Fasting on Yom Kippur

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ha’azinu

We’re in the homestretch of the year, running out of mitzvot in the parsha itself (one reason I will switch tracks next year, start a new project that I’ll describe after Simchat Torah). Usually, She’iltot helps us out, except for Ha’azinu, he doesn’t have anything I could work with. However, for Ve-Zot HaBerakhah, he had the mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur, a bit of an odd choice since the parsha is always after Yom Kippur in our Torah readings (maybe not in his).

In any case, this week we will study some of those laws, focusing on de-oraita, what is a Biblical obligation.

The Biblical Inuyim

Since he gave us the idea, let’s see how She’ilta 167 phrases it. He says Hashem warned the Jewish people to fast on the tenth of Tishrei, even on Shabbat. [The last phrase surprises me. I understand it, since fasting is usually not allowed on Shabbat, other than in reaction to a terrifying Friday night dream, and were one to fast for that purpose, the Jew would then have to fast yet another day to atone for the lack of oneg, pleasure. Still, it seems the kind of detail She’iltot does not usually include in his summaries.]

The “fast” includes refraining from eating, drinking, wearing shoes, washing, anointing oneself with oil, and couples engaging in marital relations. All those are de-oraita, he stresses. Arukh HaShulchan Orakh Chayyim 612;6 points out eating and drinking here means any kind of pleasure. Chewing food, swishing liquid around one’s mouth, and spitting them out, are also not allowed.

Rambam blurs the picture in Obligation 164 of the Sefer HaMitzvot. His counting it as an obligation already diverges from She’iltot, who spoke of God warning us, a word we associate with a prohibition. In fact, though, the Torah expresses the mitzvah with the words te’anu et nafshoteikhem, you shall afflict your souls, Vayikra 16;29.

Eating and drinking certainly count as inuy. Rambam says tradition told us to include the other examples, washing, anointing, shoes, and marital relations, making clear he thought these were not included in the literal/legal meaning of te’anu, although he does not clarify their exact status.

The Inuyim of Uncertain Origin

Sifra suggested a verse, the Torah’s calling the day a Shabbat Shabbaton, teaching Sifra there must be shevut, rest, including, according to Sefer HaChinukh, shevitah, desisting, from eating and these other forms of bodily care. I think he is trying to explain how Sifra was deriving it, is arguing shevitah in terms of our bodies most likely meant these.

Why these expressed that rest is not clear, I think the reason Rambam says it is a kabbalah, a tradition. Sefer HaChinukh 313 calls the non-food and drink practices derabbanan, the reason they are only disallowed when done for pleasure; washing to remove a specific piece of dirt, for example, is allowed. [Tosafot think these inuyim are an example of a category I find fascinating, Biblical obligations the Torah left up to Chazal to define.]

More surprisingly, passing through water for some valid purpose—including to watch one’s field!—is allowed as well. Arukh HaShulchan 613;11, however, warns us to be sure not to wring out one’s clothing nor to walk through fast-flowing water higher than one’s waist, something he thinks prohibited on any day, lest the person be dragged away by the water (he knows people can swim, although it is not allowed on Yom Kippur, yet still thinks it disallowed to walk in such water).

His teachers ruled that only leather shoes count as shoes, the source of our practice to allow all other forms of footwear, however comfortable.

And a Prohibition, the Way We Get to Karet

Rambam also has Prohibition 196 (as does Sefer HaChinukh 316, although he says nothing new there, just refers us to 313), a warning against eating on Yom Kippur, based on Vayikra 23;29, which establishes karet for anyone who does not afflict their souls as required.

[Note: he defines the aseh, the obligation, in terms of the tenth of Tishrei, where he locates the prohibition on tzom kippur, the fast of atonement. I think he does this based on where in the Torah the verses appear; the selection in Acharei Mot describes the atoning service of Yom Kippur and obligates us to afflict our souls on this day, the day itself is only called the tenth of Tishrei. Seven chapters later, where the prohibition appears, the Torah calls the day Yom HaKippurim. But Rambam does not say.]

