Tuesday, February 10, 2015

a seudah on the first Yom Kippur?

The Torah introduces the parsha relating Yisro’s suggestion to appoint judges by telling us that the episode occurred, “mi’macharas…,” (18:13) “It was on the day after….”  The obvious question: the day after what?  Had you asked me, I would have said it means the day after the immediately preceding episode of Yisro coming, offering korbanos, and sharing a meal with Moshe, Aharon, and the elders.  The Mechilta, however, comments that “mi’macharas” means the day after Yom Kippur. It could be that there is no contradiction between the Mechilta and the simple pshat – it could be that the day after Yiso’s arrival also happened to be the day after Yom Kippur.  Ramban, however, rejects that possibility out of hand.  If “mi’macharas” means the day after the seudah, it cannot also be the day after Yom Kippur, because that would mean the seudah was eaten on Yom Kippur!

Ramban put’s it like this:
  כי לא אכלו ביום הכפורים, אם היה להם יום הכפורים בשנה ראשונה קודם שנצטוו בו
The Ramban’s language seems to give away a weakness in his argument that Maharal picks up on.  What does the Ramban mean when he says they could not have eaten *if* there was a Yom Kippur?  Apparently there is room for doubt, or room to argue that there was not a Yom Kippur in the year that Yisro came.  We only find the commandment of how to celebrate Yom Kippur later, in Parshas Acharei Mos.  Maybe Yom Kippur was not celebrated until the second year in the desert, after the construction and dedication of the Mishkan, but not that first year when Yisro came.  Perhaps in that first year it was still permissible to eat on Yom Kippur.

The Maharal understood that Ramban was using the word “if” as a hypothetical, like the word “if” in this sentence: if you had studied for your test, you would have gotten a better grade.  But the word “if” can also be used as a conditional statement, like in this sentence: you can’t have desert if you don’t finish your food.  The Taz in Divrei David suggests that this is what the Ramban meant – the day of Yom Kippur is conditional on fasting.  You can’t have a Yom Kippur and eat your cake too.  The Ramban was not implying the possibility that Yom Kippur was not celebrated – he was saying that it would be impossible to have a Yom Kippur absent fasting.
The Taz is telling us a chiddush: the kedushas ha’yom of Yom Kippur goes hand in hand with it being a day of fasting.  In other words, fasting is not just something you do on Yom Kippur -- fasting is part of the definition of the day of Yom Kippur.  To use the term Yom Kippur, as the Mechilta does, to describe a day in which a festive seudah was eaten, is an oxymoron.  (What about a choleh who must eat on Yom Kippur – do other aspects of the same kedushas hayom remain intact or is the whole kedushas hayom diminished in some way?  Something to think about…)

There is another reason Ramban might find the Maharal’s position unpersuasive.  Ramban in many places (see the notes in the Chavel edition for a list) holds that regardless of where a mitzvah appears in the text of Torah, the command to observe that mitzvah was been given at Sinai.  The fact that Yom Kippur is first described in Parshas Acharei Mos does not mean that before that point in time there was no mitzvas ha’yom of Yom Kippur.  Rashi offers a different reason for not reading “mi’macharas” as the day after Yisro shared a seudah with Moshe and Aharon, so it could very well be that Rashi does not accept this position of the Ramban.  Something to look into…

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