THOUGHTS ON YOM KIPPUR
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Yom Kippur 5779
This essay is sponsored by the Hoffman family in loving memory of Ruth Hoffman Z”L and in honor of Elana Hoffman’s upcoming 4th birthday.
Two Days of Yom Kippur
The Day of Atonement, known colloquially as Yom Kippur, is, as its name literally indicates, a one-day holiday. It is observed on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27, Numbers 29:7). The essential features of the holiday are the total ban on labor and the obligation to afflict oneself. Both sets of restriction are said to apply בעצם היום הזה “on that selfsame day (Leviticus 23:28-29),” further emphasizing that Yom Kippur properly is observed for only one day.
In the Diaspora, Jews observe two days of Yom Tov for nearly all holidays. In rabbinic jargon, that extra festival day is called יום טוב שני של גלויות. The list of such days includes the second and eighth days of Passover, the second day of Shavuot, the second day of Sukkot, and the second day of Shemini Atzeret. (The second day of Rosh Hashanah is a category unto itself.) The practice does not obtain for Yom Kippur. Yet if the original reason for the doubling of holiday observances was calendrical uncertainty in communities geographically distant from the Judaic authorities of Eretz Yisrael, logic dictates that a second day of Yom Kippur was also necessary. This is all the more so in light of the observance of extra Yom Tov days for Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. If Jews in the boondocks were still unsure about the precise Hebrew date by the sixteenth or twenty-third day of Tishri, a fortiori they lacked such knowledge at the onset of Yom Kippur (a week or two earlier).
Levi (third century CE Palestinian Amora) once visited Babylonia on what Babylonian Jews thought was 11 Tishri. He made a snide remark about how on the day when Israeli Jewry was observing the great fast, the Jews of Babylonia were cooking pleasantly aromatic foodstuffs. The Babylonians then pressed him if he could testify with certainty about the correct calendar date. He conceded that he could not because he had not been present when the court sanctified the New Moon. The Talmud implies that Babylonian Jews did not refrain from eating and working for the remainder of 11 Tishri. They discounted Levi’s calendrical revelation because it lacked appropriate halakhic imprimatur, even if they quietly conceded that as a factual matter he was probably correct. On another occasion, someone approached Rav Nachman upon the conclusion of Yom Kippur (in Babylonia) and alerted him that the following day would, in fact, be Yom Kippur in Eretz Yisrael. Distressed that he would have to observe a 48-hour fast, Rav Nachman flung a nasty barb at the bearer of these unwanted tidings.
The above anecdotes show that, before the era of the fixed calendar, Diaspora Jews did not observe two days of Yom Kippur. Rather, they observed only one day, the thirty-ninth day after the beginning of the month of Elul – that is, on the tenth day after the 29th (and last) day of Elul, which would be 10 Tishri. While it was possible that the outgoing month of Elul could be full (i.e., thirty days) and that Yom Kippur/10 Tishri would, therefore, occur on the fortieth day after the beginning of Elul, that possibility was conveniently ignored. The Babylonian Talmud mentions that Rava (some recensions read Rabbah) was strict for himself and annually observed a two-day Yom Kippur fast. As an aside, the Talmud notes that once Rava turned out to be correct – the real Yom Kippur was on what the Babylonians reckoned as 11 Tishri (Rosh Hashanah 21a).
Yerushalmi notes that there were some Jews in Babylonia who took seriously the calendrical uncertainty and observed a two-day Yom Kippur fast. Among them was the father of Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak. The prolonged fast caused him intestinal damage, from which he died (Yerushalmi Hallah 57c). Rav Hisda criticized those Diaspora pietists. He said that such a prolonged fast was needless and that they should, instead, rely upon the halakhic presumption that the court is not negligent in its duties (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 57b).
