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Peninei Halakha > Days of Awe (Yamim Nora'im) > 05 – The Ten Days of Repentance

05 – The Ten Days of Repentance

01. Repentance

During the ten days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, God creates life for the upcoming year. So that His kindness does not reach the wicked, He judges all His creations during these days. Since He wishes to benefit all His creatures, and especially His people, through whom He channels shefa and blessing to the world, He is close, during this period, to all who sincerely call out to Him, and He extends His hand to penitents. Therefore, though repentance is always welcome, during these ten days it is more pleasing and is immediately accepted, as we read (Yeshayahu 55:6), “Seek the Lord while He can be found; call to Him while He is near” (Rosh Ha-shana 18a; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:6). During this period, individual repentance is accepted as readily as communal repentance (Pesikta Rabbati).

Therefore, it is proper during this period for a person to examine his actions in order to repent and correct his misdeeds from the past year (Rema OḤ 603:1). One should especially make an accounting of interpersonal matters, as Yom Kippur does not atone for interpersonal sins unless one first placates the person he offended (ibid. 603:4). If one has a disagreement with another about money, he should not decide for himself that he is in the right, as self-interest may blind him. Rather, he should approach a rabbi and ask for guidance. Before going to sleep each night, the pious engage in soul-searching, confess their sins, and return to God (Zohar III, 178a). During the Ten Days of Repentance, everyone should do so (MB 603:2).

Since it is primarily at this time that the world and humanity are judged, Jews customarily take special care to avoid anything prohibited and to increase Torah study, prayer, charity, and good deeds. Additionally, it is customary to wake up early to recite Seliḥot and supplications in the synagogue (MT, Laws of Repentance 3:4).

It is said in the name of Arizal that the seven days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur contain one of each day of the week, so on each day, one should try to improve himself through repentance, Torah study, and good deeds, to rectify whatever spiritual damage he did on that day throughout the year. On Sunday he should correct his misdeeds of Sundays, on Monday of Mondays, and so on (Sha’ar Ha-kavanot 90:3; MB 603:2).

Some have a custom to be more meticulous about various areas of halakha, like kashrut, during this time period (SA 603:1 based on y. Shabbat 1:3). People who rely on a lenient minority opinion during the year, due to various pressures, observe the proper, le-khatḥila practice according to most poskim during this period. For example, during this period it is proper to eat only glatt meat and wash mayim aḥaronim before reciting Birkat Ha-mazon.

The Sages said that one should always view himself – and the world as a whole – as being halfway between guilt and innocence. Since both the world and the individual are judged in accordance with the majority of deeds, a person doing one mitzva can tip the scales toward the side of merit for himself and for the whole world. And woe unto him who does one sin; he may have tipped the scales toward the side of guilt for himself and for the whole world. We read (Kohelet 9:18), “A single sin destroys much good.” One sin can withhold so much good from the perpetrator and from the whole world (Kiddushin 40b).

02. Changes to the Amida

Since when reciting the Amida one must see himself as standing before the King, during the Ten Days of Repentance he must make mention of God’s kingship, which is manifest during these days when He judges His world. If one does not make mention of this, it is as though he is paying mere lip-service to God’s kingship, which is revealed during the Ten Days of Repentance. Accordingly, the Sages changed the conclusion of the third berakha of the Amida from the usual “ha-Kel ha-kadosh” (“the holy God”) to “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh” (“the holy King”). Additionally, the berakha of Hashiva Shofteinu (“Restore our Judges”) ends with “ha-Melekh ha-mishpat” (“the King of justice”) instead of “Melekh ohev tzedaka u-mishpat” (“King Who loves righteousness and justice”).

If someone accidentally concluded the third berakha with “ha-Kel ha-kadosh,” and did not realize his mistake almost immediately (tokh kedei dibur, i.e., within the time it takes to say “Shalom alekha rabbi”), he must begin the Amida again, because the first three berakhot are considered one unit, and one who erred in any of the three must return to the beginning of the Amida.[1] If after finishing the Amida one is uncertain about whether he said “ha-Kel ha-kadosh” or “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh,” he should assume that he said “ha-Kel ha-kadosh” out of habit and must repeat the Amida. However, if he remembers thinking just before reciting the berakha that he must say “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh,” or if he remembers that he inserted “Mi khamokha” (see below), he can assume that he recited “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh,” and need not repeat the Amida (Taz 422:1; MB 582:4).

