The Essence of Aseret Yemei Teshuva
הרב מנחם מנדל בלכמן
Many are familiar with the practice to avoid all Pas Palter during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, even if they are lenient to eat it during the rest of the year. This is quite a strange thing. If it’s okay to eat during Tammuz, why can’t we eat it during Tishrei? It’s easy to say we are trying to be more frum, but honestly, do we think we can fool God?
What is the source of this practice? The source is brought down in the Tur (O.C. 603). He cites a Yerushalmi (Shabbos 3:3) where Rav Chiya tells Rav to eat his Chullin Al Taharas Hakodesh. Let’s explain this. We know that holy objects such as Teruma cannot be touched by some impure factor, and if they are, they become prohibited. But regular food is perfectly permissible even if it becomes Tamei. Yet there were people who were careful to eat even their regular food with all the restrictions of Tahara, as if it were Kodesh. Rav Chiya told Rav that if possible, he should eat all his food with the kedusha of eating B’tahara—it’s a value. Why is this so? There is no Halacha of eating Chullin in Tahara. So what’s the point? Should we be more frum than God?
But then Rav Chiya tells Rav that if he is unable to eat his Chullin B’tahara all year long, he should do it at least for seven days a year. What are these seven days a year? The Tur cites the Raavya, who says that he received from his teachers that the seven days that Rav was supposed to eat Chullin Al Taharas Hakodesh are the seven days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The Tur explains that Rav Chiya mentioned “seven days” even though there are ten days of the Aseres Yemei Teshuva is that it is obvious that on Rosh Hashana one would eat Chullin B’tahara because Chayav Adam L’taher Atzmo B’regel—everyone should be Tahor on Yom Tov. Since we have two days of Rosh Hashana where Chullin B’tahara is a given and one day of Yom Kippur when we do not usually eat, we are left with seven days where Rav Chiya was telling Rav to be extra careful.
We have to understand what is so unique about Rosh Hashana. Apparently, this is a Halacha —on Rosh Hashana, there is a din that you eat Chullin B’tahara. We don’t do this nowadays because we are all tamei meis anyway. Hypothetically, when the Para Aduma comes back, it is obvious that we will eat Chullin with all the sanctity and restrictions of Tahara on Rosh Hashana.
Coming back to our practice, the Tur continues that based on this, the practice in Germany is that those who ordinarily eat Pas Palter are careful not to eat this bread during Aseres Yemei Teshuva. We now have to ask a very simple question. Is this Halacha of Chullin Al Taharas Hakodesh a Chumra or a Ma’ala? Is it a questionable Halacha, and we should be careful during this season, or is it something that is essentially permitted and yet somehow it is better to eat everything B’tahara? It certainly seems to be the latter. It’s not even like a Mitzva that you didn’t have to do but if you do it, that’s great. It seems to be valueless—it’s like saying since you’re kissing Mezuzos, why don’t you also kiss the doorpost! Why would you care about Tahara when you eat Chullin? And on top of that, we extrapolate from this another Halacha of not eating Pas Palter, which also is permitted—the Rabbis said it is ok —yet there is a Ma’ala of not eating it during Aseres Yemei Teshuva. What we need to understand is what is the Ma’ala of Chullin Al Taharas Hakodesh and what it has to do with Pas Palter.
The Chayei Adam saw this as an idea of being frum, of taking on extra Chumros. But I do not think this is a logical conclusion, because Chullin B’tahara is not a Chumra—it is not a questionable situation where we decided to take a more stringent view. I would like to offer an alternative approach to this issue.
The Rambam writes (Hilchos Teshuva 2:6) that although it is obvious that anytime a person repents it helps—actually, we are supposed to repent every day –during these ten days, it is accepted right away. The source is Dirshu Hashem B’himatzo. Why is it that during this time period, a person request for forgiveness is granted immediately? Why at other times does it not work so quickly? God just puts me on hold? If He is capable of answering immediately—and he certainly is—what is the holdup?
