Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 8 October 2016 / 6 Tishri 5777

Yom Kippur, Day of Rest

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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In describing the prohibitions of the day, the Rambam says:

There is a positive commandment to rest from work on the tenth day of the seventh month, as it says, "a Shabbat of Shabbatot it shall be to you…”

Anything that one is prohibited to do on Shabbat one is prohibited to do on Yom Kippur…

There is another mitzvah on Yom HaKippurim: to rest from eating and drinking… it is (also) a mitzvah to rest from these (washing, anointing, wearing shoes, and marital relations), the same way that one rests from eating and drinking …

  • (Hilchot Shevitat Asor 1:1-5)

Being that every word the Rambam writes is precisely and accurately chosen, we must question the Rambam's use of the peculiar term of "resting" from eating and drinking. After all, the Rambam could have simply written that it is prohibited to eat and drink on Yom Kippur.

Furthermore, the title that the Rambam chose for the halachot that pertain to Yom Kippur is "Shevitat Asor" (the resting of the tenth). Once again, we see that the Rambam opted for the term "rest" over the term "prohibition." What lesson can we learn from this understanding of “resting” on Yom Kippur?

As is evident from the above, the Rambam first uses the term "rest" when it comes to refraining from work on Yom Kippur. The Rambam then says that the same way one rests from melacha (work) on Yom Kippur, he is meant to rest from eating and drinking, washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. Since the Rambam compares resting from melacha on Yom Kippur to Shabbat, and also because the pasuk refers to Yom Kippur as “Shabbat Shabbaton,” we first need to delve into the idea of resting on Shabbat to understand the essence of resting on Yom Kippur.

Describing the prohibition of working on Shabbat, the Torah says, “Six days you shall work and accomplish all your work.” The Midrash elaborates on the pasuk and says, “When Shabbat comes, it shall be in your eyes as if all your work is done so that you shouldn’t think about work” (see Rashi to Shemot 20:9). On Shabbat it is not enough to refrain from work. Rather, one must see all of his work as if it is already done. This means that the ideal way of fulfilling the mitzvah of resting on Shabbat is not through overcoming the urge to work, but rather, it is through being so involved spiritually that work is no longer on one’s mind. This is the definition of true rest with regards to Shabbat. What can we learn from this idea with regards to Yom Kippur?

The commentaries explain that one idea behind the five prohibitions on Yom Kippur is to help us separate ourselves from physicality so that we can do real teshuva without being dragged down by our physical lusts. Just like one is obligated to rest from melacha performance on Shabbat by immersing himself in the spiritual, one is obligated to rest from physical indulgence by becoming spiritually elevated on Yom Kippur. Furthermore, similar to the idea of not even thinking about work on Shabbat, on Yom Kippur it is not enough to refrain from eating and drinking. One must try to reach the level where he is so far removed from physicality that eating and drinking are no longer on his mind. This is what the Rambam means when he says that one must rest from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur.

It follows from the above that a person who spends Yom Kippur continuously thinking about how hungry and tired he is, has, in a way, missed the point of the day. To be concerned with one’s physical needs on Yom Kippur is the exact opposite of what should engulf a person on this day. In a practical sense, though, we must still ask: How is it physically possible not to feel hunger at all when one has not eaten for over 24 hours?

Every person has times when he is so focused on the task at hand that he forgets his physical needs altogether. This can happen when one is engrossed in a good book, is in the midst of a conversation with someone he admires, is faced with a certain feeling of stress or pressure, or is simply in awe of a grand sight, and the concentration on the task at hand simply overshadows all thoughts of bodily desires. This is where we should be on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur our entire beings have to be so engrossed in the spiritual nature of the day that our physical bodily needs should not even be felt. Though this is a lofty level to attain, we should still be striving to reach it since this is how we can truly fulfill the mitzvah of "resting" from physicality on this holy day.

  • Sources: based on Avnei Nezer; Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Kippur, p. 44-45; Ohr Gedalyahu, Moadim, Yom Hakippurim b'bechinat Shabbat; Rav Moshe Shternbach shlita’s Mo’adim u’Zmanim. This is also based on a shiur from Rav Moshe Shapiro, shlita.

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