By Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – After outlining the laws for observing a day of atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Torah reiterates: “ye shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening until evening, shall you observe your sabbath.” In its original context, the text can perhaps be most simply understood as saying that the day-long fast (“affliction”) goes into effect on the evening immediately following the ninth day of the month.
In the Talmud, however, Hiyya bar Rav of Difti subjected the verse to a different interpretation. He was responding to his colleague Rav Bebai bar Abayé who had fallen behind in his study schedule and was determined to make up the missing material, even if it required foregoing a proper meal before the onset of the fast.
Hiyya confronted Bebai with the scriptural passage about afflicting our souls on the ninth day of the month and noted that it seems to require fasting on the ninth day as well as the tenth. If that were correct, though, then it would run counter to the Torah’s explicit assertions that the Yom Kippur fast is restricted to the tenth day. To resolve this incongruity Hiyya concluded: “This verse comes to teach you that if a person eats and drinks on the ninth day, scripture counts it as if he were fasting on both the ninth and the tenth days.” That is to say: the meal that you eat before Yom Kippur is as indispensable as the fast itself.
This interpretation was considered valid enough to override even Rav Bebai’s resolve to catch up on his Torah studies.
Why is a pre-fast meal required? Most commentators adopt the obvious explanation, that it is to prevent people from endangering their health by starving themselves.
Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel [the Rosh, 13th century] depicted this as an instance of the Almighty’s doting concern for his people. “It is analogous to a man whose beloved child was ordered to refrain from eating [presumably for medical reasons]. The father issued instructions to provide the lad with ample food and drink on the preceding day to enable him to withstand the fast. In the same manner, the Holy One commanded Israel to fast on only one day of the year for their spiritual benefit, to provide atonement for their sins. However, to mitigate the hardship, he admonished them to eat and drink on the eve of the fast.” This explanation was cited by the Rosh’s son Jacob ben Asher in his authoritative compendium of Jewish law, the Tur.
A very different explanation was propounded by Rabbi Asher’s Italian contemporary, Rabbi Zedekiah Anav of Rome in his compendium of ritual practice Shibbolei ha-Leket. He argued that filling one’s belly before Yom Kippur would turn the fast into a more arduous affliction, thereby strengthening its atoning power.
Rabbis Zedekiah and Jacob ben Asher both adduced texts to demonstrate that Jews in Talmudic times regarded a lavish pre-Yom Kippur meal as an important mitzvah that gave rise to intense commerce in meat and fish, equivalent to the major scriptural festivals—and even a readiness to purchase holiday food at exorbitant prices.
Rabbi Zedekiah cited in the name of his brother Rabbi Benjamin that the rabbis’ insistence on a conspicuous repast on the ninth of the month was intended to demonstrate their rejection of the “Sadducees” who interpreted the scriptural text as calling for a two-day fast. I am not aware of any other evidence for the observance of a two-day Yom Kippur fast by either the ancient Sadducees or the medieval Karaites.
The sixteenth-century Kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero explained the importance of the pre-festival repast as a solution to a dilemma created by contradictory themes inherent to the Day of Atonement. In principle, a joyous mood is an essential component in the observance of all positive commandments – including that of repentance. This seems to clash with the mood of submission and trepidation appropriate to penitents. However, by enjoying a fine meal before the festival’s onset we can fulfil the obligation to rejoice on a holy day. Indeed, Rabbi Jonah of Gerona observed that the meal attests to our joy at the prospect of achieving atonement for our misdeeds.
Rabbi Judah Alter of Ger noted that hunger gives rise to irritability and thereby undermines the forgiving mindset appropriate to the season. The feast on the ninth and the fast on the tenth thus become equally necessary ingredients in the procedure for atonement.
In a similar spirit, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook distinguished between two complementary dimensions of the repentance process. The self-affliction on the tenth of Tishrei is designed to restore the loving and reverent spiritual relationship that ought ideally to prevail between humans and their creator. However, to counteract the damage caused by specific misdeeds, it is necessary to perform concrete mitzvahs. For this reason, it was ordained that prior to the Yom Kippur fast we are granted an opportunity to restore the virtuous relationship that was impaired by our sins. However, because there are so few activities that can be performed on the holy day itself, it does not provide a convenient mechanism for scoring bonus points by performing deeds that can compensate for our transgressions.
This, concluded Rabbi Kook, is why we make a point of eating and drinking prior to Yom Kippur. It allows us to acknowledge the Creator and accumulate merit by performing some practical mitzvot like reciting the appropriate blessings and observing the dietary laws.
Viewed this way, we may better appreciate why eating on the ninth day is deemed equivalent to fasting for both days. In the end, this combination provides us with the opportunity to make reparations and seek forgiveness for our moral failings during the previous year.
It’s an opportunity not to be missed. Don’t be late for dinner.
Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.