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Halakhic Stringencies during the Days of Repentance

Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon
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Translated by David Strauss



I.              THe Halakhic Obligation


The Talmud Yerushalmi states:


R. Chiyya the Elder instructed Rav: If you can eat ordinary food in [the state of] purity [required for teruma], do so; and if not, eat it [in such a manner] seven days a year. (Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3)


            R. Chiyya told Rav that if he could not eat his ordinary food in a state of purity all year round, he should be punctilious about this at least seven days a year. This statement is cited by the Rosh (end of Rosh Ha-Shana, in the name of the Ra'avya), who understands it as a reference to the Ten Days of Repentance. The Tur explains R. Chiyya's mention of "seven days" as follows:


He calls them "seven days" because regarding Rosh Hashana it was unnecessary to admonish him to eat [his ordinary food] in a state of purity, for it was obvious that he would eat it in that manner, as a person is obligated to purify himself for a festival. Accordingly, only seven non-festival days remained regarding which he had to admonish him.[1] (Orach Chaim 603)


            Today, we are all ritually impure with the impurity contracted through contact with a corpse, and the Yerushalmi passage therefore has no practical significance.[2] The Rosh, however, derived from this passage a law that is relevant even in our time regarding pat akum, the bread of a non-Jew:


It is therefore customary in Ashkenaz that even those who do not abstain from pat akum all year round abstain from it during the Ten Days of Repentance. (ibid.)


            Similarly, the Shulchan Arukh rules:


Even someone who does not [ordinarily] abstain from pat akum must abstain from it during the Ten Days of Repentance. (Orach Chaim 603:1)


In this spirit, the Acharonim bring similar laws regarding a variety of issues. The Mateh Efrayim writes:


Those who teach young children and lads – God forbid that they should cancel their course of teaching during this period, when owing to our many sins many people treat the matter lightly during this time… Anyone with a trace of the fear of God in his heart should grow stronger during these days to study with his students with great diligence, both young and old. (603)


            That is to say, one should increase Torah study during this period. Another ruling deals with the attempt to increase one's store of mitzvot specifically during this period:


Pious people are accustomed to act with alacrity and go out early to buy themselves beautiful and choice etrogs. (ibid.)


            Another ruling is brought in the Maharil:


It once happened during the Ten Days of Repentance that a ban was pronounced in a synagogue in connection with a lost object, and the Maharil was furious with that person, asking how he could investigate the matter with a ban during these days, when our lives hang in the balance…[3]


Owing to the fact that the pronunciation of a ban stirs up the Divine attribute of strict justice, a ban should not be pronounced during the Ten Days of Repentance.


            The Kaf Ha-Chaim writes that during the Ten Days of Repentance it is proper to be careful not to eat any food that gave rise to a halakhic question, even if a halakhic authority permitted it.[4]  Other Acharonim also make reference to special laws applying during the Ten Days of Repentance.[5]


            These laws give rise to a question: Are we not dealing here with hypocrisy and fraud? The problem is twofold, for in addition to the problem of deceit, these practices seem to constitute a challenge to the belief that God is all-knowing. Doesn't God know that this conduct is short-lived? Doesn't He know that this person eats pat akum all year round and that he will continue to do so next year as well?


II.            Renewal in the World


One possible approach to solving our problem is to assume that the change in conduct during the Ten Days of Repentance is meant to serve as the foundation for attempted long-term change. The Ten Days of Repentance are not only days of judgment, but also days of renewal, carrying the potential for change in a person's conduct, and during which he is called upon to try and improve his actions even if he is not sure that the change will be permanent.


God created the universe and all of nature with natural cycles and the possibility of renewal. All of creation renews itself all the time: every morning the sun rises anew; every evening the moon makes a new appearance; every spring brings new flowering; every year the earth completes another revolution around the sun.