If one mistakenly concluded the berakha of Hashiva Shofteinu with “Melekh ohev tzedaka u-mishpat” instead of “ha-Melekh ha-mishpat” and did not correct it almost immediately, then according to some Sephardic poskim he has not fulfilled his obligation. Therefore, if he has not yet finished the Amida, he goes back to Hashiva Shofteinu, concludes it correctly, and continues with the Amida. If he has already finished the Amida, he must repeat it from the beginning, but he should stipulate that if he is not actually obligated to repeat it, his prayer should be considered voluntary (SA 118:1; Yeḥaveh Da’at 1:57). In contrast, according to Ashkenazic and some Sephardic poskim, even if he mistakenly concluded “Melekh ohev tzedaka u-mishpat,” he has fulfilled his obligation be-di’avad, since the word “Melekh” is mentioned in this formulation as well. Therefore, even if he did not quickly correct himself, he need not repeat the Amida (Rema 118:1; Ben Ish Ḥai, Nitzavim §19; Kaf Ha-ḥayim ad loc. 1). Since this is the majority custom, it is the appropriate ruling for one who is unsure of his family’s custom.

In addition to the above changes, there are four insertions in the Amida during the Ten Days of Repentance: “Zokhreinu le-ḥayim” in the first berakha, “Mi khamokha” in the second berakha, “U-khetov le-ḥayim” in the berakha of Modim, and “Be-sefer ḥayim” in the final berakha. One who forgot any or all of these additions need not repeat the Amida (SA 582:5).

During the Ten Days of Repentance we recite Avinu Malkeinu during Shaḥarit and Minḥa, as explained in section 6 below.

[1]. Some say that as long as one has not yet begun the next berakha, he may correct himself, even if it is no longer “tokh kedei dibur” (Eshel Avraham [Buczacz]; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 582:9). However, the accepted ruling is that of SA, which states that one who did not realize the mistake almost immediately must repeat the prayer.

03. Torah Study and Acts of Kindness

Torah study is an important basis for repentance, for as a result of Torah study, one comes to observe mitzvot, as the Sages said: “Study is greater, for study leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b). The Sages further said (Berakhot 16a) that just as a stream elevates one who immerses in it from a state of impurity to a state of purity, so too, one who enters the tent of Torah to study diligently is elevated from guilt to innocence.

Study must begin with fear of God, as we read, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Tehilim 111:10). Our Sages similarly state, “The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds” (Berakhot 17a). Therefore, it is proper for every person to set up a time each day to study works of musar, dedicated to self-improvement and character development (Arizal; Vilna Gaon; MB 603:2). During the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, it is particularly appropriate to intensify musar study and to resolve to continue it all year long.

In addition, the mitzva of Torah study is the equivalent of all other mitzvot, because it elevates a person more than other mitzvot. All other mitzvot are performed with body or soul, but Torah study occurs in the most elevated parts of a person – mind and soul. One who studies Torah becomes one with God’s will. Since Torah study is the most sublime of all mitzvot, it has a special power to atone for sins. Thus, our Sages say that even if a person has transgressed a prohibition whose punishment is death at the hands of heaven, he can save himself by increasing Torah study. If he was accustomed to study one page, he should study two; if he usually studied one chapter, he should study two. If he does not know how to study, he can help himself by becoming involved with charitable causes (Vayikra Rabba 25:1).

The Rishonim list regimens of fasting and mortifications in penance for specific sins. Aḥaronim explain that these fasts and mortifications are for those who do not toil in Torah study. Those who study Torah assiduously and whose fear of God is greater than their wisdom find atonement and correction through diligent Torah study (Arizal; Sefer Ḥaredim ch. 65; Shlah; BHL 571:2; Noda Bi-Yehuda OḤ 141:35; below 6:7).

  1. Ḥayim of Volozhin also writes that Torah study atones for all sins, including very serious ones for which even sacrifices cannot atone (Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 4:31). The midrash states: “If a person committed many sins and was condemned to death [in the heavenly court]…but repented, read from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, studied Mishna, Midrash, halakhot and aggadot, and apprenticed under the sages – even if a hundred evil decrees had been made against him, God nullifies them” (Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba 5). This accords with what our Sages tell us about the children of Eli. As a punishment for desecrating God’s name in the Mishkan at Shilo, they and their descendants were condemned to die young. No offering could atone for their offense. Nevertheless, when their descendants studied Torah, they lived longer. When they also performed kind deeds, they lived even longer (Rosh Ha-shana 18a).

Jewish custom is to be especially charitable during the Ten Days of Repentance, as the verse states, “Charity saves from death” (Mishlei 11:4). During this period, it is proper for everyone to engage in soul-searching, particularly with regard to kindness and charity. People should recommit to tithing their earnings to support Torah study and the poor. Those who are well-off should extend their charity and give a fifth of their earnings.

04. Interpersonal Sins

One who wrongs his friend should make up with him as soon as possible, as the longer the friend stays hurt, the greater the sin. Nevertheless, if one did not do so because he was negligent, embarrassed, or unable to placate his friend, he must make a special effort to do so before Yom Kippur. The Mishna states, “Yom Kippur atones for sins that are between man and God; however, Yom Kippur does not atone for sins which are interpersonal, until the offender has placated his friend” (Yoma 85b). Even if he were to sacrifice all the animals in the world, and pray and fast extensively, he would be not forgiven until he appeased his friend (Bava Kama 92a).

