It is well known that there are five activities which one is prohibited to perform on Yom Kippur: eating and drinking, washing, putting on oils, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in marital relations. It is a little less well known that there is a Machloket whether the nature of these prohibitions is a Torah one (Deoraita) or a Rabbinic one (DeRabanan). According to the Rambam (Hilchot Shvitat Asor 1:5), the prohibition to engage in all of these activities is Deoraita, but Tosafot (Yoma 77a s.v. Detnan) and the Rosh (Yoma 8:1) believe these prohibitions are DeRabanan. The root of this Machloket is based on the Gemara that says that we extract these prohibitions (except eating, which is directly learned elsewhere) from the Pasuk (Vayikra 16:31), “Shabbat Shabbaton,” “A Shabbat of complete rest.” The Torah could have simply stated that Yom Kippur was a “Shabbat,” and that would have been adequate. Now that the Torah adds in the word “Shabbaton,” it is teaching us something new, namely, the additional prohibitions. This is why the Rambam rules that these are Assur MiDeoraita. According to Tosafot and the Rosh, the Pasuk is only an indirect source (an Asmachta) used to support the words of the Rabbis.
A problem arises, however, with the opinion of the Rambam. A Mishnah in Yoma explicitly states that according to Rabi Eliezer (whose opinion is codified as normative by the Rambam), a newly wedded woman and a king are allowed to wash their faces on Yom Kippur. If the prohibition of washing was really a Torah prohibition, how could the Rabbis even entertain the possibility of permitting a bride and a king to wash? Based on this question, the Ran (Yoma 1a in the pages of the Rif s.v. Yom Hakippurim) suggests that since the prohibition of washing was derived from the word “Shabbaton,” seemingly an addition to the Pasuk, the Torah authorized the Rabbis to expand and mold the prohibition according to their will. (Only the explicit Issur of eating, derived from “VeInitem Et Nafshoteichem,” is beyond the reach of Chazal) According to the Ran, the Rabbis said that any washing that would lead to pleasure is prohibited, but washing for other reasons such as a bride’s desire to look nice for her husband or for a king’s need to be feared is permissible.
There are two questions with which one can challenge this explanation of the Rambam’s position. Firstly, elsewhere in the laws of Yom Kippur (3:1), the Rambam writes, “It is forbidden to wash on Yom Kippur, whether with hot water or with cold water, your whole body or even one limb; you are even forbidden to place your pinky finger in water.” What pleasure does one derive from putting his hand into cold water? Why is it forbidden, according to the Ran, to stick even one small finger in water if one is not getting any measurable degree of pleasure?
A second question on the Ran’s opinion is also based on a contradictory Halacha quoted by Rambam. He writes (3:9) regarding the prohibition to spread oil on oneself on Yom Kippur, “It is forbidden to spread oil on part of one’s body just as it is forbidden to spread on the whole body, whether it is for pleasure or not for pleasure.” Why would the Rambam make a distinction between washing and spreading oil? Why is washing only prohibited for pleasure, but spreading oil prohibited regardless of derived pleasure?
Perhaps the answers to these questions lie in a Gemara in Masechet Taanit. The Mishnah (12b) discusses what happens if a certain number of weeks have passed during the rainy season and rain has still not fallen. The Mishnah says that a series of fast days should be proclaimed, during which these five prohibitions are in place. The Gemara informs us that on such a day, the specific prohibition of washing is prohibited only with warm water (just like a public fast day, a Taanit Tzibur). The Gemara here (and also in two other places in Shas) notes that the prohibition of washing applies only to one’s entire body, but one is permitted to wash his hands, face, and feet on such a Taanit.
The Rambam can be explained in a new light when we take this Gemara into account. Why is it that on all other public fast days on which these Issurim apply, there is only a prohibition of pleasure, as we saw in the aforementioned Gemara in Taanit, as opposed to on Yom Kippur, where the Torah disregards pleasure? Perhaps the answer lies in the reason for these prohibitions. On other fast days, the reason for the five prohibited activities is that of pleasure. On all of these types of fast days, we are forbidden to engage in these activities to stimulate us to think about the topic of the day and why we are fasting. We do not want anything to distract us from thinking about what we must. Yom Kippur, however, is a day of great joy and jubilation. We are being forgiven for our sins. Why then can’t we get pleasure? The answer is that Yom Kippur is a time to connect with Hashem. It is the day that we leave this world, wear white, refrain from eating, and engage in intimate prayer with our Creator. The purpose of the five prohibitions on Yom Kippur is for us to leave this world and, for one day, live a life of pure holiness, limiting physical activities.
On other fast days we are only prohibited to engage in activities which would lead to Hesech HaDaat, a lapse in the concentration on our reason for fasting. Washing in cold water or washing specific limbs will not lead to this. On Yom Kippur, though, we are prohibited to wash anything because that would take away from the very goal which we are trying to attain on this day. The nature of pleasure is defined differently on Yom Kippur from other fast days. This is also the reason why the Rambam, when discussing smearing oil, does not differentiate between whether one gains pleasure or not. The mere activity of smearing oil is a physical activity which takes away the holy status that we are supposed to have on Yom Kippur. Washing, on the other hand, would be permitted for removing dirt and the like, as the Rambam mentions in Perek 3. However, any contact with water for a purpose other than dirt removal is Halachically considered as if for pleasure, and is therefore prohibited on Yom Kippur. On other fast days, as long as this does not take away from our concentration, it is permitted.
We should all merit to reach a holier level on this day of Yom Kippur, and through that may we merit complete atonement and purification. As the Torah tells us (Vayikra 16:30), “For on this day He will atone you to purify you from all you sins, before Hashem you will become pure.”