Rosh Hashana is a unique day is because it is defined as Hayom Haras Olam, the birthday of the world. And because of this, Hayom Ya’amid Bamishpat Kol Yetzurei Olamim, we are taken to court. Why is this so? Why does the world’s birthday mean judgement? And moreover, it isn’t even true that it is the birthday of the world. The first day of creation actually was the 25th of Elul, and the 6th day, when man was created was Rosh Hashana. Yet Rosh Hashana is called the day the world was brought into being.
The answer seems to be rooted in the Pasuk, “Vayhi Ha’adam L’nefesh Chaya” (Bereishis 2:7). This means that man became the soul of all that exists. He is capable of giving purpose, meaning, and direction to all of creation. Until then, it was a disharmonious gathering of musicians without a conductor. Until man came along, we could look at all the phenomena that existed as non-life, because nothing was bound together.
As an analogy, only when man is alive is he called man—when he is a cadaver, then you say that this is a heart, this a spleen, etc. What puts man together into one cohesive entity is called Chayim—in that framework, we judge man as man, not as mere components. The interrelationship and interdependence between the various components within man is obvious only in the context of life. Without the concept of life, we would not see any relationship between the mind, heart, feet, etc. The same goes for Vayhi Ha’adam L’nefesh Chaya. It means that man is that which gives the world its essential identity—the identity of being “one.”
So now we can understand how Rosh Hashana is called the birthday of the world. Since the world attained a certain purpose, meaning, and direction, a certain identity through man, the day of man’s creation is called the world’s birthday.
You now see the mission of Rosh Hashana in a totally different light. Man is in court because he is to be the embodiment of all creation. He is to be the Nefesh Chaya, that which gives harmony and unison to all existence. It is not you as yourself that is being evaluated, but rather you in your cosmic reality, you inasmuch as you have fulfilled your responsibility as Nefesh Chaya.
One more question. We say every day, “Hamchadesh B’tuvo B’chol Yom Tamid Ma’asei Bereishis,” that creation is an ongoing phenomenon. The basic idea is that all of creation is nothing more than an expression of God’s will and whim. He is the source of all reality. If so, there really is no such thing as the past. Time is a creation just as much as space. And consequently, every moment of existence is simply an expression of God’s will at that particular moment. He must will it constantly for it constantly to be. It has no real independence. Creation is not something that was; creation is an ongoing process. It is a constant “now.”
If so, why aren’t we judged every minute of the day throughout all of our lives? What’s so unique about Rosh Hashana? Having a Din on Rosh Hashana only makes sense if you have an annual cycle that needs to be evaluated at that interval if it deserves to continue. But if God is creating everything now, if the entire cosmos is recreated every moment, why isn’t it reevaluated every moment? How does it make sense to have just one day as a Yom Hadin? And moreover, how can Rosh Hashana be called the birthday of the world in any sense if the entire thing is recreated as much at this moment as any moment on Rosh Hashana?
God did not create something independent of Him. To the extent that He continues willing something to exist, it does. It is really a rather comforting idea. The only reason we are alive is because God wants us at this exact moment, with all of our shortcomings. There is no real past from God’s vantage point. We see things in the past because we aren’t really conscious of the ongoing creation of all reality. So it would appear that the idea of Rosh Hashana is not because it’s really the birthday of the world, but rather because we perceive it as such. Now we really need to understand why this is the basis for a Yom Hadin.
The Ba’al Hatanya basically asks this question. He gives an amazing explanation that I want to explain. Let’s say you make a decision to get married. After you get married, you are living your marriage because of that commitment. You continue wanting to do it, but it’s not that you’re constantly experiencing the proposal. The proposal was the basic catalyst for an ongoing will. But it is not the will of the initial commitment; it is the will of “Let’s do what we committed to in the past.” Usually, we don’t experience the pleasure that made us want to make that decision, although from time to time we try to recapture it. That’s what birthdays and anniversaries are about—trying to recapture the pleasure, that whole feeling that made you walk into this. The issue is not just to continue going, but in a sense to restart it.
Now we can start to understand Rosh Hashana. Yes, God recreates the world constantly. But the Ta’anug and the decision to create it only happened once, on Rosh Hashana. And the Ta’anug and decision is for one year. Each year, God wants to make a new decision. For one year, He is willing to continue acting because of an old commitment, because of an old Ratzon and Ta’anug. He does not want to be a Creator because of an old commitment forever. If we don’t have a good anniversary party, He’s off. That’s what Rosh Hashana is for—to rekindle the Ta’anug to create a Ratzon for constant creation for another year.