One who damaged his friend’s goods or his friend’s honor has sinned against both his friend and heaven. Therefore, not only must he placate his friend, he must also confess his transgression to God and resolve not to repeat it. So if a person injured his friend, stole something from him, or damaged his property, he should first pay his friend what he is owed and ask forgiveness for having hurt him. Only afterward should he confess his sin before God. Similarly, someone who embarrassed his friend or spoke of him in a belittling manner must first placate his friend and only then confess before God. If he confessed first, his confession is inadequate. He must confess again after he has made things right with his friend (Rabbeinu Yona, Sha’arei Teshuva 4:18).[2]

Let us say that a person insulted someone or spoke ill of him in front of others, who might now treat him poorly as a result. The offender must make a point of speaking highly of this person in front of the same people. He must correct himself and explain why he was mistaken when he spoke badly of him (for example, he did not have the complete picture). This is to negate any damage he may have done. Similarly, it is proper for someone who insulted another publicly to ask for forgiveness publicly as well (MT, Laws of Repentance 2:5).

[2]. R. Kook writes extensively about teshuva. Here are a few powerful quotes from his works:

One must deeply believe in the possibility of teshuva and be certain that even just thinking about repentance rectifies much of what is wrong with him and with the world. Every thought of repentance increases the happiness and satisfaction in his soul…. If he has committed interpersonal sins but is not strong enough to ask forgiveness from his friend and correct them, he should not be discouraged from repenting altogether. After all, the sins relevant to his relationship with God, for which he has repented, are forgiven. The remaining sins that he has not yet corrected are only a small minority in comparison…. Nevertheless, he should continue to try very hard to avoid sinning within the interpersonal realm and make every effort to rectify what he can with wisdom and great courage… (Orot Ha-teshuva 7:6)

If one makes a serious resolution to avoid future sins in the interpersonal realm and does his best to rectify what was already done…spiritual light will continue to illuminate his soul. Eventually his spiritual courage will present him with many ways to complete the practical aspect of teshuva, so that spiritual light, in all its grandeur and goodness, will be able to dwell in his soul, which yearns for it. (Ibid. 10:6)

Even though one must do complete teshuva for any sin…even more so for interpersonal ones including theft and the like…nevertheless even if he was unable to do complete teshuva, even in the interpersonal realm…because something prevents him, he should not let it confound his expanded consciousness and the spiritual joy of understanding the supernal light and clinging to it. He should always think that he is benefiting the whole world by increasing divine light in his soul, which is a part of all the worlds and all the souls in general, and all the Jewish souls in particular. If so, he illuminates and benefits them, even those he hurt, and this is also a type of rectification of interpersonal harm, even though it is not enough… (Shemona Kevatzim 1:827)

05. Placating and Asking Forgiveness

Someone who is asking for forgiveness must specify his offense. If the wronged party was not aware of the offense, the person requesting forgiveness must confess it to him and ask his forgiveness (Baḥ). However, if he knows that detailing the sin will cause the wronged party pain and embarrassment, it is better that he not specify it (MA; MB 606:3). He should also do his very best to neutralize the impact of the negative things he said. He should make a point of speaking highly of this person to counteract the earlier disparaging things which he said.[3]

Le-khatḥila, one who has hurt another should ask forgiveness himself. However, if he is too ashamed, or if he thinks that the injured party is more likely to be receptive to someone else, he should ask forgiveness through a middleman (Mateh Ephraim 606:1; MB ad loc. 2).

If the injured party initially refuses to be placated, the penitent should approach him in the company of three people and request forgiveness in front of them. If forgiveness is again withheld, he should try again (with three people). If it is still withheld, he should try yet again (with three people). If the injured party still refuses to forgive, the original offender does not have to do anything further. The unforgiving party is now the sinner. However, if the person hurt was his Torah teacher (even if not his primary one), he should keep going back, even a thousand times, until he attains forgiveness (Yoma 87a; MT Laws of Repentance 2:9; MB 606:7; BHL ad loc.).

The injured party should not be cruel and refuse to forgive. As our Sages state, “If one foregoes injustice [done against him], heaven will forego punishment due to him” (Rosh Ha-shana 17a). If he does not grant forgiveness, his sins will not be forgiven in heaven. However, if his intention is to help the offender by teaching him to be more careful in the future, our Sages allow him to make the sinner request forgiveness several times. Even when the offended party officially refuses to grant forgiveness, in his heart he should immediately stop hating or being angry at the person who hurt him (Rema 606:1; MB ad loc. 9).

If one is concerned that if he forgives, the offender will repeat his offense, he is not required to forgive. Similarly, if one spoke badly of another and seriously damaged his reputation, the injured party is not required to forgive the offender, since some people will have heard the slander and not the retraction. Even so, if the offender truly regrets his action, publicly apologizes, retracts what he said, and does his best to undo the damage he caused, it is proper for a pious and humble person to forgive him. (See Rema 606:1; MB ad loc. 11.)

