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Thought for the Day: Eating on Erev Yom Kippur

Hilchos Yom Kippur (Shulchan Aruch, OC 604:1) begins by explaining that it is a mitzvah to eat on erev Yom Kippur and to increase both the size and number of meals.  The Rema adds further that it is a actually forbidden to fast.  The Mishna Brura notes that this doesn't mean mitzvah as in "a nice idea if you can"; it actually means there it is a real, live mitzvah d'oraisa/commandment from the Creator to eat on erev Yom Kippur.  There is something pretty cool going on here.

First, this mitzvah is revealed to us by the statement (Vayikra 23:32): You shall afflict yourselves (ie, fast, etc) on the 9th of the month (that would be Tishrei) from evening to evening.  Since we know that Yom Kippur is on the 10th of Tishrei, Chazal tell us that means that you need to eat on the ninth.  Why does it say to fast when it means to eat?  Because the reward for a mitzvah increases with difficulty.  It's easy to eat, but HaShem wanted to give us the reward appropriate to fasting, so He said to afflict ourselves when He meant to eat more.  Huh?  To understand that, we need to understand the reason for this mitzvah.

There are basically three reasons given.  The first reason is to prepare for the fast.  Yes, yes; for us fat Americans (35% of American adults are obese) taking a day off from eating is actually pretty healthy, normal people need to prepare for a day of not eating by eating more the day before.  According to that, the eating on erev Yom Kippur is to enable us to fast on Yom Kippur itself and it certainly makes sense to be rewarded for that eating as if it is fasting, since that eating is enabling the fasting.

The second reason mentioned is to make the fasting on Yom Kippur harder.  This is not, as is seems at first glance, a contradiction to the first reason (Rashi says both, in fact).  Instead, the first is addressing the physical dimension of fasting, this second the psychological.  Eating more on the 9th makes the fasting on the 10th more of a contrast and makes us feel the loss of meals more acutely.  I once made a siyum on Mishna Brura on the 8th of Av specifically for that reason.  Since I wouldn't be able to learn (what I wanted, anyway) Tisha b'Av, I was fortifying myself with divrei Torah.  On the other hand, the vacuum left by not being able to open a sefer was that much more palpable.  Because these two reasons are based on being a preparation for the fast, there is a discussion among the poskim if one who cannot fast on Yom Kippur needs to eat on the 9th.

I saw a third reason this year in the name of Rabeinu Yona.  Since Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, we should be eating, but we can't eat because the mitzvah of the day is to fast.  The Torah therefore moved the mitzvah of eating on Yom Kippur to the day before.  Isn't that cool?  That explains also why we don't say tachanun on erev Yom Kippur -- it's a bit of a Yom Tov itself.  On the other hand, we do say tachanun on the mincha preceding erev Yom Kippur.  Morever, there is no mitzvah to take "early 9th of Tishrei".  You can (according to most poskim) start eating in the evening before erev Yom Kippur, but only after tzeis ha'kochavim.  (That would affect someone who only eats meat on days we don't say tachanun, for example.  He would be able to starting chewing animal flesh starting from being able to see three medium stars.)

Lots more really cool details; take a look at the Dirshu Mishna Brura.  Just careful about crumbs.

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