We find ourselves in the season of teshuva, or repentance. We spend this time reflecting on our past behavior, expressing remorse over mistakes that we’ve made in the past and resolving to do better and be better in the future. One of the teshuva practices during the Aseret Ymei Teshuva, the time period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is that one should be strict by eating only Pat Yisrael, bread baked by Jews (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 603:1). Store-bought bread can be kosher even if it was baked by non-Jews, but we try to adhere to the stringency of Pat Yisrael at this time. Why is that? What do we gain if we only adhere to this stringency for ten days (minus Yom Kippur and Tzom Gedaliah, when we can’t eat anyway) and then we return to our non-stringent ways? Are we trying to trick God for ten days that we are elevating our spiritual status and once we receive a favorable verdict on Yom Kippur we return to our old ways? Whom are we fooling?
The Chayei Adam (Rabbi Avraham Danzig, 18th-19th century halachic authority) explains the stringencies during Aseret Ymei Teshuva in the following manner (Chayei Adam, vol. 2-3, #143):
ומצות עשה מן התורה שיחזור בתשובה לפני יום הכיפורים, כמו שכתוב [ויקרא ט”ז ל’] לפני ה’ תטהרו. ולכן מהראוי שיתנהג האדם בעשרת ימי תשובה בדברים וחומרות, אף שאינו נזהר בהם כל השנה, כי גם הקדוש ברוך הוא מתנהג בחסידות עם בריותיו.
“There is a Torah obligation to repent before Yom Kippur, as the Torah states, “Before God you should be pure.” Therefore, it is fitting that a person should conduct himself during the Aseret Ymei Teshuva by engaging in stringencies, even though he is not careful about these stringencies during the rest of the year, because God also engages in piety with His creatures [presumption here that stringencies are acts of piety].”
According to the Chayei Adam, engaging in stringencies during this time period is considered an act of piety. If we engage in an act of piety during the time when we are being judged, then God will act with greater piety, as it were, during this time period, even if we don’t continue our acts of piety after Yom Kippur.
The Levush (Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe, 16th-17th century halachic authority) explains the stringencies during Aseret Ymei Teshuva in a different manner (Levush, Orach Chayim #603:1):
אפילו מי שלא נזהר מפת של גוים בשאר ימות השנה, נוהגין להזהר בו בכל עשרת ימי תשובה, והיינו מראש השנה עד יום כיפור, כדי להנהיג עצמו בטהרה באלו הימים ולזכור שהם משונים למעליותא יותר משאר ימות השנה… כדי להעלות על לבבנו שאנו מובדלים מהם בקדושה ובטהרה ונעשה תשובה:
“Even with respect to those who are not careful about bread baked by non-Jews during the rest of the year, they have a custom to be careful about it during the entire Aseret Ymei Teshuva, meaning from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, in order to accord [themselves] in purity during these days and to remember that they are different in a good way than the rest of the year… [The purpose of this] is to arouse in our hearts that we are separate from them [the non-Jews] in holiness and sanctity and we should repent.”
According to the Levush, the purpose of the stringencies is to act in a more purified way so that we recognize that we are indeed holy and pure. This internalization will inspire us to repent. Perhaps we can expand upon this idea with the following passage from Rav Soloveitchik (“The Rav Speaks, p. 133):
“Repentance is grounded in two principles. 1. On the power within man to accuse himself, and his ability to see himself as unworthy and inferior. In the confessional declaration on Yom Kippur “But Thou art righteous in all that is come upon us; for Thou has acted truthfully, but we have wrought unrighteousness,” the wonderful power of total, unreserved self-accusation is expressed. 2. On the great ability of each individual to cleanse himself, to grasp that the boundless spiritual forces hidden away within the human personality (including that of even the greatest sinner) drive one towards return to God. On the ability of man to raise himself to the greatest heights, if he but wishes it, though he has sunk to the abysmal depths of impurity. The second principle is just as important as the first. A person is unable to repent if he lacks the courage to blame and to condemn himself. Regret is impossible without recognition of sin. On the other hand, one cannot imagine recognition of sin and commitment for the future unless man believes in his creative faculties and ability, and in the powers of his soul that help him to sanctify himself.”
According to Rav Soloveitchik, we must follow two steps in order to achieve repentance. First, we must have the strength to accuse ourselves of past misdeeds and recognize that we need to be better. Second, we need to have the confidence that we can be better. Perhaps, then, the purpose of the stringencies of aseret ymei teshuva is to give us confidence that we can be better. Even if we don’t observe the specific stringencies of the aseret ymei teshuva after Yom Kippur, we leave Yom Kippur confident that we can be better and correct our past misdeeds and live a more refined life because we just demonstrated to ourselves for ten days that we can change. May God help us and may we help each other achieve this holy endeavor.