August 7, 2018

The halachic stringencies and the spiritual opportunities of the Asseret Yemei Teshuva

During moments of spiritual inspiration we often hear the voice of alleged ‘reason’ offering the following convincing arguments: “You know that you can never achieve perfection, so why are you bothering at all?!”, or alternatively, “You know that you won’t be able to maintain this in the long term so don’t bother starting it”. The theme running through both these statements is that we should live consistent religious lives and we should therefore avoid any change to our spiritual equilibrium. But does Judaism demand consistency?

When discussing the laws of eating food in a pure state, the Gemara Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:3) presents a fascinating rule regarding temporary spiritual upgrades:

Rav Chiyya taught Rav: Whenever it is possible for you to eat chullin (ordinary food) in a pure state, do so. But if you are unable to [maintain this all the time], ensure that you do so during the seven days (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). 

During the period of the Rishonim this Gemara was reinterpreted to have a contemporary regarding eating bread baked by non-Jews (which is principally permitted), with the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 603:1) ruling that: Even someone who is not careful regarding bread of non-Jews; during the ten days of repentance they should be careful. A corollary of this rule is that once Yom Kippur has passed, halacha permits and in fact expects us to readopt less rigorous standards.

But why are we required to adopt a higher halachic standard during this period with the full knowledge that this will not be maintained in the future? Surely this smacks of the worst type of inconsistency? Furthermore, is this not a classic case of spiritual deception during the High Holyday period?! In order to resolve these questions we must begin by exploring the rationale of Rav Chiyya and the subsequent application of his rule to bread baked by non-Jews and a survey of rabbinic literature leads us to identify three major approaches in defense of this practice.

A. To encourage teshuva

Perhaps the most obvious justification for this refrain is that it serves as a means to encourage us to do teshuva. As Rabbi Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu Vol. 2 p. 56) explains:
The Shulchan Aruch recommends that in the Ten Days of Penitence we should adopt special stringencies in mitzvot, even if we do not demand this from ourselves during the rest of the year. On the face of it this seems most puzzling. What is the point of this extra care if we do not intend to keep it up? … A radical change in behaviour will pave the way for a real change of heart and open up opportunities for sincere and thorough repentance.
To paraphrase Rav Dessler, by changing what we do during this period it is presumed that it will change who we are. Thus, we are encouraged to adopt strictures during the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah so that our actions stimulate further spiritual growth. These stringencies are the means rather than the ends, and it can safetly be assumed that by being careful in other areas of halacha during this period would be equally effective in achieving the goal of ‘a real change of heart’.  According to this line of reasoning it is somewhat inconsequential as to whether we revert back to eating bread baked by non-Jews after Yom Kippur. More important is whether we have spiritually developed from the person who was eating that type of bread prior to Rosh Hashanah.

B. Different days, different ways

Others suggest that a change of practice between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is intended to distinguish the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah from the rest of the Jewish calendar. As the Levush (Levush HaChur OC 603:1) writes:
this is [done] to conduct oneself in a pure fashion during these days and to remember that they are different and of a higher order than all other days in the year. 
Rabbi Aharon Kotler (Mishnat Rabbi Aharon Vol. 2 p. 207) illustrates this concept further by means of a parable. Imagine a man is charged with a serious offence and is summoned to the High Court. If, during his trial, he acts as if this is a meaningless exercise and behaves in a disrespectful fashion, then his behaviour will be noted by the judge and he will be treated more severely as a result. Conversely, if he shows humility and remorse towards the judge, he will likely be awarded a lighter sentence. In the same vein, the period from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur is described as a time of G-d’s ‘closeness’. It is therefore prudent to behave in a respectful fashion during this period.
Unlike the approach of Rav Dessler, this explanation suggests that the adoption of stringencies during the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah is a reflection of, rather than a catalyst towards, spiritual refinement. The rules of spiritual engagement are inconsistent throughout the year. As such, our ‘spiritual footprint’ is greater during this period than any other.

C. Measure for measure

A final reason is that by acting beyond the letter of the law during this period, G-d too will judge us beyond the letter of the law. As Rabbi Eliezer Papo writes in his Pele Yoetz (in his entry on ‘Kippur’):
Whoever does more of these kinds of good customs and other pious practices during these days is praiseworthy – because this is what we are asking of G-d: that He should treat us with the attributes of kindness and compassion – beyond the letter of the law. Who is the man that can survive if G-d sustains the world only with justice? 
This quote implies that by consciously choosing to behave in a fashion deemed to be lifnim meshurat hadin – beyond the letter of the law – we can expect G-d to do the same and judge us with greater restraint than would be expected.
This approach is echoed by Rabbi Avraham Danzig (Chayyei Adam 143:1) who writes:
It is therefore correct that a person conduct themselves during the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah with greater religious stringencies, even if they are not careful about these throughout the rest of the year, in order that G-d acts with kindness towards his creatures.  
Here too the stringencies adopted during this period are a means to an end and it has been noted by numerous halachic works that adopting other strictures classified as מילי דחסידותא- pious practices – during this period would be equally effective in achieving the goal of G-d treating us beyond the letter of the law.

These three explanations provide a clear answer to those who insist on living a consistent Jewish life at the expense of their (temporary) spiritual growth. As Mark Twain observed: ‘There are those who would misteach us that to stick in a rut is consistency – and a virtue; and that to climb out of the rut is inconsistency–and a vice’. 

The Yetzer Hara may well accuse us of inconsistency. However, to succeed in this battle we need to comprehend that spiritual growth often arises out of inconsistency, and that central to our religious practice during the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah is to pursue a lifestyle that is inconsistent with the rest of the year and be the best person we can be without concern for whether we can maintain this in the future. As a result of this our actions during this period will serve as a catalyst for the rest of the year; they will leave the correct spiritual footprint during this period, and that will ‘encourage’ G-d to judge us beyond the letter of the law.


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