The Mitzva to Eat on Erev Yom Kippur and the Teshuva of Yom Kippur

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Yom-Kippurby R. David Brofsky, excerpted from Hilkhot Mo’adim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals

Many customs and laws occupy us on the day preceding Yom Kippur. Some have the custom of visiting cemeteries before Yom Kippur, 1)Rema 605. others participate in kapparot, swinging a live chicken or a small sack of money above their heads, 2)Ibid. and some even have the custom of receiving malkot (lashes). 3)See, for example, Siddur Rashi 211, Me’iri Ḥibbur HaTeshuva (Buber), p. 404, Rosh, Yoma 8:25, Tur and Shulḥan Arukh 606. See also Rabbi Yitzḥak Tessler, “Matay Lokin Malkot BaErev Yom HaKippurim” Yeshurun, v. 11 (Elul 5762), who discusses when lashes were generally given.

In addition, the Gemara teaches that there is a mitzva to eat on Erev Yom Kippur. What is the significance of the Se’uda HaMafseket, the meal eaten immediately before the Yom Kippur fast?

The Talmud teaches:

R. Ḥiyya bar R. Difti taught: It says, “And you shall afflict yourselves on the ninth” [Lev. 23:32]. Now on the ninth do we fast? Do we not fast on the tenth? Rather, this is to tell you that anyone who eats and drinks on the ninth, the Scriptures considers it as if he fasted on the ninth and the tenth. 4)Yoma 81b, Rosh HaShana 9a, Pesaḥim 68b, Berakhot 8b.

Indeed, the Gemara records that “Mar the son of Ravina would sit at all times in fast except for the days of Shavuot, Purim, and Erev Yom Kippur” (Pesaḥim 68b).

The Gemara teaches that there is a mitzvato eat on the day before Yom Kippur and that eating on Erev Yom Kippur and then fasting on Yom Kippur is somehow tantamount to fasting for two days. What function does this mitzva fill? How are we to understand the Talmud’s equation between eating on the ninth of Tishrei and fasting on Yom Kippur? And does this mitzva somehow reflect the true nature of Yom Kippur? The Rishonim differ as to how to understand this mitzva.

Some view the obligation as a form of preparation for the fast. Rashi, for example, explains:

And the verse says, “And you shall afflict yourself on the ninth,” implying [that you should] prepare yourself on the ninth in order to be able to fast on the tenth. And since the Torah employed the language of “affliction,” it teaches that it is as if one fasted on the ninth. 5)Rashi, Yoma 81b, s.v. kol.

Rashi understands that one eats on the ninth of Tishrei in order to prepare for Yom Kippur. For this extra preparation, one receives “credit” as if one fasted on both days. 6)Rashi offers a similar interpretation in his commentary to Berakhot 8b, while he explains differently on Rosh HaShana 9a. Rosh concurs, explaining:

In other words, “prepare yourselves on the ninth, rejuvenate and strengthen yourselves through eating and drinking, in order that you will be able to fast tomorrow.” This is in order to demonstrate God’s affection for Israel, similar to a person who has a beloved child who must fast for a day; he will give him food and drink the day before the fast in order that he will tolerate [the fast]. Similarly, God does not normally command the Jewish people to fast, except for one day, for their own good, to atone for their sins. 7)Rosh, Yoma 8:22.

Rosh understands the mitzva, like Rashi, as a preparation for the fast, but he adds that it demonstrates God’s affection for the Jewish people and His desire that they should not suffer.

Conversely, Shibbolei HaLeket suggests that one who eats “well” on the day before Yom Kippur will experience more discomfort on Yom Kippur itself. 8)Shibbolei HaLeket 307. Similarly, R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860–1941) explains in his Torah Temima:

Based upon what appears in Taanit 27b, that the anshei mishmar [the Kohanim on duty] in the Temple would not fast on Sunday…and according to one [reason] in order that they should not go from rest and enjoyment [on Shabbat] to discomfort and fasting. And the commentators explain that a fast which comes after a day of excessive eating and drinking is more difficult and therefore they would not fast then. Similarly, it is now understood that one who eats and drinks on the ninth, it is as if he fasted for the ninth and the tenth, because the fast on the tenth is harder for him…and therefore the fast on the tenth counts for him for two fasts. 9)Torah Temima, Lev. 23, n. 97.

Interestingly, Torah Temima’s father, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1908), cites both reasons in his Arukh HaShulḥan, insisting that while the fast may be difficult due to excessive eating the day before, one’s ability to fast successfully will still be enhanced by eating on Erev Yom Kippur.