There are (at least) two ways to interpret Rav Hisda’s comments: 1) It is unnecessary, and therefore foolish, to risk one’s life by observing a two-day fast, because the court was diligent in arranging the calendar such that Elul never had thirty days (see She’iltot Bo 46). Rav claimed that from the days of Ezra (mid-fifth century BCE) until his own generation there never had been a full Elul (Rosh Hashanah 19b). Such calendrical consistency did not happen by chance; it happened because the court took proactive measures in the months leading up to Tishri to “rig” the calendar in the desired manner. 2) A risky prolonged fast was inappropriate, because if the sages truly believed that a second day of Yom Kippur was appropriate they would have promulgated that enactment for the entire community (Or Zarua 2:281).
In the ascetic culture of medieval Ashkenaz, some leading rabbis did observe a two-day Yom Kippur. In the eleventh century, the most noteworthy of these pietists were Rabbi Judah bar Baruch and Rabbi Isaac ben Eliezer ha-Levi of Worms. Their progeny and disciples perpetuated the custom for several generations (Siddur Rashi 204). The custom spread beyond Germany to northern France, where twelfth century Tosafist Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre observed an extra day of Yom Kippur (Piskei Tosafot Menachot 201). The practice survived in Germany into the early thirteenth century and was observed by such leading figures as Judah he-Hasid and Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel ha-Levi.
Other rabbis were displeased with the custom of a two-day Yom Kippur. Rashi advised his son-in-law not to adopt it (Shu”t Rashi 57). Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna refrained from protesting against the custom in deference to his own teachers who personally adhered to it, but he discouraged anyone else from taking on the practice anew (Or Zarua 2:281). Rabbi Meir Ha-Kohen of Rothenberg (late thirteenth century) struck a devastating intellectual blow against the custom. He noted that only in the era before the fixed calendar did Diaspora Jews observe Yom Tov Sheni out of doubt. After the establishment of the fixed calendar, continued observance of Yom Tov Sheni is no more than the perpetuation of the customs of the forefathers (Beitzah 4b). But since the earlier generations never observed a second day of Yom Kippur, there is no custom to preserve (Hagahot Maimoniyot Shevitat Asor).
In addition to objecting to the practice of a two-day fast because it is dangerous to health, unnecessary, or illogical, several halakhists objected to the specific way in which such practice was observed. People cheated. They ate a snack on the night of 11 Tishri, turning what should have been a 48-hour fast into two distinct 24-hour fasts. If they really believed that 11 Tishri might, in fact, be 10 Tishri and the true Yom Kippur, it would be an egregious offense punishable by Karet to eat shortly after nightfall (see Siddur Rashi, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol lavin 69, Shibbolei ha-Leket 323).
Rabbi Zedekiah ben Abraham of Rome (thirteenth century) suggested that it was no longer feasible to adopt Rava’s two-day Yom Kippur because of a decline of the generations. The Judaic concept of ירידת הדורות usually refers to the relative spiritual inferiority of each generation further chronologically removed from the Sinaitic Theophany. In this instance, the decline meant by Rabbi Zedekiah was the physical one relating to tolerance for hunger pains. The view was that the giants of antiquity could observe a 48-hour fast, but the Jews of medieval Europe were weaklings in comparison. [The fast of Tisha b’Av experienced a similar fate. Although the Temple was destroyed on 10 Av, the sages promulgated that the annual day of mourning would be 9 Av. Pious nationalists Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Avun fasted on both 9 and 10 Av. Rabbi Levi fasted on 9 Av and the night of 10 Av, satisfying himself with a 36-hour fast because he lacked the strength to do more (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 69c). Tur noted that it would be appropriate to fast at least part of the second day, but that because of our physical weakness we do not attempt such feats even on Yom Kippur, let alone Tisha b’Av. Instead, we merely abstain from eating meat on the night of 10 Av and minimize overall consumption on that day (Tur Orach Chaim 558).]
Tur recorded that Hasidim and men of deeds would observe two days of Yom Kippur, inclusive of the full holiday liturgy on the second day. But he noted that his father, Rabbenu Asher, opposed the recitation of holiday prayers on 11 Tishri and was ever ready to facilitate escape from the custom by annulling the vows of those who had previously undertaken it (Tur Orach Chaim 624). Rema mentioned the custom, but discouraged its observance on the grounds that it poses a serious health risk (Orach Chaim 624:5).