If the injured party has died, the person who hurt him must bring ten people to his graveside, specify his sin, and confess that he sinned against the God of Israel and this individual. They then declare three times, “You are forgiven” (Yoma 87b; SA 606:2; MB ad loc. 15).

Some people ask forgiveness from all their friends and acquaintances before Yom Kippur. However, this practice is almost meaningless. People fool themselves into thinking that because they are so careful to ask forgiveness from all their friends, this makes them pious. In fact, though, they are acting wickedly, because they are not asking forgiveness from the people they actually hurt. Rather, the main idea is to do soul-searching before Yom Kippur and recall those whom one may have truly hurt. He should then request forgiveness from them (Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Derekh Ḥayim §151).

[3]. According to Ḥafetz Ḥayim 4:12 (based on Sha’arei Teshuva 3:207), if one spoke badly of another, even if the person is unaware of this, he must tell him of the sin, specify what he said, and beg forgiveness. R. Yisrael Salanter objected strongly to this ruling; because of it he refused to give his approbation to the book. His reasoning was that the wronged party might be hurt by this revelation, in which case the offender will have compounded his sin. Rather, according to R. Salanter, the person should ask forgiveness without detailing what he said, in order to avoid adding to his victim’s pain. R. Ahron Soloveichik agrees with this (Paraḥ Mateh Aharon, p. 187), as does R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhot Shlomo 3:6). It seems that all would agree that if the offended party is liable to suffer harm as a result of not knowing what had been said about him, the offending party would be obligated to tell him. Perhaps Ḥafetz Ḥayim refers to such a case (Az Nidberu 7:60). Be that as it may, the deciding factor in practice is what is best for the victim.

06. Customs During the Ten Days of Repentance

Avinu Malkeinu is customarily recited during Shaḥarit and Minḥa, following the ḥazan’s repetition of the Amida. This prayer is very powerful, as in it we turn to God from within two different types of relationships with Him: as children to their father and as servants to their king. The Gemara tells us that a fast was once declared because of drought. Many people’s prayers went unanswered. Rain did not fall until R. Akiva led the prayers, declaring: “Our Father, our King, we have no king but You. Our Father, our King, have mercy on us for Your sake.” To emphasize the importance of this prayer, it is customarily recited while standing. Many also open the ark during its recitation. Avinu Malkeinu is recited even when Taḥanun is omitted, such as in the presence of a newlywed or of a father on the day of his son’s brit (Rema 602:1). Even someone praying on his own may recite Avinu Malkeinu (Be’er Heitev 602:1; see Da’at Torah 584:1).

After Pesukei De-zimra and before Barkhu, most communities, following Arizal, add the psalm “Shir ha-ma’alot mi-ma’amakim” (Tehilim 130). It is not recited in Yemenite (Baladi) communities, and several Ashkenazic communities omit it as well, so as not to interrupt between Pesukei De-zimra and the berakhot preceding Shema. (See MB 54:4.)

It is permitted to get married during the Ten Days of Repentance. True, some great Ashkenazic rabbis maintain that weddings should not take place then, as it is meant to be a somber time (Mateh Ephraim 602:5; Kitzur Shulḥan Arukh 130:4). However, Sephardic communities do not share this concern, and even some Ashkenazim get married during this period. Therefore, weddings may be scheduled for the Ten Days of Repentance. There is even a certain advantage in entering Yom Kippur having just done this great mitzva (Sdei Ḥemed, Aseifat Dinim, Ma’arekhet Ḥatan Ve-kalla, klal 23; Melamed Le-ho’il EH §1). However, they should be pay special attention to ensuring that the wedding does not include immodest mingling of men and women.

07. Shabbat Shuva

The Shabbat during the Ten Days of Repentance is called “Shabbat Shuva” or “Shabbat Teshuva” after its haftara, which begins, “Return (shuva), O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin” (Hoshea 14:2). It is also known that Shabbat is the source of blessing, and everything that happens during the week draws its vitality from Shabbat. In a sense, then, this Shabbat can be considered the root of Yom Kippur, and thus it is proper to use it for repentance (teshuva) and Torah study.

There is a widespread custom for the rabbi to give a special sermon on this Shabbat, dealing with the relevant laws of the period and rebuking the community with the goal of inspiring them to repent from their common sins and strengthen their Torah study, charity, and mitzva observance. This sermon is one of the two most important sermons of the year (the other being that of Shabbat Ha-gadol before Pesaḥ). Therefore, even if other rabbis give lectures and sermons during the year, on this Shabbat the local rabbi should speak. Since it is his community, he knows best which issues need to be addressed and what needs to be improved. Everyone should attend this sermon, from Torah scholars to simple and uneducated people who will not fully understand the rabbi. Some rabbis wrap themselves in a talit when they speak, in honor of the audience and the sermon. (See Mateh Ephraim 602:41; Elef Ha-magen ad loc. 23.)