Rambam admits the Torah never actually prohibits eating, it only announces a karet for failing to adhere to the required soul affliction, from which he infers a prohibition. The opening Mishnah in Kereitot included eating on Yom Kippur among the sins with a karet punishment, then explicitly said only the willful failure to offer a Pesach sacrifice or to circumcise oneself were obligations with a karet, clearly indicating the Mishnah took the issue of eating on Yom Kippur to be a prohibition. Also, only a prohibition leads to a chatat sacrifice for unwitting violation, and Yom Kippur eating does lead to such sacrifices.

The Why

Sefer HaChinukh’s reason for the mitzvah can enrich our observance of the day, I think. He writes his ideas as if they are only one reason, but they seem to me to be three. First, eating, drinking, and all other sensual pleasures focus us on our material side, the side that has excessive appetites and leads to sin, that competes with our wiser soul, hinders it from its search for the truth of how best to serve God. A complete reason right there—we should minimize our physical, project our better selves, on Yom Kippur.

The rest of the sentence may mean only that. He says it is improper for a servant being judged by his master to come before the master with a body filled with food and drink, a mind filled with the kinds of thoughts brought on by such food and drink. I can see this independently, having physical pleasure on the day doesn’t take the judgment seriously enough, although I think he means it to continue the previous.

Third, he says we are judged as we are at that moment, making it a plus to uplift our wiser, spiritual sides, reduce our material sides. Again here, the idea stands on its own, and has remarkable implications: despite our past, and our patterns, and the likelihood those will continue, Sefer HaChinukh thinks God chooses to judge us as we are right in the moment of Yom Kippur. Because who we are right now could be who we will be going forward as well.

Some Details

Although eating in halakhah usually means an olive’s worth, the standard for Yom Kippur stems from the definition of the prohibition, not being me’aneh. An olive’s worth was not thought to interrupt a state of inuy, soul affliction, and therefore Yoma 80a says the amount is a large date, slightly less than an egg’s worth, where drinking is melo lugmav, the amount of liquid to fill one cheek.

The Gemara recognizes people come in different sizes, yet insists this is the amount for everyone, will break the soul affliction to a greater or lesser extent for each person, but is the standard for all. [An example of a much larger question, when a standard depends on the person and when it is objective and universal. Soul affliction seemed a good candidate to be person-specific, yet the Gemara explicitly decides the other way.]

Arukh HaShulchan Orakh Chayyim 612;1 claims both these ideas—inuy is broken with a ka-kotevet ha-gasah, a large date, and that that is the amount for all kinds of foods and sizes of people– are halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, oral traditions going back to Moshe Rabbenu.

Yom Kippur for the Infirm and Ill

The main application of these sizes, in our times, is for those who cannot fast. If possible, without any danger to their health, the person could eat and drink (eating and drinking do not combine for our purposes, says Sefer HaChinukh) less than these amounts, and wait enough time to interrupt between eatings (a kedei akhilat peras, enough time to eat three or four eggs’ worth, for food, and the time it takes to drink a revi’it, for drink), the person will not have had to push aside the rules of Yom Kippur.

To allow such eating takes only the person’s insisting s/he needs it. Where the person claims not to need it, the instructions of an expert doctor are still enough to permit (and to pressure the person involved to agree to eat or drink, as the doctor said).

For children, who have a rabbinic obligation to be prepared for Jewish adulthood, Sefer HaChinukh reports numerous traditions, starting as early as four years before adulthood, with full fasts starting two years before, to as lenient as only having a full Yom Kippur a year before for girls, never until age thirteen for boys. [I grew up with the rumor that if a child ever fasted a whole day, s/he then had to do so from then on, and only fasted a full fast the three before bar or bat mitzvah.]

There’s Always Room for Dessert

To close on an impractical but less forbidding note, Arukh HaShulchan in paragraph five discusses akhilah gasah, eating when so full it feels damaging, as if it will make one physically ill. It’s a hard category to define specifically, and varies by person, but if someone cannot eat anymore without it being hurtful, any such eating would not violate Yom Kippur (I’ve finished the preparatory meal feeling like that, but it dissipates quickly, making this, usually, a curiosity rather than a practical detail of halakhah).

He adds an exception: dessert. There, people often if not always have room, raising the bar for exemption as akhilah gasah much higher. We, of course, would never eat on Yom Kippur anyway, as we afflict our souls in response to God’s command, a way to help us present ourselves best to our Father, King, and Judge, hoping we all again are granted a gemar chatimah tovah.

About Gidon Rothstein

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