This renewal is implanted in creation, in the world and in man. R. Kook developed this principle, saying that even falling is part of the cyclical nature of the created world. Indeed, all of creation is built on renewal and descent: flowers blossom in the spring, but wither in the winter; the sun rises in the morning, but sets in the evening, and the like. Falling is necessary for man as well, but what is most important about man is his desire to advance and achieve perfection:


The moral sense demands of man righteousness and good, perfection. And moral perfection – how distant it is from man to actually realize it!… How can he aspire to that which is not within his capability whatsoever?

For this, repentance is natural to man, and it perfects him. If a person is constantly liable to stumble, to impair righteousness and morality - this does not impair his perfection, because the foundation of his perfection is the permanent yearning and desire for perfection. This desire is the foundation of repentance,[6] for it always overcomes his path in life, and truly perfects it. (Orot Ha-Teshuva, chap. 5, no. 6)


            Even though flowers wither in the winter, they blossom anew in the spring. Man tries to draw close to his perfect state, even though he knows from the very outset that he will stumble along the way. Like the renewal process in nature, God granted us the possibility of renewing ourselves at all times, but especially at the beginning of the year.


            Regarding most of the Musaf offerings mentioned in Parashat Pinchas, the Torah uses the expression, "ve-hikravtem," "and you shall sacrifice" (Bamidbar 28:19,26; 29:8,13,36). Regarding the sacrifice of Rosh Hashana, however, it uses the term, "va-asitem," "and you shall make" (ibid. 29:2). From here Chazal learned:


Regarding all the Musaf offerings, it is written: "ve-hikravtem," but here it is written: "va-asitem isheh." How so? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: My children, I regard you as if you were made before Me on this very day, as if today I created you anew.[7]


            On Rosh Hashana, God promises us that we turn into new creatures; we enjoy a fresh beginning and turn over a new page.[8]


            Even if until now a person ate pat akum, he should try - at least at the beginning of his remaking – not to eat pat akum; he should try to improve himself however he can. Despite the fact that up until now he had failed in these efforts, this new beginning may perhaps pave the way for the future. Even if he does not reach full success, he may still enjoy partial success. Even if he stumbles along the way, a person must yearn for perfection at all times.


III.           A Revelation of Strengths


It is also possible that the purpose of the special stringencies observed during this period is that we should once again try to uncover our strengths and abilities. This idea is clarified in the Ba'al Shem Tov's allegory about repentance:


I once heard a parable from my grandfather about a king who, by magic, surrounded his palace with many walls. Then he hid himself within the palace. The formidable walls were arranged in concentric circles, one inside the other, and they grew increasingly larger as one approached the center. They had fortified battlements and were manned by fierce soldiers who guarded from above; wild animals - lions and bears - ran loose below. All this was so that those who approached would have proper awe and fear of the king and so that not all who desired to approach would be allowed to do as they pleased…


The king then had proclamations sent throughout the kingdom saying that whoever came to see him in his palace would be richly rewarded; he would be given a rank second to none in the king's service. Who would not desire this? But when many came and saw the outer wall's awesome size and the terrifying soldiers and animals, most were afraid and turned back.


There were some, however, who succeeded in scaling that wall and fighting past the soldiers and animals, but then the second wall loomed before their eyes, even more imposing than the first, and its guards even more terrible. Seeing that, many others turned back…


None reached the king… except for the king's son. He had only one desire: to see the face of his beloved father. When he came and saw the walls, soldiers, and wild animals, he was astonished. He could not understand how his dear father could hide himself behind all these terrifying barriers and obstacles.


"How can I ever reach him?" he thought. Then he began to weep, and cried out, "Father, Father, have compassion on me; don't keep me away from you!" His longing was so intense that he had no interest in any rewards; indeed, he was willing to risk his life to attain his goal. By the courage of his broken heart, which burned to see his father, he ran forward with reckless abandon and self-sacrifice; he scaled one wall and then another, fought past soldiers and wild animals. After crossing the walls, he was offered money and jewels, but he threw them down in disgust. His only desire was to see his father.