In the past, some communities held the sermon in the morning, between Shaḥarit and the Torah reading. In large communities with many synagogues, where it is difficult to gather everyone together in the middle of the service, the sermon is held right after Minḥa. Minḥa is scheduled for two or three hours before shki’a so the rabbi can speak at length and still leave time to eat se’uda shlishit (Mateh Ephraim 602:42). In many communities, the sermon is delivered between se’uda shlishit and Ma’ariv.

On Shabbat Shuva (and the preceding Friday afternoon), Ashkenazim, Yemenites, and some Sephardim (including many of North African descent) do not recite Avinu Malkeinu, since Shabbat is not a time for personal requests. Even if Rosh Ha-shana itself is on Friday or Shabbat, they do not recite Avinu Malkeinu (Sefer Ha-pardes; Roke’aḥ; Ran; Responsa Rivash §512; Rema 602:1; MB 584:4). Many Sephardim do say Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat during the Ten Days of Repentance, including Rosh Ha-shana. This does not show disrespect for Shabbat, since these days are designated for repentance and prayer for the upcoming year (R. Amram Gaon; Rabbeinu Gershom; Me’iri; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 584:7-8).

Many people wait to recite Kiddush Levana until after Yom Kippur, because Kiddush Levana should be recited joyfully, and only after Yom Kippur does the tension of judgment dissipate. Then people leave the synagogue feeling joyful (Maharil; Rema 602:1; Pri Ḥadash; R. Mordechai Eliyahu; 7:19 below). Others disagree, maintaining that people should recite the prayer during the Ten Days of Repentance, as doing so might tip the scales in their favor (Levush; Ḥida; Vilna Gaon). Every community should continue with its custom.

08. Kaparot

Some ritually slaughter a chicken before Yom Kippur for “kaparot” (“atonements”). The idea is that whatever was supposed to befall the person should befall the chicken instead, sparing the person. (A rooster is a “gever” in Hebrew, the same as the word for “man.”) Some say that we should not perform this ceremony, as it is considered to be “darkhei emori,” a gentile custom based on foreign beliefs, with no Torah source. Rashba writes that when he first arrived in his city, he found that kaparot was widely practiced, along with other strange customs which the Jews had learned from the non-Jews. He explained to the community that this custom was disgraceful and ordered them to stop it (Responsa Rashba 1:395). This is also the ruling of Shulḥan Arukh (605:1).

In contrast, Rema writes that the custom should not be abandoned, as it is a venerable one, dating back to Geonic times. This is also the position of Arizal. Due to his influence, many people, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, perform kaparot. This is how it is done: On Erev Yom Kippur, in the early morning, a chicken is acquired for each member of the household. It is passed over their heads, and they say, “Let this be my exchange, let this be my substitute, let this be my atonement, etc.” The chicken is then slaughtered. When possible, a rooster should be acquired for each male, and a hen for each female. A pregnant woman should use a hen for herself, and both a rooster and a hen for her fetus. If white chickens are available, they should be used, to recall the verse, “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white” (Yeshayahu 1:18). While the chicken is being slaughtered, the person should have in mind that the chicken is his stand-in; everything happening to the chicken really should be happening to him. Afterward the custom is to give the meat or its monetary equivalent to the poor, so that they will have food for proper meals before and after the fast. Someone who cannot obtain chickens can fulfill the custom using geese or fish. There are only two requirements: that the animals are kosher, and that they cannot be offered as sacrifices (so that it does not look as if one is offering a sacrifice outside the Temple precincts).

Over the course of time, as the custom became more widespread, ritual slaughterers found themselves under a lot of pressure to work very quickly on Erev Yom Kippur. This led to concern that they might not check their knives properly or slaughter correctly. As a result, poskim ruled that it was preferable either to delay the slaughter until after morning services or to have it done a day or two early, since any time within the Ten Days of Repentance is an appropriate time for the ritual.

Nowadays, many people fulfill this custom by giving charity – the value of a chicken on behalf of each family member. Those who do so because of the difficulty of ensuring proper slaughter pass the money overhead instead of a chicken. Those who do so because they feel that this ritual is non-Jewish in origin do not pass the money over their heads. They simply give it to charity, which is certainly an appropriate thing to do before Yom Kippur.

Each person can choose which custom to follow. Nevertheless, if his family has a custom, it is preferable to follow it.

09. Eating on Erev Yom Kippur

There is a mitzva to eat heartily on Erev Yom Kippur (SA 604:1), and according to most poskim, the mitzva is of Torah origin (MA and MB 604:1). The Sages said, “One who eats and drinks on the ninth [of Tishrei] – the Torah considers it as though he fasted on the ninth and tenth” (Yoma 81b). Even though fasting is harder than eating, God wants to increase our reward, so He considers our eating on the ninth as if it were fasting.[4]

The reason for this mitzva is to prepare for the fast (Rashi) and to have the strength to pray properly on Yom Kippur (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:10). Therefore, one should eat heartily especially at the se’uda ha-mafseket, the last meal before the fast. This mitzva also expresses God’s love for us. He commands us to fast only one day a year to atone for our sins, but out of His abundant concern for our well-being, He commands us to eat and drink before the fast so that we will have the strength to get through it unharmed (Rosh; Tur OḤ 604). According to another view, even though eating before the fast is helpful physiologically, it has an element of inui (affliction), as it is difficult to transition from the pleasure of eating to the challenge of fasting (Shibolei Ha-leket; AHS 604:4).

