The standard practice for many decades is that Yeshiva students partake of a light snack before Tekiat Shofar during the services conducted at Yeshivot. The motivation for this practice is the fact that Tefillah on Rosh Hashana in Yeshivot usually lasts until late in the afternoon. After the Tekiot have commenced, one may not engage in any הפסק, such as conversation, until after the one hundred blasts of the Shofar have been sounded (Shulchan Aruch 592:3). Thus, the last opportunity to eat before the conclusion of the services is before Tekiat Shofar.
Many Halachic authorities (e.g. Rav Zvi Pesach Frank, Mikra’ei Kodesh Yamim Noraim 29 and Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 5:111) have sanctioned this practice and have endeavored to demonstrate its Halachic basis. However, some leading Rabbis have opposed this practice. For instance, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein does not partake of the snack before Tekiat Shofar in Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin vociferously opposed this practice in his writings and communications with leading Rabbis. His grandson, Rav Yehuda Henkin, continues his grandfather’s practice of vigorously opposing this practice (Teshuvot Bnei Banim 1:14-15). We will try to present both sides of this argument regarding the practice of Yeshivot.
Eating Before Performing Mitzvot
The Mishna that appears on Sukkah 38a records the Halacha that if one began to eat on Sukkot before performing the Mitzva of Lulav, he must interrupt his meal and take the Lulav. The obvious implication of this rule is that one may not eat until he has taken the Lulav. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 652:2) codifies this rule.
This rule seems to apply to all Mitzvot due to concern that if one eats before performing the Mitzva he may forget to perform that Mitzva. For example, one may not eat a meal before he has recited Mincha (see Shabbat 9b and Shulchan Aruch O.C. 232:2-3). The Rama (O.C. 692:4) cites the Terumat Hadeshen (109) that one may not eat before the recitation of the Megilla even if he finds fasting difficult. In fact, Rav Hershel Schachter has suggested that this is the basis of the Ashkenazic practice for a couple not to eat on the day they marry. Thus, Rav Henkin argues that the practice of the Yeshivot is incorrect.
The Defense of the Teshuvot Hitorerut Teshuva
Nevertheless, Poskim have endeavored to defend this practice. Rav Shimon Sofer (son of the Ktav Sofer) presents a defense in his Teshuvot Hitorerut Teshuva, responsum 225. He notes that the Mishna, Gemara, and Shulchan Aruch never explicitly record a prohibition to eat before hearing Tekiat Shofar. He suggests that there is no prohibition to eat before Tekiat Shofar because the concern that one may forget to blow the Shofar is not relevant. This is because the fear of Hashem’s judgment pervades the mood on Rosh Hashana, and we will certainly not forget to blow Shofar. We say in the Piyut, בשופר אפתנו, we seek to “entice” Hashem to judge us mercifully by blowing the Shofar. We will certainly not forget to use our most potent “defense mechanism” on the day that Hashem judges us.
A precedent for this approach is the ruling that one may read a Machzor by candlelight on Yom Kippur night. Reading by candlelight is forbidden every other Shabbat and Yom Tov lest one come to adjust the light. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 275:8) records the accepted practice that this rabbinical prohibition does not apply on Yom Kippur night because, “the fear of Yom Kippur is upon them.”
Those who criticize the practice of the Yeshivot point out an ancient source that appears to forbid eating before Shofar blowing. The Tosefta (Shabbat 1:4) states that one must interrupt to hear Shofar blowing. The Magen Avraham (O.C.692:7) and the Mishna Berura (692:15) both understand the Tosefta to be speaking about the obligation to interrupt eating if he has yet to hear Tekiat Shofar. However, Rav Yehuda Amital (in a lecture in which he defended the practice of the Yeshivot – including Yeshivat Har Etzion – summarized in Daf Kesher 1:416-418) endeavors to demonstrate that the Tosefta is speaking about the obligation for even the most devout and committed Torah scholars to interrupt their studies to hear Shofar blowing.
Teshuvot Hitorerut Teshuva presents another reason why Chazal did not forbid eating before Tekiat Shofar. He notes that the Mishna and Gemara (Rosh Hashana 30b) indicate that during the era when the Sanhedrin established the calendar based on witnesses’ sightings of the moon, they would not blow Shofar until witnesses came to testify that they sighted the “new moon.” The witnesses most often would not appear until the latter part of the day. The Hitorerut Teshuva argues that Chazal did not impose a prohibition to eat until Tekiat Shofar because it would constitute too great a burden to require everyone to wait until the end of the day to eat. Rav Amital notes that although this argument is quite creative, it does appear to be somewhat far-fetched.
Snacking Before Performing a Mitzva
The Mishna Berura writes both in the context of the prohibition to eat before taking the Lulav (652:7) and reading the Megila (692:16) that in case of great need one may snack before performing these Mitzvot. Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Moadim U’zmanim 1:4) argues that there is a great need for every Yeshiva student to eat before Shofar blowing. Rav Shternbuch points out that there is an obligation to rejoice somewhat on Rosh Hashana (see Rambam Hilchot Chanuka 3:6 and Mishna Berura 597:1). In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C.597:1) writes that “we eat, drink, rejoice, and do not fast on Rosh Hashana.” Rav Shternbuch argues that one can hardly rejoice on Rosh Hashana if he does not eat anything until the late afternoon. Moreover, there is a prohibition to fast past Chatzot (midday) on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Shulchan Aruch 288:1 and Mishna Berura 529:1). Thus, he argues that there exists a great need to partake of a light snack before Tekiat Shofar to avoid violating this prohibition.
One should note that the Halacha rigorously defines snacking. The Shulchan Aruch (232:3) writes that snacking is considered consuming bread less than “the size of an egg.” The Mishna Berura (232:34-35) adds that consuming pasta or cake less than the size of four eggs is also considered snacking (see Mishna Berura 168:24). The Mishna Berura adds that an unlimited amount of fruit and non-alcoholic beverage is still considered just “a snack.”
Rav Yehuda Henkin’s Responses
Rav Yehuda Henkin responds that the Mishna Berura (597:2) rules that there is no prohibition to fast on Rosh Hashana until Chatzot, unlike Shabbat and Yom Tov. Rav Henkin also argues that partaking of a snack is permitted only for individuals who have a unique need to eat before Tekiat Shofar, not an entire Yeshiva population. He cites the Teshuvot Chatam Sofer (Yoreh Deah 7) who permitted an epileptic to partake of a snack before Shofar blowing because doctors advised him that not eating for a prolonged period may cause him to have a seizure. This responsum indicates that only in an extraordinary situation does Halacha sanction snacking before Tekiat Shofar. Moreover, Rav Shternbuch notes that some prominent Acharonim forbid snacking before performing a Mitzva. These include Rav Akiva Eiger, the Bait Meir, and the Mateh Efraim.
Rav Henkin goes as far as to say that if it is necessary for one to eat before the conclusion of services on Rosh Hashana he should eat after the first group of Shofar blasts (the Tekiot D’meyushav, in which the individual fulfills his basic obligation to hear Tekiat Shofar). He reasons that even though the Shulchan Aruch rules that one may not talk from the beginning of Tekiat Shofar until all one hundred blasts have been sounded, this is only forbidden by a Gaonic ruling. Rav Henkin argues that it is preferable to violate a Gaonic ruling than to violate a rule that appears in the Gemara. In addition, Rav Henkin marshals many Rishonim who do not subscribe to the Gaonic ruling.
We see that there is a Halachic basis for the practice of Yeshiva students to eat before Tekiat Shofar. However, we also see that the arguments defending the practice are debatable, and we can appreciate the position of those who do not snack before Tekiat Shofar.