Monday, October 3, 2011

Teshuvah Day 5: Atonement Really Is "At-One-Ment"

I recall hearing an explanation years ago that the word "atonement," which Jews traditionally associate with Yom Kippur, can be understood as "at-one-ment."  That is, atonement is about personal reflection, about being "at one" with yourself.  I didn't buy it, because Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, is about repenting for your transgressions.

That spin has a fishy scent - that is, it sounds like a faux-etymological homiletic gimmick, of the sort in which rabbis love to indulge because it's just too good.  But as one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, pointed out in class a few years back, that is in fact the origin of the word.  My trusty Webster's Ninth New Collegiate (1985) describes the history of the verb "atone" thusly:

[ME atonen to become reconciled, fr. at on in harmony, fr. at + on one]

Rabbi Tucker confessed that he too was surprised to learn this.

At-one-ment suggests to me the essence of tefillah / prayer.  The Hebrew verb for "to pray," lehitpallel, does not mean "to recite words of liturgy."  It means, "to judge oneself."  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,  is therefore the day of the year on which we reach the highest point of prayer, the summit of self-judgment.


  1. So interesting! I love these etymological explorations, and this one is espeically surprising and meaningful. Growing up, the moment that really caught me and got me excited about Jewish life was learning about the word "amen," all of its iterations - emunah (belief), l'hitamen (to practice), omanoot (art)- and the connections one can derive from among them. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi, Miriam. I love etymology as well, and especially making connections like the ones that you mentioned. Thank you! Shanah tovah, etc.