Additionally, excessive eating is indeed an inui from the perspective of human spirituality, as it places an emphasis on the body. This, then, is precisely the point of the mitzva – to purify and improve the body as well as the soul, for perfect service of God is with the body and soul together. On the one hand, we must be wary of the evil inclination, which draws a person toward physical desires. On the other hand, we should not conclude that holiness is revealed only when the soul is alienated from the body and the physical world. It is specifically by highlighting the sacred value of physical enjoyment on Erev Yom Kippur that we can wholly repent on Yom Kippur (Shlah, Masekhet Yoma, Torah Or §136).

There is another important reason for eating on the ninth. All the Torah’s commandments must be undertaken with wholehearted joy, which includes physical enjoyment. Certainly, the mitzva of repentance should be done joyfully, since through it we are purged of all our sins – sins which demean us and depress our spirits. For this reason, Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, which deserves to be celebrated with food and drink. However, while repenting, open joy is inappropriate, as one of the main components of repentance is sorrow and regret – which is why Yom Kippur is a fast day. We are therefore commanded to give physical expression to the joy of the mitzva of repentance on Erev Yom Kippur. Thus, we can repent completely on Yom Kippur, despite the somber nature of the day (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:8; R. Moshe Cordovero).

This mitzva entails eating and drinking more than usual. Some say that on Erev Yom Kippur one should eat two days’ worth of food. Lekhatḥila, one should eat at least one bread-based meal; many have two such meals. (See MB 608:18; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 604:2.) Arizal says that eating for the sake of heaven on Erev Yom Kippur allows a person to make up for any spiritual imperfection connected with his eating during the year. This eating is so important that one should study less Torah to fulfill this mitzva maximally (MA 604).

Even though there is a mitzva to eat and drink large amounts, one should eat light, easy to digest foods, rather than heavy ones. We must also be careful not to get drunk, as prayer requires sobriety (SA 608:4; MB ad loc. 18).

The primary mitzva is to eat during the day, not the preceding night (Vilna Gaon; AHS 604:5). Still, several poskim write that eating at night is something of a mitzva as well (Baḥ; Birkei Yosef).

Even if one is exempt from fasting (e.g., one is dangerously ill), there is a mitzva to eat on Erev Yom Kippur, to express the joy of the day and the joy of the mitzva (Ketav Sofer OḤ §112). If he does not have the strength to eat very much, he should at least be careful not to fast, as fasting on Erev Yom Kippur is prohibited, even for those trying to neutralize a bad dream (Rema 604:1). Someone who eats even a small amount of food (the volume of a kotevet, a large date) or drinks a small amount of liquid (a cheek-full) is no longer considered to be fasting (Minḥat Ḥinukh 313:15).

[4]. The Torah says, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement…you shall afflict yourselves” (Vayikra 23:27). A few verses later, we read, “You shall afflict yourselves on the ninth day of the month” (ibid. 32). Didn’t we just read that the fast is on the tenth? Rather, the second verse teaches that there is a mitzva on the ninth to prepare for the fast by eating and drinking. We thus learn that one who eats on the ninth in preparation for the fast is considered to have fasted on the ninth, too.

10. Erev Yom Kippur Customs

Taḥanun is not recited on Erev Yom Kippur during Shaḥarit, since the day is a quasi-holiday, and Taḥanun has an element of broken-heartedness that impairs the day’s joy (SA 604:2). Most communities also omit Taḥanun during the Seliḥot recited the preceding night, because the night, too, is somewhat festive. Nevertheless, they do recite vidui in Seliḥot. This is the custom of Ashkenazim, Yemenites, and some Sephardim (Levush 604:2; Shiyarei Knesset Ha-gedola; Shulḥan Gavo’ah; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 604:19). Some Sephardim recite Taḥanun if they are praying before dawn, but not if they are praying after dawn (Ma’amar Mordekhai, Hilkhot Ḥagim 44:4).

Ashkenazim do not recite Avinu Malkeinu on Erev Yom Kippur unless Yom Kippur itself is on Shabbat (when Avinu Malkeinu is not said), in which case Avinu Malkenu is recited at Shaḥarit of Erev Yom Kippur. Sephardim always say Avinu Malkeinu on Erev Yom Kippur, as many of them recite it even when Yom Kippur itself is on Shabbat (SA and Rema 604:2; MB ad loc.; section 7 above).

Eulogies are not delivered on Erev Yom Kippur unless the deceased was a Torah scholar. In such a case, eulogies are offered where body is present (SAH 604:4).

