The Days of Repentance
By Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg
Years ago, while walking back to my college dorm room from Kol Nidrei services, I was shocked to hear my roommate—fresh off all of the confessions and regret that are baked into the Yom Kippur liturgy—use a word not fit to print in the virtual pages of Seventy Faces. With all the self-righteousness of a 20-year old, I called him out on it: “It’s Yom Kippur night! Is this how you want God to see you on the day you’re being judged?” My roommate responded: “Do you plan on ceasing any and all use of four-letter words after Yom Kippur? Or is it just a temporary piety for these 24 hours? Because if the latter, it’s hypocrisy. Either you think using that language is wrong, in which case you should quit, or you think it’s fine, in which case it’s no more problematic today than tomorrow.”
His rebuke struck home, and I became a vehement opponent of part-time piety, especially of the kind that some Jews would take on around the High Holidays. I was therefore stunned when, years later, I came across a passage in the classic code of law, the Shulhan Arukh, that seemed to endorse just such hypocrisy. The background to the passage is a bit complex, but it goes roughly like this: The Mishnah, a third-century C.E. Rabbinic document, forbids the consumption of bread baked by gentiles. Now, I imagine that many readers of this blog are offended by this clear attempt to draw boundaries between Jew and gentile, and I’ll come back to that, but it’s worth noting that already in the Talmud, there is pushback on this law. By the time we get to the medieval period, the prohibition on eating such bread was severely weakened, at least in Ashkenazi lands, and some commentators seem to say that it need not be observed at all. So by the time we get to the composition of the Shulhan Arukh, there are large numbers of the Jewish people who, for whatever reason, were unconcerned with the Mishnah’s prohibition on gentile-baked bread.
Against this background, the Shulhan Arukh states: “Even someone who is [normally] unconcerned with [the prohibition against] gentile-baked bread should, during the Ten Days of Repentance, be concerned” (Orah Hayyim 603). Here we have a serious religious and legal thinker advocating the kind of part-time piety that my college roommate at so eloquently and convincingly denigrated. If the author of the Shulhan Arukh thought that eating gentile-produced bread was truly problematic, then why does he write about in such equivocating terms, tentatively advocating that his readers be stringent for only ten days of the year? And if he thinks that, in fact, it’s more-or-less fine to eat this bread, then why advocate stringency for even a single day?
A fateful encounter with another roommate, this time the roommate of my then-girlfriend (and now spouse) helped me finally understand the Shulhan Arukh’s ruling. She was talking about having a hard time finding a place to meet a friend for lunch, because during the Ten Days of Repentance, she would eat only in kosher-supervised restaurants. Apparently having not lost the self-righteousness I carried at twenty, I called her out on her hypocrisy: “Do you think any food produced in a non-kosher-supervised restaurant is unkosher? If so, why do you eat it the rest of the year? And if you think it is totally fine, then why take on this stringency of eating only in supervised restaurants for even a single day, let alone ten?” Like my own roommate years earlier, she responded in a way that transformed my own thinking: “It’s not about the food. When I eat in kosher-supervised restaurants, most or all of the other diners are Jews who are also observing Jewish holidays. People wish me a happy new year, and I overhear conversations about others’ hopes and anxieties for this new year. I’m in a space that constantly reminds me I’m in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which makes me more mindful and aware of the spiritual work I’m supposed to be doing.”
All of a sudden, I understood what I had previously thought was the Shulhan Arukh’s hypocrisy. The Shulhan Arukh is not in this paragraph endorsing taking on random stringencies during these Ten Days of Repentance; we’re not told in this passage to give more tzedakah or pray with greater intensity during this period (though those are practices endorsed elsewhere within our tradition). He’s specifically advocating, temporarily, for a practice that builds thicker bonds around the Jewish community, requiring a Jew to live more fully ensconced in Jewish community for these ten days.
The Shulhan Arukh’s ruling here is not hypocritical; to the contrary, it actually expresses a truth about how to navigate the tension between boundaries and openness. The Mishnah’s rule about bread surely is designed to create the kinds of boundaries that make a supportive, like-minded community possible. Boundaries understandably get a bad rap these days, since they are so often erected as impenetrable walls that keep the “good” people in and the “bad” people out. But boundaries need not be impermeable barriers; when done right, they are not walls but definitions, the markers of a community’s shared commitments and values.
The application of the Mishnah’s rule to a mere ten days is an attempt to thread the needle between two extremes—between an insularity that makes learning from and with others impossible, and a boundlessness that makes meaningful community untenable. The Shulhan Arukh offers an approach to threading that needle that takes seriously the ebb and flow of a spiritual cycle. There are times when it is important to hunker down with the people who most closely share your rhythms, your history, your sacred commitments; doing so is not insularity, but a mode of spiritual renewal. These Ten Days of Repentance in which we find ourselves are a time to re-center, to spend more time with our families, with those communities that best affirm who we are and who we strive to be. They are a time for each of to find productive ways to set up some greater boundaries, precisely so that, when Yom Kippur ends, we can transcend them and live in our broader communities more fully and confidently.
Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg is Associate Professor of Rabbinics at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.
Learn more about Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs on November 12, 2018 at Ta Sh’ma (Come & hear), our Fall Open House & Day of Learning for prospective rabbinical, rav-hazzan and cantorial students.