When I think of Erev Yom Kippur, the first thing that comes to my mind is Gatorade, lots and lots of Gatorade. Eating and drinking to prepare for a twenty five hour fast is common sense. It might seem surprising, however, that Chazal considered eating on Erev Yom Kippur to be a Mitzvah unto itself, and not just preparation for the fast. The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (9a) significantly notes that in Parashat Emor, (VaYikra 23:32) when discussing the requirement of fasting on Yom Kippur (tenth of Tishrei), the Torah interestingly mentions fasting on the ninth day of Tishrei. The Pasuk states “Ve’Initem Et Nafshoteichem BeTisha LaChadoesh.”Why does the Pasuk imply that the fast starts on the ninth, when the Mitzvah clearly begins on the tenth? Chiya bar Rav explains that although the fast begins on the tenth, eating on the ninth counts as fasting on both days, clearly establishing the Mitzvah to eat on Erev Yom Kippur.
The question still remains of why the Torah puts such great emphasis on eating before the fast day. Is it not the sensible course of action? Perhaps this Mitzvah entails more than preparation for the fast.
Rashi, the Rosh, and the Vilna Gaon all opine that the Mitzvah to eat on Erev Yom Kippur is, in fact, to ensure that we are ready for the fast. So what is the novelty of this Mitzvah? As the Rosh explains, the Torah is making a simple yet profound demonstration of Hashem’s love for the Jewish people. Hashem does demand that we fast and “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur, but he still ensures that we are appropriately prepared.
An original approach is mentioned by Rabbeinu Yonah; he suggests that we eat on Erev Yom Kippur either to celebrate the Kaparah of Yom Kippur, or to fulfill the Mitzvah of Simchat Yom Tov which cannot be fulfilled on Yom Kippur itself. There are many practical ramifications regarding these approaches discussed by the Poskim. Would a person who is ill and not required to fast, be obligated to eat on Erev Yom Kippur? Should one eat bread and meat, similar to a standard Yom Tov meal?
However, the notion that Erev Yom Kippur itself may be a time of Simchah, celebrating the Kaparah of Yom Kippur itself, seems counterintuitive, because we have not yet experienced atonement. Would such a celebration not seem appropriate for the hours following the fast?
To better comprehend the celebratory nature of Yom Kippur, we have to consider the essence of Yom Kippur. We often think that the goal of Yom Kippur is for us to receive forgiveness, and the fasting and Viduy (confession of sin) are simply tools to achieve that goal. However, as Rav Soloveitchik commented, the central theme of Yom Kippur is much more than the forgiveness that accompanies it. Rather, it is the experience of being “Lifnei Hashem,” in Hashem’s direct presence, that captures the essence of the day. On Yom Kippur, Am Yisrael enjoys the same intimate connection with Hashem that the Kohein Gadol experienced when entering the Kodesh HaKodashim. With regards to the nature of the day, the Torah states “Ki BaYom HaZeh YeChapeir Aleichem….Lifnei Hashem Tit’haru.” The Kaparah of Yom Kippur can take place only in the presence of Hashem. Therefore, to enhance our experience of being Lifnei Hashem, we emulate the Mal’achim (angels) who bask in Hashem’s presence by fasting.
What permits us, who are limited by our physicality, to properly have such an experience on Yom Kippur? How can we properly experience being “Lifnei Hashem”? Only by preparing ourselves, as the Kohein Gadol did for a seven days prior Yom Kippur, can we appreciate the gift Yom Kippur truly offers. This essential preparation includes the Mitzvah of eating on the day before Yom Kippur.
While there are two contrasting explanations of this Mitzvah that lead to practical differences, they may be the same in essence. Meaning, the Torah ensures we prepare for the fast because that is the only way to properly experience it. As the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 3a) explains with regards to Shabbat, “only one who prepares on Erev Shabbat can eat on Shabbat.” Yom Kippur’s novelty is that our acts of preparation are not ordinary preparation: they demand a celebration of their own. Rav Akiva Tatz elucidates that the difference between Olam HaBa and Olam HaZeh, the main joy we experience in this world is that of accomplishment. In Olam HaBa, where our lives are already complete, there is a unique joy of being in Hashem’s presence. But such an experience is quite difficult to replicate in this world, where we are programmed to grow and accomplish. Perhaps Yom Kippur is meant to connect both of those experiences. Yom Kippur itself is the ultimate day of “Mei’Ein Olam HaBa,” a taste of the world to come. The only way to fully experience Yom Kippur is by celebrating and preparing through the Seudah HaMafseket. We fulfill our physical needs, and in doing so, celebrate the opportunity to be close Hashem.
But there is also the joy of this world which can only be experienced as we work towards a goal. Our ultimate goal is closeness with Hashem, and the consequent elevation of even the most mundane physical activities warrants a celebration. This aptly explains why the Gemara equates eating on the day before Yom Kippur, with fasting on the day itself. By desiring and working towards achieving closeness to Hashem, you have, in a sense, started Yom Kippur early, by bringing Hashem into your domain before entering his. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the same Gemara derives another Halachah from the Torah’s emphasis on the ninth day: the requirement to add to Shabbat and Yom Tov (Tosefet). We always start moments of Kedushah early and extend them beyond their designated time, to emphasize that Chol can be turned into Kodesh. So when prepare to “enter the Kodesh HaKodashim,” we must celebrate our efforts and ensure that every domain of life be experienced Lifnei Hashem.