In that context, the judgement on Rosh Hashana is very understandable. God said “Na’aseh Adam,” which means that He was going to justify the reality of what He did for the last five days and create a cohesive idea called the world. Why did He do it? No one knows. He just wanted to. The will of God prior to creation is not defined by the created concept called logic. Logic is a created system; and if you have a will preceding the creation of logic, it cannot be defined or limited by logic. After God created logic and decided to express Himself through it, we ask if something is logical.
So the issue is not why He wanted, but what He wanted. He wanted to create a reality in which the world, through a lower level of consciousness, would become very much aware of where it comes from, that its total identity is nothing more than the expression of God’s will. God created a stage in which all of reality will look at Him, find Him, and live a life in accordance with those findings. That’s a world in which God can be king. What is a King? A king is not a CEO. A king is the embodiment of the national identity. In England, it’s the House of Windsor. Louis XVI was the state called France. We are not talking about the President. The President isn’t a national emblem. He’s really a glorified shamess. He has a job; he’s an executive that has to run a firm. When we talk about Malchus, we are talking about that which embodies the national identity. He has to answer to none, for all the country’s legislation stems from him, and he is the embodiment of all the values of the nation. So if we talk about the fact that God wanted us to see His Malchus, it means He wanted us to understand that within Him lies our identity.
This is actually the basic Tefilla of Rosh Hashana. V’yeida Kol Pa’ul Ki Ata Fe’alto means that we really want to really know it, because the Sinai experience and all the attempts of the prophets to bring us in line with it have to some degree failed. A person usually still thinks that the world begins on his birthday, and without him, the world just didn’t happen. That basically amounts to self-worship and putting God in the freezer. That’s why we ask to really know that God created us. We want to know that we are not independent entities that created ourselves. We don’t want to take our basic existence and identity for granted anymore. We want to understand that we are only here because God wills it.
We know a lot of things that aren’t internalized. Real understanding means to internalize it. You can only have a meaningful emotional response to something when you understand it in that way. Cerebral knowledge is not enough. In fact, knowledge not internalized can be a burden. Chazal describe Eisav as Yodei’a Es Ribbono Umechavein Limrod Bo. He knows his God and rebels against Him. But if he would really “know” God, he wouldn’t rebel. If he would identify himself as a function of the expression of Ata Fe’alto, everything would be different. If you internalize it, then V’yomar Kol Asher Neshama B’apo. Then, finally, when you say it, you’re telling the truth—your truth. This may the most essential part of the davening on Rosh Hashana. We hardly mention Teshuva on Rosh Hashana. But V’yeida Kol Pa’ul is the Matbei’a Hatefilla established by the Anshei Knesses Hagedola, which is the Ikar Hatefilla. Teshuva is peripheral on Rosh Hashana because I am not really trying to mend my ways but to have my head fixed.
So that’s why God created the world—for you to really, truly acknowledge Him as the Melech. And God decides to test us on Rosh Hashana. Once a year, He says, “I’ve paid for your education, now let’s see what you do with it. I’ll let you in the house if you can justify the tuition. I did this for you so you can find something. And if you did, I’m so happy that I want to do it again. Maybe you’ll do more! And I want you to be able look at every speck of reality and find God there. But if you’re not doing it, then I don’t want this. I don’t want to do this because I did it once. I did it once for free because I wanted to. I did it once to put the world into a position that I should do it because you make Me want to do it.” Every year, God says Na’aseh Adam. Rashi on that Pasuk says that God asked the angels if He should make man. And they start arguing against it—Ma Enosh Ki Tizkerenu. Man is a feeble, futile creature that is going to run around and do crazy things. God didn’t want to take no for an answer at that point, so He created man. But do you know what happens the next year? He asks Na’aseh Adam once again. And do you know who is supposed to answer? Us. We are supposed to say, “God, this is a good investment, a great marriage. It’s worth getting married again.” He’s expecting us to propose to Him.
