“It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves, It is an eternal statute” (Vayikra 16:31).
This is how our Torah sums up the upcoming experience of Yom Kippur: a Sabbath of all Sabbaths. Rather than use the more colloquially known “Yom HaKippurim,” The Day of Atonement, the Torah reading of Yom Kippur morning uses the above term to summarize the twenty-five hour experience we are about to step into.
This once-a-year “Sabbath of Sabbaths” is not alone; our weekly Shabbat is coined a “Sabbath of Sabbaths” as well (see Shemot 31:15, 35:2, Vayikra 3:3). However, there are many distinctions between our weekly Shabbat versus the “once a year Shabbat,” ones that make it highly doubtful that any of us would naturally state that “Yom Kippur is just another Shabbat.“ After all, the tenth day of Tishrei is devoted to fasting in place of the three obligatory Shabbat meals, praying almost all day in place of far more free time, and abstaining from other prohibitions that are totally permissible on Shabbat. Alas, if G-d decided to coin the same phrase for both, it’s incumbent upon us to try and seek the similarities between these two elevated days in our calendar. Allow me to extrapolate but one that the former clearly possesses, to which the latter, in my opinion, has not been properly privileged: preparation.
There isn’t a Rabbi or Teacher that preached during the past few weeks, and didn’t state, in some way or another, how vital it is to “prepare” for the Days of Judgment. Teshuva, introspection and other such terms were surely refrains in any sermon or class, imploring us not to “stumble into” Yom Kippur without the proper period of preparation.
And indeed, preparation seems to be exactly what is on the menu at this time of the year. Jews of Sephardic decent began to recite Selichot prayers forty days before Yom Kippur (Code of Jewish Law, OC 581:1,). Ashkenazic Jewa began Selichot at least fourdays before Rosh Hashana (Rama’s glosses, ibid), allowing at least four days of “inspection” of oneself, as one would inspect a sacrifice for blemishes prior it’s offering (Mishna-Berura, ibid, 6). As we draw closer to Yom Kippur, preparations increase greatly, as articulated beautifully by Rav Solovetchik:
“I remember how difficult it was to go to sleep on Erev Yom Kippur. The shochet (ritual slaughterer) used to come at the break of dawn to provide chickens for the Kaparos ritual, and later the people would give charity…Minchah, vidui, the final meal before the fast (seudah hamafsekes), my grandfather’s preparations all made Erev Yom Kippur a special entity, not only halakhic, but emotional and religious as well.
Erev Yom Kippur constitutes the herald that the Ribono Shel Olam is coming… (A. Lustiger, Before Hashem, page 60-61).
If all the above preparations are so vital for the “Shabbat” of Yom Kippur, are they not critical also for the weekly “Shabbat?” If both are called “Shabbat of Shabbats,” why should just one require preparation, while we stumble into the other with none?
Indeed, it’s known that “One that was busy preparing on the eve of Shabbat will eat on Shabbat, and one that didn’t prepare will not eat on Shabbat“ (Tractate Avoda Zara 3a). While this seems like good advice rather than a rabbinical edict (i.e., the prohibition of cooking would prevent one who didn’t pre-prepare food from eating on Shabbat), this is not the only statement that speaks of preparing for the Shabbat. Just as the Code of Jewish Law deals extensively with the Laws of Shabbat, there are endless chapters dealing with the Eve of Shabbat (OC, chapters 249-252, 256 & 270), from what should be done in honor of Shabbat, to what one should refrain from due to the oncoming holiness of the day.
The list goes on and the idea is clear: we are about to enter a twenty-five hour period of time with just family, friends and G-d, without distractions of the email, phone, work and more. If we want to have a profound “Shabbat” experience, it is vital that we prepare for it prior to its commencement.
It is uncanny for any event to turn out successfully without months of preparation, Thus too, our weekly Shabbat-event, even while refraining from the thirty-nine prohibitions, and making Kiddush, can easily turn into a wasted experience, or G-d forbid, a disastrous one, if not properly prepared for. Thus lamented Rav Solovetchik:
True, there are Jews in America who observe the Sabbath. The label ‘Sabbath observer’ has come to be used as a title of honor in our circles…But, it is not for the Sabbath that my heart aches, it is for the forgotten ‘eve of the Sabbat’ There are Sabbath-observing Jews in America, but there are not ‘eve-of-the-Sabbath’ Jews who go out to greet the Sabbath with beating hearts and pulsating souls… (Pinchas Peli, On Repentance).
And indeed, even if you buy “ready-made” Shabbat food, pay someone to clean your house, and even have someone else bathe your kids, much spiritual and mental preparation is needed for Shabbat to become a true experience; Have you put thought into what will be the topic of discussion at the Shabbat table? Have your kids prepared a Dvar-Torah to share? Which games will you play with your kids over Shabbat? How will you balance your time between your guests and friend, and the time with your husband/wife and kids? Is there inspiring reading material in the house? How will this Shabbat be different from all others?