“When Yom Kippur Occurs on Shabbat”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Hebrew calendar is designed so that Yom Kippur can never fall on Friday or Sunday. To prevent Yom Kippur from occurring on those days, an extra day or two are added to one of the previous months of the year. The principle for calculating the calendar is recorded in the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chaim, 428:1) with a clever abbreviation: “Loh ah’doo rosh, v’loh ga’ah’v yom.” This teaches that Rosh Hashanah must never fall on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday, nor may Yom Kippur occur on Tuesday, Sunday or Friday.

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 20a, see Rashi) concludes that the primary reason for Yom Kippur not falling on Friday or Sunday is to show respect for the dead. The rabbis wanted to avoid facing a burial delay of two days, which would happen if Yom Kippur were to either precede or follow Shabbat. (Technically, a Jewish burial can take place on the second day of Yom Tov, if it is a weekday).

This ruling gives rise to a serious question: Why were the rabbis so concerned about the dignity of the dead, but not about the dignity of Shabbat? After all, when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, Jews are unable to fulfill the mitzvah of “Oneg Shabbat,” and “Oneg Shabbat” is not something that is easily dismissed! The prophet Isaiah (58:13) declares that Shabbat shall be called a day of delight, “oneg,” which is achieved through eating and drinking. There are even authorities who insist that eating and drinking on Shabbat is a Torah commandment. Why then didn’t the rabbis of old make certain that Yom Kippur would not fall on Shabbat?

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer concludes that an important lesson is taught by allowing Yom Kippur and Shabbat to coincide, a lesson that is not apparent when Yom Kippur falls on a weekday.

When one fasts on Yom Kippur that falls on a weekday, it is apparent only to the person fasting and to the Al-mighty that he is fasting in order to fulfill the biblical command found in Leviticus 16:31: “V’ee’nee’tem eht nahf’shoh’tay’chem,” and you shall afflict your souls. A casual observer might conclude that such a person is fasting only because he has nothing to eat or drink, perhaps due to poverty. In such an instance, the element of “Kiddush Hashem,” sanctifying G-d’s name, would be entirely lost.

However, one who fasts on Yom Kippur that occurs on Shabbat, not only fulfills the mitzvah of fasting, but also sanctifies G-d’s name. Many people are well aware that fasting on Shabbat is forbidden and that even the poorest of people are required to eat at least two meals on Shabbat. Even sages, like Rabbi Akiva (Psachim 118a), who maintain that it is preferable to turn one’s Shabbat into a weekday rather than rely on the public’s assistance, also acknowledge that everyone is required to do something in order make the Shabbat meal special. Most other authorities require one to beg or go to the local soup kitchen in order to make certain to have at least two Shabbat meals. Therefore, one who fasts on Yom Kippur renders it entirely apparent that the fasting is not due to a shortage of food, but rather in order to fulfill the Divine command to fast.

Rabbi Firer points out that a similar logic applies to the principle of eating extra on the 9th of Tishrei before the fast of Yom Kippur. The rabbis in Brachot 8b regard those who eat and drink on the 9th as if they fasted on both the 9th and the 10th. By eating a double meal on the 9th of Tishrei they clearly demonstrate that, despite having an abundance of food, they have purposely chosen to fast on Yom Kippur. Eating extra on the 9th underscores the fact that the abundant eating is intended only to prepare for the fast on the 10th. It is therefore considered as if one fasted on the 9th and on the 10th.

Shabbat is such a special day in the life of a Jew. It is, for all practical purposes, the “elixir of Jewish life.” To my mind, of all the Jewish rituals, Shabbat is the most relevant ritual of contemporary Jewish life. Shabbat was never needed more than it is today to provide a sense of balance to our lives and families. It provides this balance by not allowing our careers, professions and jobs to overly dominate our lives. There really is no more relevant message than this for today’s world.

It is therefore even more surprising that fasting on Yom Kippur overrides Shabbat. Not because Yom Kippur is more important than Shabbat, which it is not. But by fasting on those rare occasions when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, we demonstrate to the world that the idea of Kiddush Hashem, of sanctifying G-d’s name, overrides Shabbat. Indeed, it is Yom Kippur that parallels Shabbat in providing a balance, albeit a different balance than that of Shabbat.

On Yom Kippur, we do not eat, drink, wash, bathe, anoint ourselves in oil, engage in sexual activities or wear leather shoes in order to experience a symbolic death. After all, only those who are dead and have lost the abundant privileges of life can truly appreciate the blessings of life.

It is therefore deeply and powerfully symbolic to start off the new year 5771 by fasting on this Yom Kippur, which occurs on Shabbat. Doing so will hopefully enable us to better appreciate our lives, and at the same time, provide us with the unique opportunity to sanctify the name of G-d. In this way, fasting on Shabbat/Yom Kippur may be seen as a true privilege and a wonderful way to start off the new year.

May you be blessed.

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Friday evening, September 17th through nightfall on Shabbat, September 18th, 2010. Have a meaningful fast.

Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening, September 22nd, through Friday night, October 1st, 2010.