Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, begins at sunset on September 19, 1999 and ends September 20, 1999 at nightfall. Throughout the entire Yom Kippur, we engage in prayers of repentance. Our fates for the coming year are sealed on this day. We refrain from partaking of physical pleasures so that we can stay focused on the task at hand. One action we refrain from on Yom Kippur is eating.
Our Sages have written “All who eat on the ninth of Tishrei (the day before Yom Kippur) it is considered as if they fasted on the ninth and tenth.” Why is eating the day before Yom Kippur a practice that carries with it such significance? Furthermore, if the time before Yom Kippur is one that is to be spent engaged in repentance, reciting prayers which evidence our contrition, and preparing ourselves for the ultimate judgement day, why, then, are we to eat? What role does eating play in the repentance process?
Rabbi Yehonasan Eibshitz explained that our eating on the day before Yom Kippur is part and parcel of the repentance process. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) tell us that a person who is confronted with an opportunity to commit the same sin they have previously committed should be sure to distance themselves from the opportunity and not sin. G-d instructed Adam, the first man, not to partake of the fruit of a certain tree. However, Adam did not heed the word of G-d, and he ate from the fruit of that tree. The first sin, and therefore the root of all sin, stemmed from an action of eating. On the day before Yom Kippur, we actively attempt to rectify the consequences of that sin. We take the very action that was an action of sin and use it in the proper service of G-d. We eat, and engage in activities related to eating, so we can show that we have learned from past errors. We now engage in earthly activities not for our personal pleasure, but in our service of G-d. This demonstration right before Yom Kippur prepares us as we are about to reach the pinnacle of the High Holidays, the Days of Judgement.
The commandment to eat right before Yom Kippur additionally sends us a lesson in human nature. We elevate eating from an action required for the sustenance of life to a commandment of G-d for which we receive reward. On the day before Yom Kippur, we often find that it becomes difficult to eat, we have no appetite, we have no time to have meal. Whereas on other days we have no problem grabbing a bite to eat, on the day before Yom Kippur, eating becomes a chore. Why is there a change? The Talmud alludes to this situation, and tells us that with any simple task that involves minimal effort, when it becomes a Mitzvah, the Evil Inclination takes hold of us and convinces us that the task is actually a major chore. The requirement to eat before Yom Kippur is no different. Right before Yom Kippur, we have an easy opportunity to prove how we can overcome the urging of our Evil Inclination.
The Chofetz Chayim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, used to pose the following question: If a person is presented simultaneously with opportunities to perform two different Mitzvos, one easy to fulfill and ne difficult to fulfill, and he can only perform one, which one should he chose? The Chofetz Chayim offered this parable: A man was in the market to purchase a valuable gem. However, he knew little about what to look for in a gem, and had no idea how to determine if the prices merchants were offering him were in line with the true value of the stones. When discussing this quandary with a friend, he was given a piece of advice. He went out, sought an expert in gem appraisals, and engaged this professional to assist him in his hunt for a precious gem.
When we want to know the “worth” of the Mitzvah, we can turn to one certifiable expert: the Evil Inclination. The Evil Inclination “deals” with Mitzvos constantly, knows the value of each one, and attempts to convince people to refrain from performing these good deeds accordingly. Therefore, if we are confronted with two Mitzvos, one more difficult than the other, we already have our answer about which one is “worth” more. The Evil Inclination exerts more effort to dissuade us from performing the more valuable Mitzvos. The one we find more difficult must be the one that is worth more, and therefore must be the one we should endeavor to perform.
Yom Kippur is almost upon us. In these few hours before we embark on the most important journey of the year, or perhaps our lives, we must consider how we conduct our lives. We are able to take the mundane and make it into the holy. We can overcome the challenges the Evil Inclination sets before us. Keeping proper perspective on what we are doing and how and why we are doing it is the key to a good year. With each morsel we taste on the day before Yom Kippur, we are reminded of these important lessons. This is more than food for thought; this is food for life!
May we all merit to be sealed for a year full of all of the blessings G-d can bestow upon us.
Check out all of the posts on Elul and Rosh HaShana. Head over to http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/ to access the YomTov Page. Then click on the icon for the holiday of your choice.
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.