Magen Avraham posited several reasons why a quorum of Jews observing an extra day of Yom Kippur ought not to conduct High Holiday services on 11 Tishri but instead should recite the weekday liturgy: 1) It is forbidden to create factions לא תגודדו, an inevitable development as others – likely the majority of the congregation – are not fasting and are conducting the weekday service. 2) Such holiday services would be taken by others as a sign of arrogance on the part of the pietists and would lead to communal discord. 3) Since the sages did not enact 11 Tishri as a holiday, any holiday blessings recited on that date would be unlawful and considered “blessings recited in vain” ברכה לבטלה. Magen Avraham did allow the piyyutim and supplicatory prayers of Yom Kippur to be recited on 11 Tishri. He also ruled that the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy could be recited on that day not as prayer but, rather, because of their status as a Scriptural reading.
Magen Avraham cited two more reasons to discontinue the practice of a two-day Yom Kippur. 1) It is contrary to Ashkenazic custom to fast on any day between Yom Kippur and Sukkot because on those days in antiquity the celebratory dedication of Solomon’s Temple took place. 2) It is a mitzvah to eat on Erev Yom Kippur. If one were to fast on consecutive days, perforce the latter fast would not have been preceded by a day of eating (Magen Avraham 624:7).
In the period of the Acharonim, the two-day Yom Kippur completely fell into desuetude. Rabbi Joel Sirkes, writing in early seventeenth century Poland, knew of no contemporaries who observed the two-day Yom Kippur and was pleased by that development (Bach Orach Chaim 624). Rabbi Abraham Danzig wrote similarly of the absence of the custom in late eighteenth century Gdansk (Chayyei Addam 2:145:43). Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, writing in late nineteenth century Lithuania, depicted the custom as stemming from ancient times and no longer currently observed (Aruch ha-Shulchan Orach Chaim 624:8).
Why did the sages not enact a Diaspora second day of Yom Kippur such that labor was prohibited, even if for reasons of protecting human health they could not impose a 48-hour fast on the general Jewish public? Rabbi Ezekiel Landau answered that the sages do not enact halfway measures. A further suggestion would be to enact a fast, but with the caveat that people could periodically eat a volume of food that fell below the halakhic threshold of eating פחות מכשיעור. Landau posited that this too was rejected because it simply does not compare to the real Yom Kippur (Shu”t Noda b’Yehuda 1 Yoreh De’ah 57).
The most recent instance of Jews’ observing a two-day Yom Kippur was likely in 1941 in Kobe, Japan. Several hundred Lithuanian yeshiva students who escaped across Siberia temporarily found refuge in Japan before moving on to Shanghai, China. The halakhic status of the islands of Japan vis a vis the international dateline was a matter of dispute. For those who regard the halakhic dateline to be 180 degrees east of Jerusalem, the halakhic day of the week in Japan conforms to the international consensus. But for those who hold the halakhic dateline to be 90 degrees east of Jerusalem, Shabbat in Japan is properly observed on Sunday. Uncertain which halakhic opinion to adopt, the yeshiva students in Kobe abstained from labor on Saturday and Sunday each week. But when Yom Kippur approached, the stringent policy of satisfying all rabbinic opinions was no longer feasible. They sent an urgent telegram to Chief Rabbi Herzog of Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Herzog convened a meeting of leading Jerusalemite rabbis. They concluded that Yom Kippur be observed on the conventional day (Wednesday). Chazon Ish dissented. He sent a separate telegram urging the refugee students to observe Yom Kippur on Thursday. An apocryphal account has it that the Rosh Yeshiva fasted for two days, but did so while locked in his private room so that his talmidim would not be tempted to copy his behavior.
In light of the extreme practices described above, we may acknowledge that a 25-hour fast, as difficult as it might be for some, is generally doable for able-bodied adults. The elderly, the infirm, those with specific medical conditions militating against a prolonged fast, pregnant women, and others who need to take precautions should certainly do so, while being aware of the halakhic niceties (amount of food or drink to be taken at any one time) involved in breaking the fast. For the rest of us, let us “afflict our souls” as mandated by Scripture and hope that a day without physical nourishment is, as it is intended to be, a day of intense and uplifting spirituality.