Again and again he called out to him. His father the king, hearing his son's pathetic cries and seeing his total self-sacrifice, suddenly, instantaneously, removed the walls and other obstacles. In a moment they vanished as if they had never existed. Then his son saw that there were no walls, soldiers, or animals. His father the king was right before him, sitting on his majestic throne while multitudes of servants stood near to serve him and choirs sang his praises. Gardens and orchards surrounded the palace on all sides. And the whole earth shone from the king's glory.[9]


            The moral of this allegory is clear: A person is afraid to change, to repent. Repentance seems to be very distant from him. But after a person succeeds in crossing the barriers and obstacles, he suddenly realizes how his present situation is so appropriate for him. He suddenly understands that the obstacles that he had seen earlier were an optical illusion. He suddenly realizes that his previous situation had been totally inappropriate for him, and it is precisely his present situation that is so good, so appropriate.


            At the beginning of the year a person should try everything; he should try to repair everything, to improve everything, and to elevate himself in all ways. It may later become clear that this intensity is indeed too much for him. But it is also certainly possible that after experimenting with his strengths, he will find new strengths. He will discover that things that he had been sure are not relevant to him are indeed relevant to him; he will understand that the palace that had seemed so distant from him is in fact very close.


            This is particularly appropriate at the beginning of the year. As stated, the beginning of the year is accompanied by renewal, a feeling of turning over a new leaf, and therefore it is an appropriate time for discovering new strengths; it is an appropriate time for examining whether we have certain strengths that we were unaware of before. And if we have turned into a new person at the beginning of the year, perhaps we have also acquired new strengths.


IV.          The King in the Field


These special stringencies may not stem only from the discovery of new strengths during the period. This can also take place at a different time. It is possible that the stringencies of this period stem from the fact that it is precisely then that the chances of success are greater. According to a well-known allegory found in the Tanya, during the month of Elul the king is found, as it were, out in the field, and therefore it is possible to connect with him in special manner. This is as opposed to the rest of the year, when the king is found inside the royal palace, and only special people are able to approach him:


This can be understood based on the analogy to a king who before he enters a city, people go out… to greet him and welcome him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires may greet him and he receives them all with a kind and joyful face… And when he goes to the city, they all follow after him. (Likkutei Torah, 32, 1)


            This allegory is, of course, based on the statement of Chazal in Rosh Ha-Shana (18a) that the verse, "Seek the Lord while He may be found" (Yeshayahu 55:6) refers to the "ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur" (although the Tanya extends this to all of Elul). The Tanya, however, adds that during this period God goes out to the field and everyone joins Him. At the end of this period, they do not part ways; just the opposite: "And when he goes to the city, they all follow after him."


            In light of this, it may be suggested that people try to do things during the Ten Days of Repentance that they cannot do all year round, because now, when the king is nearby, the likelihood is greater that these attempts will succeed. The hope, of course, is that they will return with the king to the city and continue to do these special things there as well, but the attempt to do them takes place now because now they are capable of more. Now the king is in the field, and in his presence it is possible to reach especially high achievements.


V.           The Value of Temporary Repentance


The statements of the posekim relating to our issue seem, however, to contradict the approach adopted above, according to which the stringencies observed during the Ten Days of Repentance are meant to lead to continued observance of these stringencies the rest of the year.


The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 603) writes that the laws regarding which we are stringent during the Ten Days of Repentance are merely matters of "hiddur," embellished observance of the mitzvot. We do not practice stringency during the Ten Days of Repentance with respect to matters that are subject to a dispute between the posekim regarding whether they are permitted or forbidden. His rationale is that when a person observes a prohibition regarding matters that are subject to a dispute, he accepts that prohibition upon himself as if by way of an oath. Therefore, were he to practice stringency during the Ten Days of Repentance, he would not be able to return to the more lenient practice after Yom Kippur.


