For the week ending 15 October 2005 / 12 Tishri 5766

Fish of the Sea

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair - www.seasonsofthemoon.com
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However estranged we may feel from our Jewishness, if theres one day in the year that brings out our latent feelings of connection to the Jewish People, its Yom Kippur. Be it a synagogue appearance, or fasting, on Yom Kippur the link to our roots emerges more strongly than any other day of the year.

Whatever kind of life we may be living the rest of the year, on Yom Kippur we try to elevate ourselves a little bit. By fasting and denying our bodies their accustomed pleasures, we downplay the bodys role in the soul/body relationship; we allow ourselves to be more spiritual than physical. On Yom Kippur we emulate the angels. Just as the angels are closer to the Source, so too the Jewish People on Yom Kippur reconnect to their Source.

The Rambam writes that the day of Yom Kippur itself atones of us. The Rambam is not referring to anything that we might do on that day. He is not talking about fasting or the other abstaining required of us on Yom Kippur. He is not talking about a contrite heart pouring itself out in prayer. He tells us that, quite simply, the day of Yom Kippur, those twenty-four hours, contain within them the power to achieve atonement. On Yom Kippur, the day itself brings us closer to our Source.

The Midrash tells of a tailor who bought fish for his meal on the day before Yom Kippur. From this Midrash comes the custom to eat fish on Erev Yom Kippur. No Jewish custom is devoid of deeper meaning. What are the symbolism and the message behind this custom?

The creatures of the sea start their life in water and they live all their days out in water. Their place of origin and their end remain the same. In water they began and in water they die. They never diverge from their source.

A vegetable, on the other hand, starts its life under the ground as a seed, but it does not continue its existence there. At a certain point it emerges into the air. It has left its source and now exists in a different sphere.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish People are at one with our Source. We return to the place from which we came. Just like fish that never leave their source we express our desire to return our source. The eating of fish on Erev Yom Kippur symbolizes the innate connection that we have to G-d.

For this reason the sages of the Mishna, the Tanaim, are called in the Zohar nunay yama, "fish of the sea", because they are at one with the spirituality of the Torah. No separation exists between them and the Torah just as there is no separation between fish and the sea.

Probably, the greatest cause of our straying from the Torah is our desire for pleasure. If the Torah mandated that every Jew should travel around the world eating in the most exclusive non-kosher restaurants, I think a lot more Jews would be religious. We live in a society that places the fulfillment of our material desires and pleasure on the highest plane. Very often societal pressure to achieve and to consume, and to be conspicuous in our consumption leads us to fall foul of the Torahs expectations of us.

The four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water correspond to the Four Exiles of the Jewish People: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The exile of Persia is compared to water. Persia is like a bear that is restless and loves his pleasure. The mystical sources reveal that the source of all pleasure is water. On Erev Yom Kippur, by consuming fish, the creature whose habitat is water, we mend the root of all our eating and desire for pleasure, and by fixing the root we can mend the branches as well.

  • Source - Shem Mishmuel Moadim, p. 103

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