Some communities recite extra Seliḥot on Erev Yom Kippur, while others recite fewer (Rema 604:2). Ashkenazic practice for the past few centuries has been to recite fewer Seliḥot, in accordance with the opinion that there is a mitzva to eat and drink at night as well, which implies that it is a quasi-holiday on which Seliḥot should be kept to a minimum (Shlah). Sephardim do not shorten the Seliḥot, as they are recited at night. Nevertheless, it is good for even those who recite the full Seliḥot to eat and drink a bit extra on the night of the ninth.

Some have the custom of going to mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur, to purify themselves in anticipation of the Day of Judgment and as part of their repentance. However, no berakha is recited prior to this immersion since it is only a custom (SA 606:4). One who wishes to follow this custom but finds it difficult may wash with nine kavim (approximately 11 liters) of water instead (Rema ad loc.). That is, he should stand in the shower while nine kavim of water streams down on him without interruption. He should ensure that this water comes into contact with his entire body (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:16 and n. 8). In the past, women immersed before Yom Kippur. Nowadays, very few women do so.

Some had the custom of undergoing thirty-nine lashes after Minḥa, to inspire them to repent. The person being whipped would bend forward, and the person administering the lashes would strike him on the back while reciting the verse “Ve-hu raḥum” (Tehilim 78:38) three times. He would administer one lash with each word. The lashes were not strong. It was done with any type of string or strap and meant to recall the punishment of lashes (SA and Rema 607:6). Nowadays, very few people do this.

Even though the mitzva to confess is primarily on Yom Kippur, our Sages instituted the recitation of vidui before the se’uda ha-mafseket as well. This was out of concern that someone might get drunk during the meal and thus be unable to confess on Yom Kippur itself. Therefore, the custom is to recite Minḥa before the meal and to confess then, during the silent Amida (Yoma 87b; SA 607:1).

At the start of Yom Kippur, before going to synagogue for Ma’ariv, many parents bestow berakhot on their children.

11. Hatarat Nedarim (Annulment of Vows)

There is a universal Jewish custom to annul vows on Erev Rosh Ha-shana in order to enter the holiday free from the serious sin of unfulfilled vows (Shlah, Masekhet Yoma §2-4; Ḥayei Adam 138:8). Some also annul vows before Yom Kippur. The recitation of Kol Nidrei at the start of Yom Kippur is directed toward this goal as well.

This annulment is effective for vows that a person forgot having made. It is also effective in annulling the obligation to continue performing a positive custom that one performed three times without stipulating that it does not have the force of a vow. It also annuls commitments to voluntary mitzvot that one undertook without specifying that it does not have the force of a vow. In contrast, if a person remembers making a specific vow, he is not released from it until he details it before three “judges,” who can release him based on a loophole and his regret (SA YD 228:14).[5]

The annulment entails appearing before three men and asking them to release him from the vow. Even three hedyotot (regular people, non-rabbis) can release him, as long as they can understand the words of Torah and grasp the meaning of annulling vows. (See ibid. 228:1.) To release him, the three men say three times: “It is permitted to you,” “It is allowed to you,” or “You are forgiven.” Siddurim have a standard formula for requesting and granting annulment.

Since this annulment is not considered judgment, it may be done at night, and the three people on the “court” may be related to one another or to the person asking for the annulment. Accordingly, three brothers may annul the vow of a fourth brother (ibid. 228:3). However, if a woman requests a vow annulment, her husband may not be one of the three (ibid. 234:57).

The person asking for an annulment customarily stands, while the three people granting the annulment sit, as a court would. Many people may stand before the “court” at once and ask that their vows be annulled, and the annulment may be extended to the whole group at once. Nevertheless, some are careful to annul the vows of one person at a time (Mateh Ephraim 581:49).

If one dreamed that he made a vow, some say he should have it annulled. Some even say that this annulment requires a panel of ten. Though most poskim do not require any type of annulment for a vow made in a dream, as it is not real, le-khatḥila we defer to the stringent view (SA YD 210:2). If he cannot easily find a group of ten, he may request an annulment before three, as one normally does for vows (Rema ad loc.).[6]

Women effectively annul their vows with the recitation of Kol Nidrei. For this reason, they make sure to attend services on the night of Yom Kippur. A married woman can appoint her husband as her agent to annul her vows when he annuls his own. Since the two of them are like one unit, when he stands before the “court,” it is as if she is with him. However, an unmarried woman cannot appoint an agent (male or female) to act on her behalf and annul her vows (SA YD 234:56; Taz ad loc. 46; Rav Pe’alim OḤ 4:34).

