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Why is it a mitzvah to eat well on the day before Yom Kippur? Well, one reason is obvious. But there is another, equally important reason.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

Did you know that it is a mitzvah — no, an obligation — to eat on the day before Yom Kippur? That’s right. “Big Meals” in fact. Let’s see the source for this practice.

The Torah tells us “You shall fast on the ninth day of the month [of Tishrei]. (Leviticus 23:2). Now this verse is extremely weird. It might not be an exaggeration to say it is the strangest verse in the entire Torah. This is because Yom Kippur is NOT on the ninth day of the month…it’s on the 10th day of the month! I kid you not! It appears as if the Torah is telling us to observe Yom Kippur on the day before we do! What’s going on over here? Are the Jewish people going against the Torah? Are we observing Yom Kippur on the wrong day?

The Talmud explains that the Torah is telling us that those who indulge and eat on the ninth day are considered as if they had fasted on both the ninth and 10nth of the month! We know that Yom Kippur is on the 10th day of the month. That is the tradition. It is everywhere. The Torah itself even says so in a different context. But it is this verse from where we learn that eating on the day before Yom Kippur is a mitzvah and we are given “credit” as if we fasted two days!

Why is it a mitzvah to eat well on the day before Yom Kippur? Well, one reason is obvious…so that we won’t be hungry on Yom Kippur (or at least that we be as comfortable as possible!. But there is another, equally important reason.

On every holiday there is an obligation to eat a meal. On Sukkot, there is an obligation to eat a meal. On Passover, there is an obligation to have a meal. On Rosh Hashana there is an obligation to have a meal. Yom Kippur is the same. However, it is forbidden to eat a meal on Yom Kippur, we eat the Yom Kippur holiday meal on the day before! As such, the meal eaten on the day before Yom Kippur is a celebratory holiday meal, just like the others.

A Very Happy Day

This should also help illustrate that Yom Kippur is a very happy day. Unfortunately due to the restrictions of Yom Kippur, many people mistakenly believe that Yom Kippur is a sad day. The reverse is true…the restrictions, as uncomfortable as they may be, are meant to free us from our physical reality and better connect to the spiritual. Furthermore, the day that God forgives his children is certainly a happy day!

There is a widespread custom to eat fish at the meal before Yom Kippur based on the following story: It once happened in Rome on Erev Yom Kippur that a Jewish tailor went to the market to buy fish. There was only one fish available, but there were two buyers: the tailor and the servant of the Roman governor. Each offered a progressively larger sum until the price reached 12 dinars, which the tailor paid.

During the governor’s meal, he asked his servant: “Why did you not bring fish?” The servant replied: “I shall not hide the truth from my master. I went to buy fish, but there was only one available. A Jew and I haggled over it — each of us offering more than the other — until the price reached 12 dinars. Would you have wanted me to spend 12 dinars on a fish?”

The governor said: “Bring me the Jew!” The Jew was brought. He asked him: “Why did you, a Jewish tailor, see fit to eat a fish that cost 12 dinars?” The tailor replied: “My lord! We have but one day a year in which our sins are forgiven. I want to honor that day! The governor replied: “Since you have explained your behavior, you may go.”

A miracle occurred and when the tailor opened the fish, there was a precious jewel inside that provided him enough money to live out his days.

Wishing you a meaningful fast…and a delicious pre-fast meal!

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