Erev Yom Kippur, minutes before the storm. A point of time in the regular weekday that is nonetheless all holiness. It is the moment of awe as the Day of Judgment approaches, the eleventh hour, our last chance. Yom Kippur itself is a time of forgiveness, but what is the role of the day before?
There is a series of Talmudic stories that deal with this moment.
Tractate Berachot tells the story of R. Bibi bar Abaye, who was learning the halakha of a daily reading of the Torah portion twice, plus once in the targum, the Aramaic translation. He asks himself, “How will I find the time to fulfill this mitzvah? I am so busy with other things each day.” He answers himself, saying, “Here is the solution – I will do it all on Erev Yom Kippur.” But then he is told by R. Hiya bar Rav of Difti, “On Erev Yom Kippur there is a special mitzvah – to eat.” Persisting, R. Bibi says, “So I will complete the all the reading before I eat,” but then he is told by another elder that the mitzvah of the reading must be performed with the congregation and not before or after.
Many of the challenges of Erev Yom Kippur are hidden within this story. The desperate hope to be ready for Erev Yom Kippur with time to spare dissipates as the time grows near and the preparations mount. Taking care of our physical needs leaves no time for spiritual preparation; but having put off the spiritual preparation to the last minute is itself a reflection of our spiritual shortcoming. Rav Bibi puts off the mitzvah of reading till the last minute, thinking to complete it all on Erev Yom Kippur; but he is called to order by an elder, a man of experience, who tells him, you are mistaken – there are other preparations you must complete on Erev Yom Kippur, and you will end up putting it off again.
When R. Bibi thinks that the answer is to complete the reading early so as to have time for the necessary preparations, he has yet to learn the lesson that mitzvoth are not a checklist. They are meant to give content and meaning to our lives. The meaning of the elder’s response, that the reading must be done at its proper time, is that the purpose of the reading is to give the soul its daily nourishment of Torah learning. If one performs a mitzvah simply to ‘get it done,’ then there is no point to performing it.
The placement of the story in time, on Erev Yom Kippur, challenges us to reflect on our own behavior. Do we see mitzvoth as a ‘to-do list’ in our busy lives – or do we see them as a duty that enriches everything else we do in life?
Another Erev Yom Kippur story, one with a sad ending, is the story of Rav, the great Amora (Talmudic sage) of Babylonia, who fell into an argument with his butcher. Because the butcher did not approach Rav to seek reconciliation, Rav decided to go to the butcher, on Erev Yom Kippur. On his way, he met R. Huna who warned him, “you are on your way to kill.” Rav nonetheless continued on his way, encountering the butcher while he was at his work. The butcher looked up at him and said, “I have nothing to say to you.” (Meaning either that he saw no conflict to be resolved, or that he did not want to speak with Rav). Before Rav could respond, a bone burst from the carcass, killing the butcher.
All lose in this story – the butcher lost his life before having a chance to ask forgiveness, and Rav acted unwittingly as his executioner. Even if Rav bore no religious or legal responsibility for the butcher’s death, he knew that he was to blame for not heeding R. Huna’s warning.
In my opinion, this story is also about procrastination, this time not of a mitzvah between man and God, but between man and his fellow. The conflict between the two men festered because neither initiated reconciliation; neither took the first step. Whatever Rav’s motivation, his procrastination was not conducive to creating a golden opportunity, but quite the opposite.
Another story with a sad ending is that of R. Rahumi, whose name in Aramaic means ‘love.’ His custom was to learn Torah throughout the year at the study hall of Rava in Mehoza. He would return home to see his wife once a year, every Yom Kippur eve. Sexual relations are prohibited on Yom Kippur, but it seems that the purpose of this annual visit was to cram all the love and affection for his wife into one day. One year he became so engrossed in his studies that he remained where he was. His wife looked forward to his arrival, saying in her heart, “Now he will come! Now he will come!” He did not come. She broke down and a tear dropped from her eye. R.Rahumi was sitting on the roof. The roof broke under him and he died. Here we see a tragic result of procrastination, for R. Rahumi put off his spousal relationship and then did not merit being reunited with his wife.
The Talmudic narrator does not condone this behavior; rather, he establishes that it is going too far. This points to another lesson to be learned from the three stories: procrastination indicates an imbalance. When we experience an imbalance, it means that we have not given enough attention to something. Thus, R. Bibi did not balance obligation with desire; Rav did not find a balance between rage and forgiveness; and R. Rahumi, in modern parlance, did not successfully balance work and home.
The lessons of these stories emphasize that Yom Kippur is not about atonement – it is about self-reflection. Without an ongoing process of personal improvement, of proactive efforts to reconcile differences instead of putting them off, Yom Kippur becomes a stumbling block rather than an opportunity. Just as we must perform the twice-plus-once reading of the Torah each day, so must we work each day towards mending our social relationships. Then does Erev Yom Kippur have the proper meaning – a day to stop, take a deep breath, and in the right spirit, enter into the holiest day of the year.
Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.
English Translation by Penina Goldschmidt.