[5]. According to Torah law, a vow may be annulled even if it is not specified, but the Sages instituted that one must specify the vow before it can be annulled, lest the “court” release him from a vow that is forbidden to annul (for example, a vow whose goal is to prevent one from doing something halakhically prohibited). Thus, if the person who made the vow did not tell at least one of the three people its specifics, they may not annul it (Gittin 35b; SA YD 228:14). This is why the formulation of the annulment ceremony of Erev Rosh Ha-shana is effective only for vows which one does not remember. It may not be used to annul specific vows (Tosafot Rid, Nedarim 23b; Shibolei Ha-leket §317; Derekh Ha-ḥayim; Elef Ha-magen 581:101). Others maintain that the annulment is effective even for vows that a person remembers making. Since the formula of the annulment states that the request is not being made for vows that cannot be annulled, there is no possibility of a forbidden annulment being granted (R. Shlomo Kluger, Nidrei Zerizin, responsa section, YD 228:14; Sefat Emet, Nedarim 23b; R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach inclined this way as well; see the book Kol Nidrei 79:1).

  1. Shlomo Kluger writes that the nullification works through the mechanism of ḥarata (regret). True, a petaḥ (loophole) is normally required as well. However, since the person had stated on the previous Erev Rosh Ha-shana that he was nullifying upcoming vows (as we explain in the next section), ḥarata on its own is enough. Maḥaneh Ephraim (Nedarim §16) suggests that the annulment qualifies as a petaḥ as well, for had the person known that he would regret the vow, he would not have made it (Kol Nidrei 78:7).

[6]. However, one who does not recall making a vow in a dream need not seek release in the presence of ten on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. Nevertheless, some are careful to annul their vows before a panel of ten on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, in case they made a vow in a dream and subsequently forgot (Da’at Torah 619:1).

12. Disclaiming Future Vows

Our Sages state, “If one wants to invalidate his vows for the whole year, he should stand on Rosh Ha-shana and say, ‘All vows that I make in the future are hereby void’” (Nedarim 23b). This is called “issuing a disclaimer” (“mesirat moda’a”) in halakhic parlance. When we recite Kol Nidrei at the start of Yom Kippur, not only do we nullify past vows, we also issue a disclaimer when we say, “From this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur.” Even so, the custom is to issue a disclaimer on Erev Rosh Ha-shana as well, while annulling vows, because those who are enthusiastic perform a mitzva at the earliest opportunity (“zerizim makdimim le-mitzvot”). The earlier declaration is also helpful to one who is late for Kol Nidrei or does not understand that Kol Nidrei involves issuing a disclaimer.[7]

According to most poskim, the disclaimer is effective as long as the person making the vow has forgotten that he made such a declaration. However, if he makes a vow while aware of the disclaimer, his vow takes effect, for by making the vow, he implicitly annuls his disclaimer (SA YD 211:2).

In practice, one who made a vow does not rely on the disclaimer to annul it. Rather, if he does not want to fulfill the vow, he must go to three men to annul it. There are two reasons for this: First, some maintain that a disclaimer is effective only in the unusual case where the person remembers it immediately (tokh kedei dibur) following the vow and intends for the declaration to nullify the vow. However, if the person making the vow did not recall the disclaimer immediately, the vow remains valid. In practice, we take their position into account (SA YD 211:2). Second, even though most poskim say that the disclaimer is effective and nullifies the vow, they still require the person to have the vow annulled before three men. This is because there are cases where the vow takes effect according to the majority opinion, such as if he makes it while remembering that he had issued the disclaimer, and the Sages were concerned that the seriousness of such vows would be undermined if most vows are automatically annulled by the disclaimer (Mahari Weil; Rema YD 211:1). It should also be noted that all agree that the disclaimer is not effective in the case of a vow that one person makes to another, because such a vow is not solely under his control (SA 211:4).

The disclaimer effectively ensures that good practices that one carried out three times are not considered like vows. Without the disclaimer, unless someone explicitly stipulates that he is not making a vow (e.g., he says “bli neder”), doing something three times consecutively is considered a vow. Likewise, a disclaimer is effective for one who resolves to give charity or do another mitzva and does not explicitly state that it does not have the force of a vow. Without the disclaimer, since he did not say “bli neder,” his resolution is considered a vow (Da’at Torah YD 211:2).

Technically, if one issues a disclaimer out loud, it is effective even if he is alone, and his vows are thus nullified. Nevertheless, it is better to issue the disclaimer in the presence of three men. In fact, this is how we nullify vows on Erev Rosh Ha-shana (Ritva, Nedarim 23b; Kol Nidrei 81:10).

If a woman attends Kol Nidrei and understands the meaning of the disclaimer, her vows are annulled with its recitation. If she does not attend, it is proper for her to recite the disclaimer to herself. Thinking it is not enough; she must actually verbalize it.

[7]. In the standard annulment of vows, the disclaimer explicitly excludes vows made during Minḥa to fast the next day. Without this exception, the disclaimer would annul any resolution to fast, and even if he does in fact fast, it will not have the elevated status of a fast. Yet the wording of Kol Nidrei does not mention this exclusion. We must say that the rabbi and congregants tacitly agree that the disclaimer in Kol Nidrei does not apply to fasts accepted at Minḥa.

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