This is Hayom Haras Olam, Hayom Ya’amid Bamishpat Kol Yetzurei Olamim. The question isn’t whether you behaved. The question is how much you have identified yourself with that understanding of V’yeida Kol Pa’ul. To what extent has this been internalized? How much are we living a life with that focus?
Many years ago, my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Hutner ZT”L, called me into his house and asked me a question: What are the two most important things in the Torah? I got very flustered and didn’t understand what he was getting at. He then answered, “Assur Liyos Shoteh, V’assur Liyos Beinoni.” Never be a fool, and never be mediocre. Because Beinoni doesn’t just mean fifty percent Mitzvos and fifty percent Aveiros. It means you’re mediocre. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:2) says that if you have one more Mitzva, you’re safe, and if you have one more Aveira, you die. How could God be that way? Because of one Aveira more I am going to die? It sounds like a bureaucrat. According to this, if you are at the fifty percent mark, why do Teshuva? Just put on Tefillin one more time! Why are we so nervous about this if all we are missing is a Mitzva? The answer is that the Mishpat is not on what you’re doing, but rather on how much you are the Nefesh Chaya of existence. How much are you a person who sees in the world that God is a Creator? How much are your actions a reflection of that perception, which equals how much of you is really in those Mitzvos? Are you just observant, or are you religious as well? Are your sins just a lack of observance, or do they reflect the fact that you really aren’t religious?
The issue is how much of you is involved in each action. How much are your mistakes or your good acts an expression of lacking or having this concept of V’yeida Kol Pa’ul Ki Ata Fe’alto. Rov Zechuyos means that in terms of his overall relationship with God, the person has more right than wrong in him, and his mindset is towards the positive. You can’t count that because you would have to understand the totality of a person in the deepest sense of his psychological and metaphysical self, to be a Bochein Klayos Valeiv, to find out how much of him is really expressed in those Mitzvos and Aveiros. And as my Rosh Yeshiva pointed out, the worst thing is to be a Beinoni, because a Beinoni means that he has no Netiya to anything—he isn’t drawn more to Tov than to Ra. He’s just observant. He hasn’t taken a stand—the religion hasn’t really become part of who he is. Beinonim Teluyim V’omdim because their actions do not reflect any character at all. The Beinoni is characterless.
There is a note found in the back of Likkutei Torah from the Maharash where he writes that the Teshuva of the Rosh Hashana is not on Aveiros, but rather on how much Kabbalas Ol we have in our Mitzvos and how much Prikas Ol we have in our Aveiros. This is a basic idea in Chassidus—the issue of Rosh Hashana is the Malchus of Hashem, and the Mishpat is on how much Kabbalas Ol we have.
Now, we shouldn’t comfort ourselves by saying, “Well, I am not constantly Poreik Ol” because the reason for that is that we don’t have one to begin with. The Teshuva on Rosh Hashana is that I want to recommit myself to God’s agenda. It’s not enough to say, “I’ll be good.” We must recommit ourselves towards whatever we’re doing. If the issue is that we’re doing it without commitment, without real drive, then Rosh Hashana is the time to recreate that drive. To make an anniversary work, you can’t have only one person doing it—you need both. God wants it only if we want it. This is the Avoda of Malchuyos.
Now we know why this birthday is also a day of Mishpat, and we know why it happens every year. Let’s explain one more idea. The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 01b) cites a dispute concerning when the world was created—was it Nissan or Tishrei? Tosfos (Rosh Hashana 27a s.v. Kman), based on a contradiction between two piyyutim of Rabbi Eliezer Hakalir , explains that both opinions are true in some sense. The world was created in two stages. In Nissan, the world physically came into being. But Tishrei is the time that God thought and willed the world to be. In effect, then, we pasken that man was not created on Rosh Hashana. The biggest proof is that we recite Birkas Hachama, the Bracha that we make on the sun when it is at the same point in the sky at the time of year when God first created it, in Nissan. The Halacha is clear that we perceive creation as having occurred in Nissan. So why- is Tishrei the time of Haras Olam?