Other posekim, however, imply otherwise. The Tashbetz (no. 117; cited in the Bet Yosef, Orach Chaim 603) asks how the Rosh extended the law regarding eating ordinary food in purity to eating pat akum. Surely eating ordinary food in an impure state does not involve the violation of any prohibition, whereas eating pat akum does! The Bet Yosef responded to this argument as follows:


This is not an argument, for inasmuch as the prohibition is not clear-cut, but rather it depends on custom, since when he refrains from eating it, his intention is merely to refrain from eating it during these days, it is obvious that it does not become forbidden to him the rest of the year.


            That is to say, there is no problem of an oath because he has no intention of accepting upon himself a prohibition for the entire year, but rather only for the Ten Days of Repentance. He therefore can accept upon himself even things that are subject to a halakhic dispute as to whether or not they are forbidden by strict law. In similar fashion, the posekim write that it is proper to be stringent about the prohibition of chadash during the Ten Days of Repentance, and about other matters as well (Elef La-Magen, 603:2).


            Either way, what is common to both positions is that it is clear from the outset that there is no intention to continue to observe the various stringencies after the Ten Days of Repentance. If so, we come back to our original question: What is the value of this temporary conduct when there is no intention to continue with it during the rest of the year?


            The Elef La-Magen (603:2) writes in the name of the Ramak that the reason for the special stringencies during this period is that that God sits on the throne of mercy and acts with piety, and we therefore must also conduct ourselves with special piety during this period. Accordingly, our conduct is not meant to improve our standing in judgment, but rather reflects our desire to imitate the ways of the Creator (which will also impact upon our standing in judgment). A person conducts himself in a manner that is different than the way he conducts himself the rest of the year – beyond the letter of strict law - and he hopes that God will deal with him in a manner that goes beyond the letter of strict law.


            Rabbenu Mano'ach (Bi'ur Le-Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 1:5) writes that since these are days of pardon and forgiveness, a person must be extremely careful not to do anything involving even a trace of sin, so that he will stir himself to repent. It seems from here that the special stringencies observed during these days are meant to bring us to an awakening. If a person observes special stringencies, they will bring him to contemplate the essence of repentance, to examine his actions, and to fully repent. It turns out, then, that the change in conduct is not directed at God, but at the person himself.


VI.          A "Convalescent Home" for the Soul


Beyond all of these explanations, the laws with which we opened this discussion contain an even more novel statement. It seems to me that the Ten Days of Repentance have independent value. First of all, as we have seen, all of creation works in cycles of flowering and withering. In the absence of renewed flowering, it is very possible that the fall would be much greater.[10] According to this, flowering is necessary, despite the fact that it is temporary, so that when deterioration arrives, it will not bring us down to the lowest of depths.


It seems, however, that we can point to yet another layer of explanation. No one can live his entire life at the summit; no one can pray all year round as he does on Rosh Hashana. But woe to the person who never in his life reaches the summit, and woe to the person who never in his life experiences a Rosh Hashana prayer!


Just as there is a convalescent home for the body, so too there must be a "convalescent home" for the soul. There must be a certain period during which the soul undergoes maximum treatment, during which it operates at maximum intensity. There must be times when a person can direct all of his attention to his soul in order to develop it and to raise it to the highest level.


This climax has independent importance. Even if a person knows from the outset that he will not be able to maintain this intensity all year long, it is nevertheless important that there be several days a year during which the soul reaches its peak. This flowering of the soul is meant to leave its mark on the entire year. Even when the special practices observed during the Ten Days of Repentance do not find practical expression, they impact upon the person's spiritual level and upon his actions and thoughts in other realms.


This approach has practical ramifications. Sometimes, people remain in the category of "mediocre" even during the Ten Days of Repentance because they do not want to do things that they feel they are incapable of continuing the rest of the year. A person must try to reach his maximum during these days, even regarding those matters that he knows he cannot possibly continue.


