The Day Before
The day before Shabbat or Yom Tov is of course a day of preparation for and anticipation of the coming day. It has no special recognition given by the Torah. Practically, in order to be ready for Shabbat or Yom Tov we must get ready ahead of time. It is similar to the situation when we invite a guest to our home. We don’t prepare for the guest after the guest arrives but rather the house and food are prepared ahead of the guest’s arrival. This preparation indicates your honor and pleasure of the visit and allows you to maximize your time with your invited guest.
However, the day before the Yom Tov of Yom Kippur does have special significance. The 23rd chapter of Sefer Vayikra is known as the parshat Ha’Moadot, the portion of the holidays. This section of the Torah describes in general and with a few details the nature of each Yom Tov. Concerning Yom Kippur it states, verse 32, “It is a day of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves on the ninth of the month in the evening, from evening to evening, shall you rest on your rest day.” Here the Torah goes out of its way to mention the 9th of Tishray, which is the day before Yom Kippur. What is the reason and what is the nature of the affliction on the 9th.
The simple understanding of the verse is that we are commanded by the Torah to begin the fasting of Yom Kippur a few minutes before sunset on the 9th. In that way we are also fasting on the 9th. This understanding is correct. The halacha, based on this verse, is to extend the afflictions of Yom Kippur both a little in the beginning and at the end.
Yet the Talmud Yoma, 81b brings a different explanation to this verse. Chiya the son of Rav from Difti asked a rhetorical question on this verse. “Do we fast on the 9th? We fast on the 10th. So the verse is coming to teach us that whoever eats and drinks on the 9th the Torah considers it (one gets the merit) as though he fasted on the 9th and the 10th.” What is Rav Chiya’s understanding of this verse? How does eating accomplish fasting?
Rashi explains, “The verse is letting us hear from the words ‘you shall afflict yourselves on the 9th’ that you must prepare yourself by eating and drinking on the 9th to fast on the 10th. The Torah went out of its way to use the expression of “affliction,” to say to you that it is considered fasting on the 9th and the 10th.”
According to Rashi, the Torah is telling us that the 9th day is endowed with a special purpose. It has a unique designation, not that it just happens to be the day before Yom Kippur. Its designation is that it is set aside to transform or create a new legal status in the person. By eating and drinking on this day a person attains the status of “prepared to fast.” This is not just a practical concern. Eating and drinking on the 9th creates a mindset and motif body and soul for the coming day of Yom Kippur. Such a person is an enhanced faster, ready to embark on the experience of Yom Kippur. Attaining this personal status “prepared to fast,” is thus a Torah requirement for every individual prior to entering Yom Kippur.
There is however another way to look at this Torah requirement. Not that erev Yom Kippur, the 9th of the month, enhances the person. Rather is serves to enhance the holiness of Yom Kippur itself. In order to accomplish this Torah requirement, there must be a demonstrable difference between the 9th and the 10th. If a person did not to eat much erev Yom Kippur and then go into Yom Kippur, there would be very little or perhaps nothing obvious that distinguishes the 9th from the 10th. However, should a person have a big festive meal on the 9th and then suddenly not eat for the next 24 hours, there would be a very big demonstration and distinction drawn between the 9th and 10th.
What is the cause or the reason for not eating now, on the 10th? What is preventing my enjoyment of food? Just a few minutes ago I was eating to my heart’s content. The cause is Yom Kippur on which day we must completely curtail our eating. Thus the distinction and designation for Yom Kippur is brought about and enhanced by what we do the day before. Eating on erev Yom Kippur is transformed into an “action of mitzvah,” a מעשה של מצוה endowed by the Torah to highlight and set off Yom Kippur from all other days. Not to eat a lot before Yom Kippur begins would actually detract from the sanctity of Yom Kippur. Without the contrast between Yom Kippur and the day before, the very day of Yom Kippur is lacking.
Whether you maintain eating erev Yom Kippur, on the 9th of the month, is an enhancement of the person or an enhancement of the very day of Yom Kippur, all agree it is a mitzvah to have this special meal, סעודה המפסקת, “the meal that breaks.” The message here is not that we come close to God by suffering. God wants us to be prepared for our encounter with Him which takes place on this unique and special day. In God’s kindness to us, He created Yom Kippur for our benefit.
May Hashem grant all of us and the people of Israel a peaceful and productive new year.
גמר חתימה טובה
Rabbi Robert Kaplan