Given this discussion, we might question the permissibility of ingesting pills before a fast that are purported to relieve the discomfort of the fast. Indeed, R. Hayim Hezkia Medini, (1833–1904), in his Sedei Ḥemed, cites a scholar who discouraged engaging in segulot (spiritual remedies) intended to ease the fast. 10)Sedei Ḥemed, Ma’arekhet Yom HaKippurim 10:1. Most posekim, however, insist that there is no reason to be stringent, especially since according to Rashi, the entire intention of this mitzva is to ease the fast the next day. 11)See Ḥelkat Yaakov 2:58; Tzitz Eliezer 7:32; Mishneh Halakhot 2:66.

After citing the views of Rashi and the Rosh, Rabbeinu Yona (Spain, 1180–1263) presents an alternate perspective of this mitzva. He writes:

If a person transgressed a negative commandment and repented, he should be concerned with his sin and long and wait for the arrival of Yom Kippur in order that God will be appeased.…And this is what they meant [Rosh HaShana 9a] [when they said that if] one who eats a special meal on the eve of Yom Kippur it is as if he was commanded to fast on the ninth and tenth and did so, as he demonstrated his joy that the time for atonement has come, and this will be a testimony for his concern for his guilt and his anguish for his sins.…Second, on other festive days, we eat a meal for the joy of the mitzva…and since the fast is on Yom Kippur, we were commanded to designate a meal for the joy of the mitzva on the day before Yom Kippur. 12)Rabbeinu Yona, Shaarei Teshuva 4:8–10.

Ritva paraphrases Rabbeinu Yona, explaining that the mitzva to eat on Erev Yom Kippur is meant “to demonstrate that this day is holy to our Lord, and it is appropriate to eat sweet foods, like on Rosh HaShana, but the Torah commands us to abstain on this day from physical pleasures in order that we should be like angels, as the Midrash says.” 13)Ritva, Rosh HaShana 9a. Rabbeinu Yona clearly believes that we are not to view the mitzva to eat on Erev Yom Kippur as a preparation for the fast, but rather as an independent commemoration or celebration of Yom Kippur that was “pushed up” to the day before.

Incidentally, while ostensibly, “ve’initem et nafshoteikhem” (Lev. 16:31, 23:27, 23:32; Num. 29:7) should be translated literally: “And you shall afflict your souls,” implying that the purpose of the inuyim is to afflict, to cause discomfort, in order to motivate the person to repent, most Rishonim, however, explain that the Torah commands the Jewish people to eat on Erev Yom Kippur so that they should experience less discomfort during the fast (Rashi, Rosh), or to express one’s joy upon the opportunity to receive absolution (Rabbeinu Yona, Ritva).

The Aḥaronim discuss these two approaches – whether the mitzva is intended as a preparation for the fast of Yom Kippur or as a separate commandment – at great length. They raise a number of potential differences between these approaches. R. Akiva Eiger (1761–1837), for example, questions whether women are obligated in this mitzva. He was asked to rule regarding an ailing woman who was warned by her doctors not to eat, lest her condition deteriorate. He writes:

God forbid, she should not eat. And since you say that she is learned, and fears the word of God and will hardly listen to you, my advice is to take a servant or two to tell her that a letter arrived from me prohibiting her from eating anything more than she is accustomed to each day.

He concludes with the following thought:

While this ruling must not be delayed, I am somewhat curious regarding healthy women [as well], whether they are obligated to eat on Erev Yom Kippur, as possibly they may be exempt, as they are exempt from all time-bound commandments.…Or possibly, since the verse employs the phrase “the ninth of the month,” implying that it is as if one fasted on the ninth and the tenth, therefore all who must fast on the tenth, to fulfill “and you shall afflict yourselves,” must fast on the ninth.…This question requires further thought for a less busy time. 14)Teshuvot Rabbi Akiva Eiger 16.

Other Aḥaronim discuss this question as well. 15)See Reshash, Sukka 28b; Minḥat Ḥinukh 313. In his commentary on R. Aḥai Gaon’s She’iltot, R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816–1893), Netziv, supports the understanding that one eats on the ninth in order to prepare for the fast on the tenth. 16)HaEmek She’ela 167:12. Indeed, the text of the She’iltot reads, “One who eats and drinks on the ninth and fasts on the tenth, the Scriptures considers it as if he fasted on the ninth and the tenth,” implying that one eats on the ninth in order to successfully fast on the tenth. If so, Netziv questions whether one who is confident in his ability to fast must still eat and drink on the ninth. Conversely, must one who is unable to fast on Yom Kippur eat on the ninth?

