A particularly strange halacha exists that requires us to eat on Erev Yom Kippur. Most laws pertaining to the actual day of Yom Kippur might be difficult to do, but at least they make almost immediate sense. We understand these laws, and we can relate to them. Knowing full well what the day of Yom Kippur is we would expect to pray, meditate, spend time doing serious introspection. We would additionally expect to fast, even, and to take out the sifrei Torah and hold them close.
To have a law, though, that specifically mandates eating before all of this begins is strange to say the least, and is seemingly quite difficult to relate to. To make things even stranger, we are told by Chazal that if we do, indeed, eat on the day preceding Yom Kippur it is as if we fasted on both that day and on Yom Kippur itself! How does this make any sense at all? It is quite literally the very opposite of the reality.
The Aruch HaShulchan proposes that the reason we have a commandment to eat on the day before Yom Kippur is that this is our way of showing that Yom Kippur is very significant. Some say that eating the day before makes the fast easier, and so we are to prepare for the fast by eating the day before. Others, naturally, say the exact opposite: it is so important to feel afflicted on Yom Kippur (as per the posuk) that we spend the entire day before eating so that the contrast of fasting will be starker, and more difficult. Regardless of which position one takes, though, the main point being made is that preparation for the day is important.
There is, however, another possibility as well. On Yom Kippur it is undeniable that we attempt to act in a way that is not truly accurate to who we are. We go far beyond what any normal human being would naturally do. We spend the entire day focused solely on prayer. We do not eat. We do not drink. We are totally connected to God. Of course, though, we are not like this all the time. Yom Kippur is a façade, to some extent.
So what happens when we all wake up the next day and we realize that we are still the same, flawed physical beings we always were? What happens when we realize that we aren’t actually as great as we pretended to be yesterday on Yom Kippur? What happens when we remember that we actually enjoy physicality — that we enjoy a good meal, attending a sports game, or watching a movie? (There certainly might not be anything wrong with these activities per se, but they are physical and human and certainly not the lofty level and ideal to which we aspire and emulate on Yom Kippur.) In other words, what happens the day after Yom Kippur when we all come back to reality?
Thus, we have halacha to teach us that we do not do teshuvah only when we fast, but when we eat as well. Teshuvah is not only for one perfect day a year when we strive to come closest to God, but is rather for the whole year long. True teshuvah is that which you make real, that which stays with you. In truth, it isn’t about any single day.
Indeed, maybe we should all care a whole lot less about how nice of a restaurant we just ate dinner in, or how nice of a car we drive. Maybe we should be spending a little less time in front of a glowing screen. To be sure, reducing and removing physicality is one form of teshuvah. But there is another, just as critical, kind of teshuvah, and that is to change the way in which we interact with physicality. To say that you will never care about materialistic ever again is simply not realistic. To engage with physicality in a different way, however, is certainly real.
We are, in the end, physical beings. One way to do teshuvah is not to eat at all. Another way is to eat a little differently, to aspire to be different not just in an idealistic sense, but in the real, physical world in which we find ourselves.
Devir Kahan is the founder of dafaleph.com, an easily-accessible online resource on matters of Jewish thought and machshavah. He is currently pursuing a degree at Yeshiva University.