After Yom Kippur
I could use your help with a ruling that I don’t understand.
But first, a little background:
A long time ago – so long ago that I do not think we have a clear understanding of how this happened – the religious leadership of the Jewish people proposed prohibitions on various foodstuffs when produced by non-Jews. The goal of this campaign had a little to do with kashrut or idolatry, but mostly with creating social distance between Jews and non-Jews.
Then, as now, the question of how much isolation we would need to survive as a minority community generated controversy.Some of these prohibitions held, and have become part of the usual codes of Jewish law.
Some did not – no one pays attention to Shemen Akum, the proposed ban on olive oil from non-Jewish producers. The product was just too important, and the hardship involved too great. Some of the prohibitions wound up in between. Pat Akum, the proposed prohibition on bread baked by non-Jews, did not get totally rejected, but neither did it become a regular part of Jewish observance. Some people kept the prohibition, most did not.
Now for the ruling that I do not understand. Shulhan Arukh rules that during the ten days of penitence, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, even people who do not usually observe a prohibition on Pat Akum should do so (Orah Hayyim 603:1).
I understand that the ideal model of repentance, of teshuvah, involves making a lasting improvement. I do not understand taking on a stricture until after Yom Kippur, and then snapping back to where we were before. Snapping back seems to me the opposite of what we should do as Yom Kippur ends.
One of the rabbis in Kohelet Rabbah, the Midrash on Ecclesiastes, discusses the end of Yom Kippur in his analysis of a verse in Ecclesiastes. Naturally – naturally in the Midrash Rabbah collection, anyway – other rabbis interpret the verse differently. The verse reads:
ט:ז לֵךְ אֱכֹל בְּשִׂמְחָה לַחְמֶךָ, וּשְׁתֵה בְלֶב-טוֹב יֵינֶךָ:
כִּי כְבָר, רָצָה הָאֱלֹקים;
“Go eat your bread happily and drink your wine joyously, for the God has already approved of your deeds.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
The rabbi explains that on the evening after Yom Kippur, you should eat and drink in confidence that God has found your righteous, has forgiven your sins, and approves of you.
Now I know some people who feel confident that God approves of their actions. It is not an attractive confidence. I do not want to be like them, with their confidence.
But I think I can get at what the rabbi means. After the long day of introspection, of looking at our many faults and shortcomings – our prayer book includes ten recitations of the confession during the course of the day – a person might not end Yom Kippur feeling the exaltation of forgiveness and atonement. A person might just feel unworthy and despondent. Too much focus on sin and failure could leave a person depressed.
So the rabbi in the Midrash teaches that one has permission to feel joyous, liberated from failures, returned to communion with God. The goal is not to hate yourself, but to set yourself free.
So I think that after Yom Kippur, a person should not snap back to old practices. I think a person should be detectably different as a result of undergoing the process of introspection and repentance. An outsider who observes that person should notice the difference. What difference?
In ritual, the person might have become more punctilious, or have developed more kavvanah, more direction, more focus.
In interpersonal relationships, the person should have become more thoughtful, kind, and empathetic.
In public policy statements, the person should actively advance policies of generosity and compassion.
On Yom Kippur, we have all had the experience of hunger – except those who have had the experience of illness. As the haftarah on the morning of Yom Kippur explains, we should learn from that experience to alleviate the pain of those who experience hunger not by choice.
On Sukkot, in just few days, we will have the experience of dining al fresco, like a picnic, outside in the fresh air, and, who knows, maybe sleeping outside as well, without the protections of our walls, and without central heating. We should support policies that help those people who dine al fresco all the time, and not by choice, or who sleep on the streets.
And those changes should not just snap back.