The answer is simple. The issue is not what God did, the issue is what He had in His mind. The issue is not when we went to the Chuppa, but rather when the pleasure that led to the commitment happened. In Tishrei, God so to speak proposed. That’s when He wanted it. And that happens anew every year. He wants to want it again.
Let’s discuss an old idea. You know why davening is hard? Because sometimes, we ask God basically to perform miracles for us. It is not easy to ask God to intervene within the natural laws of existence. When can we make requests like that? The laws of nature are not confining if we perceive that everything is an ongoing creation and that everything is just the will of God. And if that’s how you look at reality, then you’re not bothering God by asking him to override nature. Because for you, there is no system of nature; there is only the ongoing will of God. And there was a person like that in history. His name was Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. One Erev Shabbos, his daughter accidentally lit vinegar instead of oil for Shabbos candles. When she realized, she came to him distraught, thinking they would have to sit in the dark for their Shabbos meal. He told her not to worry: “The One who decreed that oil should burn can declare that vinegar will burn.” And it worked.
The Mei Hashiloach explains that if you really understand that God created everything, and that all reality is nothing more than an expression of God’s will, then there is no set system—there is a constant ongoing creation of the system. You’re standing in the middle of Bereishis—it’s like it didn’t happen yet. So now, God can do it differently for you. The natural system is limiting only if you give it a sense of independence. If you daven like Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, you’re not really telling God to change things.
Aseres Yemei Teshuva are ten days in which we’re trying not to live a world that was, but rather to to connect to a world whose creation is ongoing now. We are trying to connect ourselves to a consciousness of the reality of the world of now. We try to tell God that He not only gives us purpose and direction, but also that He is the ongoing source of our identity. You then lose a sense of total independence, and you can’t just walk away from Him anymore, because if He doesn’t want you, you don’t exist. When two people are very close, one can’t live without the other. My identity is that without you, I have no sense of existence. That is what you’re supposed to be doing on Rosh Hashana—recapturing that idea. No God equals no me. And then God says, “If there’s no you, there’s no Me, either.” God says “Atem Eidai V’ani Keil,” “You are my witnesses and I am God” (Yeshaya 43:12). Chazal say, “Eimatai Ani Keil? B’zman She’atem eidai.” God is the master only when we attest to it. The Maharal says that it doesn’t mean just that you say it, but that you perceive it, because the status of “witness” begins not when he says it in court, but when he sees it. When is God your master? When you perceive Him as such.
So that’s what Aseres Yemei Teshuva are, and if that’s how you daven, it happens immediately. There’s nothing to stop you, because you’re not bugging God to change nature. It’s now because now is when He’s deciding whether to recommit to the relationship He has with the world. The Ramchal’s lashon (Derech Ha-Shem 4:8:4) is that during Aseres Yemei Teshuva, the order and system of creation are being put together. It’s as if for ten days, you’re at a construction site of reality, and everything that will happen depends on how you “prod” God to set things up—things have not been set up yet. The year actually begins on Yom Kippur. Whatever happens to you during these ten days isn’t because of this year’s Mishpat—it is a function of last year’s Mishpat. The new Hanhaga starts after Yom Kippur, because for ten days, He’s creating the system. To the extent that you believe it, meditate on it, and internalize it is the extent to which you are a Ba’al Teshuva.
Let’s understand something. Is there really a difference between Kodesh and Chol? Both are the will of God. Kodesh basically means that we perceive God in something, a window to the heavens. A Makom Kadosh is one where we can perceive more transcendence. A Zman Kadosh means a time when you can stop the world and, if you cash in on it, you can create a deeper sensitivity to certain values. But nothing is inherently “Kodesh.” The only difference between Kodesh and Chol is that one is a place of sensitivity to God awareness and the other is less so.