During this period, our mission is two-fold. On the one hand, we must remember that we are turning over a new leaf and that we must try to continue to observe those practices that we accepted upon ourselves during the rest of the year as well. This applies both to practices involving our relationship with God and to practices involving our relationships with other people. We must fill ourselves with the hope and aspiration that even though we failed in certain missions over the course of the previous year, we will succeed in them during the coming year. At the same time, however, we must accept certain things upon ourselves that we know from the very outset we will not be able to continue for the entire year. We must reach the summit in our prayers and in our spiritual, religious, and moral intensity. Even if we fail to maintain that level in all these areas, these days of climax will have an impact upon us throughout the year. Even if a person once again eats pat akum, the fact that he refrained from eating it for several days, the fact that he was especially meticulous in his prayers, the fact that he studied Torah with heightened diligence, gives him strength and raises his spiritual level for the entire year. These things elevate his soul, and even if he does not continue with them, they will surely influence the rest of his behavior over the course of the year.




[1] The Or Zaru'a (II, no. 257) brings this explanation in the name of the Ge'onim, who understood that the Yerushalmi speaks only of seven days because one should fast on the two days of Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur (but one does not fast on the rest of the Ten Days of Repentance). The Or Zaru'a himself disagrees with this approach and argues that R. Chiyya instructed Rav to be careful to eat ordinary food in a state of purity on any seven days of the year that he chose. The Darkei Moshe (Orach Chaim 603), who also understands that the Yerushalmi refers to the Ten Days of Repentance, offers a different explanation as to why it speaks of "seven days:" the bread that one eats on Rosh Hashana is in any case ritually pure, because everybody kneads their bread at home in honor of Yom Tov.

[2] The Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim, 603, in the name of the Shela) writes that one should be stringent about the matter even in our time, but many authorities disagree with him.

[3] Hilkhot Aseret Yemei Teshuva; this law is brought by the Rama, Orach Chaim 602:1.

[4] Orach Chaim, 608:31 in the name of Yafeh la-Lev 5: 5.

[5] Responsa Machazeh Avraham (I, no. 36) writes in the name of the Tanya, that one must abstain from luxuries during the Ten Days of Repentance. The Ba'er Heitev (Orach Chaim 240, no. 4) writes in the name of Shayarei Kenneset Ha-Gedola that it is proper not to engage in marital relations during the Ten Days of Repentance; this is difficult to understand, as it is only the High Priest who is separated from his wife seven days before Yom Kippur (Yoma 1:1), implying that other people are permitted to engage in marital relations. See Responsa Zekher Simcha 72 and Yalkut ha-Gershuni 602. It seems that this practice was only proposed as a middat chasidut, "an expression of special piety."

[6] According to the accepted view, repentance is a repair; the normal state in the world is without repentance, but when something goes wrong, repentance is required. R. Kook argued that repentance is part of the nature of the world and of man. Therefore, Chazal said (Pesachim 54a) that repentance preceded the world. In other words, it is the foundation on which the world was created. The world was created with ups and downs, with the desire to improve and develop, to draw closer to perfection, to Divine force. Repentance is something that takes place at all times, and a person must try to reach his own personal perfection.

[7] Vayikra Rabba 29: 12 (ed. Margaliyot, p. 686).

[8] The Ramban, in his derasha for Rosh Hashana, proves that the year begins in Tishrei both from the fact that Chazal say that the world was created in Tishrei (the view of R. Eliezer in Rosh Ha-Shana 8a) and from the fact that it is the beginning of the agricultural season. In Tishrei, we begin to plow and plant, whereas in the summer we harvest, and at the end of the year (until Sukkot) we gather the produce. The Ramban needs this proof in order to teach us that not only was the world once created in Tishrei, it is created every year anew in Tishrei. See R. Yoel Bin-Nun, "New Year or Beginning of the New Year,"

[9] Degel Machaneh Efrayim, Haftarat Ki-Tavo, s.v. kumi ori.

[10] This may be likened to a sloppy person who writes in a notebook. At first his writing will be reasonable, but as he proceeds, it will become more and more illegible. A new notebook will allow for a new start and stop the deterioration.

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