A Mini-Yom Kippur
Rosh Chodesh is a Yom Kippur Katan a Mini-Yom Kippur.
This is the dramatic name given to the first day of the month in the Hebrew lunar calendar by the great Kabbalist scholar Rabbi Moshe of Cordevero. The background for this title begins in our gemara, carries on through the text of our Mussaf Rosh Chodesh service and culminates in the custom of fasting and offering special prayers on the day before Rosh Chodesh.
The Torah (Bamidbar 28:11-15) commanded us to offer additional (Mussaf) sacrifices on Rosh Chodesh. Two bullocks, one ram and seven sheep are offered as olah burnt sacrifices, while one goat serves as a chatat sin offering. Three Sages Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Meir have different opinions as to exactly which sins this goat addresses as atonement. They all agree, however, that they are sins dealing with a lack of caution in approaching the Sanctuary and sacrificial flesh with the proper regard for ritual purity.
In the writings of post-Talmudic scholars we find an expansion of the role of Rosh Chodesh sacrifices as atonement for sins. In the text of the Mussaf that we offer as lip service in place of the sacrifices we are incapable offering, we refer to Rosh Chodesh as a time of atonement for all their offspring. Although the simple understanding of this is that it is a reference to all the generations of Jews who are the biological offspring of those to whom the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh was first commanded, a radically different explanation is provided by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. Their offspring, he writes, refers to the actions born of the days of the month gone by, which are atoned for by the olah offerings on Rosh Chodesh. He goes on to explain the ensuing phrase about the sacrifices achieving a salvation of their souls from the hand of their enemy as a reference to the role of the chatat as a connection to Hashem that saves us from the corrupting influence of our enemy, the evil inclination.
What these sacrifices achieved in atonement when there was a Beit Hamikdash we achieve today with our prayers on Rosh Chodesh. To maximize the impact of this Yom Kippur Katan some Jews have the custom of fasting the day before (fasting on Rosh Chodesh itself is prohibited because it is considered a minor holiday), while others settle for saying special prayers at Mincha the day before in order to properly usher in this monthly day of atonement.
A Tale of Two Twins
The two goats that play such a central role in the Yom Kippur service in the Beit Hamikdash were similar in many ways and so different in others. Both were purchased from communal funds, in contrast to two other animals that were the sacrifices of the Kohen Gadol and acquired from his own funds. An effort also had to be made to acquire goats that were similar in appearance, size and monetary value. They differed in that one of them was offered as a sacrifice in the Beit Hamikdash and the other served as the scapegoat.
The basis for requiring similarity is the passage (Vayikra 16:7) that commanded Aaron to take the two goats, a phrase that indicates a comparison. Rabbi Shimon applies this comparison to the nature of the atonement which each of the goats achieves for the general community and the kohanim. Rabbi Yehuda, however, limits the comparison to the physical features.
An interesting question is raised by the commentaries in regard to the physical comparison derived from the aforementioned passage. When the Prophet Eliyahu challenged the idolatrous prophets at their confrontation on Mount Carmel, he asked the assembled crowd to provide two bullocks, each of which would be offered as a sacrifice on an altar that had wood but no fire. Both he and the false prophets would in turn call to their deity to send fire from heaven and thus conclusively prove who was the true G-d. In order to eliminate any skepticism that might arise from a difference between the two animals, Eliyahu insisted that they be exactly the same and that the idolatrous prophets have the privilege of choosing the one they want. The Midrash Rabbah (23:9) deduces from the phrase two bullocks used by Eliyahu, that he insisted that the two animals not only be twins in physical appearance but they also be born of one mother. Why is this last requirement not mentioned in regard to the two goats of Yom Kippur?
Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (RaSHaSH) points out that the Hebrew word for two used in regard to the goats is shnei, which means two but not necessarily a pair. The term used by Eliyahu was shnayim, which means a pair. The similarity required by the former term can therefore be satisfied with less than the pairing suggested by Eliyahu that insisted on twinning.