The Gemara (Makkos 24a) says that Dover Emes B’lavavo refers to Rav Safra. Rav Safra had something to sell, but when someone came to buy it, Rav Safra was davening. The prospective buyer made an offer, but Rav Safra didn’t respond, since he was davening. The buyer figured that Rav Safra didn’t like the price he had offered, so he increased his offer. And this happened a bunch of times. When Rav Safra finally finished davening, he told the buyer that he would accept only the initial offer that was made, since in his mind he had accepted it. The Mordechai (Kiddushin 49b, Siman 495) explains, as does the Maharsha, that Halachically, he couldn’t take more than that. You see, in mundane reality, decisions in the mind are not enough; they meaningless in our world. What carries weight in our world is not mindset, feeling, or belief, but what you do. It has to be tangible, physically expressed. Therefore, in just because you wanted to sell something doesn’t mean that you sold it. You have to say it, you have to move it—you have to make a tangible transaction. There must be externality to your inner self—the inner self does not really exist judicially in this world. It’s terrible, but it’s the truth.
But when it comes to Kedusha, when you want to make something holy and give it to God, you don’t even have to say it. You can just think, ”I want to give it to God,” and it’s His. The Gemara (Kiddushin 28a) states, “Amiraso L’’gavoha K’mesiraso L’hedyot.” And the truth is that it doesn’t even need Amira. Even Machshava suffices, as the Pasuk says, “Kol Nediv Leiv Olos” (see Shevuos 26b). You know why? Because in the world that is closer to that which is real, the internal self is much more significant than the external self. For the real world is not the external phenomena, but the internal will of God for which the external is nothing more than an expression.
The Maharsha (Makkos 23b) writes that Rav Safra really lived an internal life, and he was so internal that Kodesh and Chol for him were all the same. He wasn’t doing the guy a favor and giving it to him at the first price. The moment he thought of selling the item at the first price, it belonged to the other guy. The Halacha changes for Rav Safra, for Rav Safra lived an internal life, one that that focused not on the externalities of reality but on the deeper reasons as to why things are happening. For such a person, the mindset is what really counts.
From this Mordechai, I better understand the concept of Chullin Al Taharas Hakodesh. It is not just being frum. Tahara is a very special thing. Normally, we are only sensitive to it when we touch Kedusha. But when we’re just living mundane reality, there’s no purpose of thinking of Tahara, because it’s just too far away. But if you look at everything that you do within the context of the source—of Kedusha—then Tahara is important for everything. The Maharsha says that just as Rav Safra looked at reality internally, and thus the world of thought counted substantively, a person who looks at the world internally will appreciate Tahara even in regard to things that are not Teruma or Kodesh.
That’s what’s going on in the Yerushalmi. The idea is not to be frum during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva. This Halacha reflects an internal reality, and in an internal reality, we live a world of Tahara—and it’s not restricted just to objects of Kedusha. And the same goes for Pas Palter. Broadly speaking, Pas Palter seems to be a sense of connection to certain societies that we should not be close to. But, as the Gemara and Rishonim say, people have to eat, so we have to let them be close to that world, so we’ll let them eat Pas Palter. But when you say that “you have to,” it really depends on your mindset. If you were sensitive to the Kedusha of Yisrael in its deepest sense, you probably wouldn’t have to eat that much bread. Can you imagine if the only way you get bread was to go into the worst section of New Orleans? I’ll bet you would diet. So the idea is to ask yourself how important eating bread is. I guess it depends on how much you appreciate what Kedushas Yisrael is. The issue isn’t eating bread—the issue is how important it is in juxtaposition to Kedushas Yisrael. How much do you understand that being nourished within a society that totally negates your whole mindset is a major issue? It’s not just frumkeit; it’s ten days of trying to live in the world of Tahara. On Rosh Hashana, it’s obvious that you don’t eat non-Jewish bread. And it’s obvious that you eat Chullin B’tahara, because Chayav Adam L’taheir Atzmo B’regel. You have to be holy on Yom Toy, for Yom Tov is nothing more than a window in the sky, a means to connect to the mindset of the Infinite. So how can you possibly think of not eating B’tahara.
During these days you’re expressing an aspiration to a different level of consciousness, to experience more of your true self. For these few days, we are more open to the sensitivities and ideas that are the background and source of this Halacha, and therefore, we are careful about this Halacha. We should have brought ourselves to a level of understanding during this period where we wouldn’t want to eat Pas Palter—and that is expressed in the Halacha. At least we should wish to want this. This is Aseres Yemei Teshuva.
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