R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (1815–1871), Ketav Sofer, also asks whether one who is unable to fast on Yom Kippur must still fulfill this mitzva on Erev Yom Kippur. 17)Ketav Sofer 112. He concludes that an ailing woman who cannot fast on Yom Kippur would certainly not be obligated to eat. He argues that if the obligation relates to the fast, then she should be exempt, as she will not fast the next day, and if this halakha constitutes and independent obligation, she should be exempt because it is a time-bound commandment.

Finally, should one strive to eat a meal with bread on Erev Yom Kippur? It would seem that those who view this mitzvaas a preparation for the fast would see no reason to prefer one manner of eating over another. However, those who view this mitzva as a “se’udat mitzva”” or even a “se’udat Yom Tov,” might be inclined to prefer a more festive meal made over bread. Similarly, Minḥat Ḥinukh questions whether there is a minimum amount that one must eat. He concludes, creatively, that since the halakha defines “inuy” on Yom Kippur as abstaining from food the size of a date (kakotevet), one should similarly eat a minimum of a “date” on Erev Yom Kippur, when one’’s eating also fulfills the commandment of “inuy.” 18)Minḥat Ḥinukh 313:9.

Rav Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook (1865–1935) analyzes this mitzvain his Ein Aya, a commentary on the Aggadic sections of the Talmud. 19)Ein Aya 38. He begins by asserting that there are two dimensions of teshuva that are alluded to in verses from the Torah:

And it shall come to pass when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you will take it to your heart among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you. And you will return unto the Lord your God and hearken to His voice, according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul.…And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your children to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deut. 30:1–2, 6)

If one “returns” to God, then why must God “circumcise his heart” in order to bring about “the love of the Lord your God”? Rav Kook explains that sin impacts upon a person in two ways. First, the person has violated the will of God. Second, the person has distanced himself from God, decreasing the love and fear of God in his heart. The process of repentance, therefore, must both correct the sin as well as restore the love and fear of God to one’s heart. These two goals of teshuva are accomplished in different ways.

The teshuva of restoring one’s personal relationship with God can best be achieved without the distractions of the physical world. However, fixing what one has wronged cannot be fully accomplished while detached from the world; rather, he must be immersed in this world. The Rabbis teach:

What is the definition of a baal teshuva (a person who has repented)? R. Yehuda said: One who has the opportunity to do the same sin [implying that circumstances are such that his desire to do the sin is the same] and this time does not do it! He is a baal teshuva! (Yoma 86b)

If so, Rav Kook claims, “One must be involved in business dealings and in his day-to-day dealings and [still] act according to the God’s Torah and its commandments” in order to perform teshuva properly. One might therefore claim that the abstinence of Yom Kippur, through which one restores his personal relationship with God, does not actually achieve full and complete teshuva. We thus eat and drink on the day before Yom Kippur, “and are careful in the service of God, placing the fear of God upon us so that we do not stumble with regard to any prohibition, even through eating and drinking, and we therefore engage in active repentance, and only afterward can we increase our repentance with added sanctity.” 20)Ein Aya 38. This beautiful idea explains why the Talmud equates the ninth and tenth days, as together they compose the complete experience of Yom Kippur.

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.Rema 605.
2.Ibid.
3.See, for example, Siddur Rashi 211, Me’iri Ḥibbur HaTeshuva (Buber), p. 404, Rosh, Yoma 8:25, Tur and Shulḥan Arukh 606. See also Rabbi Yitzḥak Tessler, “Matay Lokin Malkot BaErev Yom HaKippurim” Yeshurun, v. 11 (Elul 5762), who discusses when lashes were generally given.
4.Yoma 81b, Rosh HaShana 9a, Pesaḥim 68b, Berakhot 8b.
5.Rashi, Yoma 81b, s.v. kol.
6.Rashi offers a similar interpretation in his commentary to Berakhot 8b, while he explains differently on Rosh HaShana 9a.
7.Rosh, Yoma 8:22.
8.Shibbolei HaLeket 307.
9.Torah Temima, Lev. 23, n. 97.
10.Sedei Ḥemed, Ma’arekhet Yom HaKippurim 10:1.
11.See Ḥelkat Yaakov 2:58; Tzitz Eliezer 7:32; Mishneh Halakhot 2:66.
12.Rabbeinu Yona, Shaarei Teshuva 4:8–10.
13.Ritva, Rosh HaShana 9a.
14.Teshuvot Rabbi Akiva Eiger 16.
15.See Reshash, Sukka 28b; Minḥat Ḥinukh 313.
16.HaEmek She’ela 167:12.
17.Ketav Sofer 112.
18.Minḥat Ḥinukh 313:9.
19, 20.Ein Aya 38.

About David Brofsky

Rabbi David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum and writes a weekly halakha shiur for the Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). He is the author of Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer, and the recently published Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Jewish Festivals.

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