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 (Yoma 81b).
The Gemara teaches that there is a mitzva to 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.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 relate to, or even reflect, the true nature of Yom Kippur?
The Rishonim differ as to how to understand this mitzva. Rashi (ibid.), for example, explains 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. Conversely, Shibbolei HaLeket (307) suggests that one who eats “well” on the day before Yom Kippur will experience more discomfort on Yom Kippur itself. Similarly, R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860–1941) explains 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” [Torah Temimah (Lev. 23, n. 97)].
Rabbeinu Yona (Spain, 1180–1263) presents an alternate perspective of this mitzva:
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 (Shaarei Teshuva 4:8–10).
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.
Correcting the Actions and Correcting the Relationship
Rav Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook (1865–1935) analyzes this mitzva in his Tov Roi (38), and offers another perspective, one which may deepen our understanding. 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 Hashem 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 Hashem your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your children to love Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live (Devarim 30:1–2, 6).
If one “returns” to God, then why must God “circumcise his heart” in order to bring about “the love of Hashem 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.
Indeed, the Rabbis teach:
What is the definition of a ba’al teshuva? 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 ba’al 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.”
This beautiful idea explains why the Talmud equates the ninth and tenth days, as together they compose the complete experience of Yom Kippur. It also challenges us, who are immersed in the physical, mundane world, to maintain our lofty spiritual goals and aspirations, as we bring more sanctity to the world.
Excerpted from Hilkhot Mo’adim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals (Koren, 2013)
Rav David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a member of Beit Hillel and the contributor of 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 (KTAV, 2010), and the recently published Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Jewish Festivals (Koren, 2013).