Before Yom Kippur, there is a widespread custom to ask for lekach (sweet honey cake) from someone else, typically a relative, or the rabbi or gabbai of the synagogue. In many Chassidic courts, including Chabad, the custom is that the rebbes give out lekach.

What is the reason for this custom?

No Need to Ask

In case it was (G‑d forbid) decreed in heaven that during the upcoming year we will need to resort to asking for a handout from others, we request sweet lekach now so that this decree should be fulfilled and we won’t need to ask for anything else from others during the year.1 We trust that G‑d will provide for us in a dignified manner.

Benefiting From the Congregation

Some explain that the reason for this custom is in case the communal leader such as the gabbai accidentally benefited from public funds. By distributing sweets, they are attempting to repay any accidental loss and hopefully gain forgiveness.2

Precedent From the Midrash

As a possible source for this custom, some commentaries3 point to a version of the Midrash that tells us that the “head of the synagogue” would make a meal on the eve of Yom Kippur (other versions state that it was the Reish Galuta [exilarch]).4

All Is From G‑d

The Rebbe explains5 that since the reason for lekach is in order that we will not need to ask another person for our sustenance during the upcoming year, in truth, even the lekach itself is not really considered a handout from another person.

We all recognize that in reality everything comes from G‑d. As such, even a poor person who depends on the largess of others also thanks G‑d, who “provides nourishment and sustenance for all.”6 The human benefactor is only an intermediary delivering G‑d’s blessings.

Despite both parties being aware of this, they may still feel to some degree that this is a transaction between two people, a giver and a receiver. The poor person feels a bit ashamed and the giver feels that he is to some extent giving from his own belongings, which is why the Torah has to stress that the giver should give generously.7

Yom Kippur is a time of year that we all feel closer to G‑d. Thus, when lekach is given on the eve of Yom Kippur, both parties feel that G‑d Himself is doing the giving. Recognizing that he is a mere conduit, the “giver” naturally gives generously, and the receiver, too, feels no shame, as his asking (and receiving) lekach isn’t due to his personal need, but only to fulfill the custom of asking for lekach.

Rectifying the Past

Accordingly, the Rebbe8 explains that, on an even deeper level, lekach isn’t really about absolving ourselves of the need to come to others for help. After all, it is already after Rosh Hashanah, and we were certainly already granted a sweet new year, including an abundance of blessings related to our livelihood.

Rather, similar to Yom Kippur itself, this serves to rectify the past. In case either the giver or the receiver were not fully cognizant that everything is from Above, this serves as a reminder and remedy.

May we all merit a year full of an abundance of blessings, a year in which we will have no need to be dependent upon the gifts of mortals, only upon G‑d's “full, open, holy, and generous hand.”9