accuser on Yom Kippur. How do we know? Rama bar Chama said: the numerical value [gematria] of the word Hasatan [literally, “The Adversary”] is 364. Thus out of 365 days of the year there is one day, Yom Kippur, on which he has no power” (Yoma 20a).
What went wrong for the devil? The Zohar gives us a fascinating explanation. It describes Satan as a demonic lawyer in a heavenly courtroom who wants to prosecute and destroy the Jewish people for all their sins. But events take a different turn…
“Israel presents Satan with a gift, made up of all the faults and wrongs they have done, and he is so utterly delighted with this that he praises them, admiring their honesty… In response, God turns to the representatives of the 70 other nations in the courtroom and says, ‘Just look at that! This is the same prosecutor who is always condemning my children but now that they have owned up to their wicked ways, suddenly he welcomes them. So I say we dump all their sins on him!’ …and everyone agrees” (Zohar III 102a).
What is the meaning of this outlandish story? Is there really a satanic devil up there in heaven fighting to destroy us? Surely God is fully in control.
The truth is that Satan does appear in the Bible, if only fleetingly, in the first few chapters of the book of Job. Job is a good man and God is proud of him, but a character called Hasatan, the Adversary, says that if he was given the chance to afflict Job, then he could make him curse God. God is persuaded to rise to the challenge and after two tries, “Job opened his mouth and cursed” (Job 3:1).
The Talmud describes Rabbi Yochanan as shocked by this story: “Were this not expressly stated in the Bible, we would never dare to say it, for God seems to be just like a human being who can be urged and reluctantly persuaded” (Baba Batra 16a).
Rabbi Yochanan is scandalised by the possibility that God can act in a petty human way — ‘My Job is better than your Job’ — and can be outwitted by another. One-upmanship between immortals acting like mortals is typical of Greek mythology, but it is surely not part of the Jewish tradition.
Resh Lakish takes a different approach and presents a host of biblical verses to prove his sweeping statement that “Satan, the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) and the Angel (literally, “Messenger”) of Death are all one and the same.” In other words, Satan is the same as the negative desires that we house within ourselves. And they in turn are the same as the deadly messenger of God that confirms our mortality. Satan can be thought of as the non-literal personification of the dark side of our free choice and can lead to our downfall.
He is the attempt to snuff out the divine spark with which we were all born. Thus descriptions of Satan and his actions in Jewish literature are really all about the character and nature of evil itself.
This helps to explain the Zohar’s courtroom drama. Satan is delighted with our sins because evil is always self-obsessed. Sin, in this sense, is an addiction to wrong-doing. It is a compulsive habit that has got into our psyche and wants more and more of the same, forever. We do not want to give it up and we convince ourselves that we need it constantly.
The only way to break this cycle is to sacrifice it completely. Admit what we have done and become, and then publicly renounce it. In the Vidui (Confession) of every Amidah on Yom Kippur we ask God’s help with this, “May it be Your will, my God, that I not sin again”. Only by owning up can we give up our infatuation with evil.
Rabbi Matis Weinberg, in Frameworks: Leviticus, writes: “Yom Kippur is the meeting room of Demons Anonymous, where we acknowledge, proclaim and accept the need to surrender our addiction, together as a nation. We disengage ourselves from the world, as if we are pristine angels without needs and without desires… And in that willingness to give it all away, we become free of this world’s entanglements and its impossible enticements.”
That is why Satan has no power to accuse us on Yom Kippur. The devil is in the detail, for he revels in the detailing of all our numerous sins.
But God is in the detail too, and if we are willing to confess to God and let go of our unhealthy dependences, then we can face the coming year with the unfettered freedom to become so much more than we are today.
Yom Kippur gives us the annual opportunity to clean up our act: “For through this day God will atone for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before God you will get clean” (Leviticus 16:30).