Before the Yom Kippur fast, which begins at sunset, we eat a festive meal known as the seudah hamafseket (“meal that separates”). In addition to the seudah hamafseket, many have the custom to also eat a festive meal earlier in the day.

Why do we eat two festive meals?

Let’s start with the seudah hamafseket.

Fast two days?!

The reason for the seudah hamafseket can be traced to a puzzling verse in Leviticus: “And you shall afflict your souls on the ninth day of the month.”1

The sages question this verse,2 as elsewhere in Leviticus it is written: “On the tenth of the month you shall afflict your souls . . .”3 Are we meant to fast for two days?

Yet another verse states, “From evening to evening [shall you observe your day of rest],”4 i.e., the fast is observed for one day only. So one cannot say that the first verse is teaching that one literally fasts two days.

The sages explain that on the ninth of the month we should already engage in the fast—not by fasting, but by eating, as this prepares us to fast that evening and the following day.

Due to G‑d’s great love for us, they explain, He commanded us to fast one day in the year to atone for our sins. Not only that, He also commanded us to eat and drink first, so that the fast would not harm us.

Why not just tell us to eat?

This prompts the question, why doesn’t the verse just state explicitly, “eat on the ninth”?

The sages explain5 that the reason the verse refers to eating as an “affliction” is to teach us that one who eats and drinks on the ninth is rewarded by G‑d as if he fasted.

As you can imagine, the reward that one receives for a pleasurable activity like eating and drinking because of G‑d’s commandment is not comparable to the reward that one receives for fasting because of G‑d’s commandment.

Nevertheless, one who eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei receives a great reward, as if he fasted both on the ninth and the tenth of Tishrei.

This is because, in truth, it would have been fitting to honor the day of Yom Kippur itself with food and drink, just as we do for the other festivals. After all, what greater joy is there than being granted forgiveness for our sins? However, since Yom Kippur itself cannot be honored this way (as it is a fast day), we honor it with food and drink on the preceding day.6

Refining the sparks: two meals = two days

Based on the above, there is a rabbinic mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur. One is only required to eat one meal, but he should eat and drink the amount of food and drink that he would normally consume in two days, or at least a bit more than he would for just one day.

Nevertheless, the widespread custom is to eat two meals.

The mystics7 provide a deeper reason for the seudah hamafseket, which also explains the deeper reason for the custom of eating two meals on the ninth of Tishrei.

In general, part of our purpose in this world is to refine the world and make it a “dwelling place for the divine.” This is especially highlighted when it comes to food and drink. The Kabbalists explain that within every creation there is an “utterance of G‑d's mouth,” a spark that is the energy of its creation. However, the spark is static, bereft of the capacity to advance creation's quest to unite with its Creator. When a person recites a blessing before eating, and then uses the energy that he received to serve G‑d, he refines and uplifts these sparks and helps get rid of negative spiritual energies.

Aseret Yemei Tshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance (which include Yom Kippur), are an especially opportune time for refining these spiritual sparks and any lingering negative energies. This is one reason why the Code of Jewish Law states that one should be extra strict regarding the kashrut of their food during this period.

But who will refine the food of Yom Kippur, when no one eats? Thus the kabbalists explain that on the day before Yom Kippur, we need to do the job for two days. So we eat two meals, one for the day itself, and one making up for the next day.

The great kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, explains that eating the seudah hamafseket has the power to rectify and atone for sins associated with eating that we may have done throughout the year.8

(Note that during this final meal one should eat only foods that are readily digestible in order that they not be overly satiated, which may cause them to be satisfied and proud while praying on Yom Kippur (see The Separation Meal as well as footnote9).)

May you be written and sealed for a happy, healthy and sweet new year!