We observe many, many minhagim (customs) without knowing why we do so — “Oh, that’s the minhag !” or, “It’s just something that people do; it doesn’t have any real significance…” might be the answer when someone asks what the reason is for keeping a certain custom. The truth is, that the reason for observing minhagim in one way or another is more profound than we may realize. Our Sages teach that “minhag Yisrael Torah hi ” — the customs of the Jewish people are (also) Torah. It is just that the profundity of each individual minhag is generally not known to most people. In order to show how profound the minhagim really are, let us take two examples of customs which are commonly observed on the eve of Yom Kippur.

One example is the custom of eating kreplach (small pieces of ground meat enveloped in dough, served with soup) on the eve of Yom Kippur. Why do we do so? The common answer is, again, “Oh, it’s just a custom!” The truth is that there is a very profound Kabbalistic reason for eating kreplach. Using the symbolism of the Kabbalah, the Rebbe explains that the meat in the middle of the kreplach signifies the emotional attributes, called the middos , whereas the dough enveloping the meat — made from wheat flour — signifies knowledge (da’as), that is, knowledge of HaShem. On the eve of Yom Kippur the innermost attribute of kindness, which is hidden within intellect, shines forth. Thus, when you eat your soup on the eve of Yom Kippur, you have something to think about — we pray that HaShem ’s attribute of kindness and mercy will be revealed in our knowledge and within our hearts, and that we too will respond to others with kindness and compassion. Another explanation: The two pieces of dough enveloping the meat allude to the two loaves of bread which were placed on top of the two lambs which were sacrificed on Shavuos. Just as Shavuos celebrates the giving of the Torah for the first time, so too, Yom Kippur celebrates the giving of the second luchos , after HaShem forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. Now you will have something to think about when you eat your soup on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Another example of a very common minhag, carefully observed also among Chabad chassidim, is the custom of asking for lekach (honey cake) on the eve of Yom Kippur. In every household there should be honey cake, and someone should be put in charge of giving it out to each person who asks for it. One of the highlights of Tishrei in 770 was when the Rebbe gave out lekach to about ten thousand people. What is the meaning of this minhag ?

In one of his sichos the Rebbe explained the custom of giving out lekach. We all understand why specifically honey cake is given out — because it’s sweet and it alludes to a good and sweet year. But what is the minhag that you should ask for it? Note that the custom is not simply that the person in charge of the cake should give everybody a piece of cake, but that everybody should consciously say, “Can I have a piece of cake?” You should stretch out your hand and say, “Please give me a piece of cake.” And then the cake is given. That’s the minhag. In our family, when I was growing up, we did the same thing. The husband asks the wife, the wife asks the husband, the children ask the mother, but everyone has to ask. And you say, what’s the game we’re playing? What’s the meaning behind it? And you’re given some trite, petty answer like, “This is the minhag. You don’t have to know why you are doing it. You just do it.”

However, the Rebbe explained the rationale behind this custom. We know that a person’s parnassah (income) is decreed every year during this period of time — during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah , the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. During this time HaShem decides how each person will earn their livelihood, and how much. Now one person can earn it by being the head of a bank, in an honorable, respectable, prestigious way. Another person can earn it by cleaning floors. Another person can get his parnassah through welfare and another person can get his by standing in the streets and getting hand-outs. As we well know, there are many people who have to get their parnassah in ways that are embarrassing and unpleasant.

So the minhag of distributing lekach is to say that if, G‑d forbid, it has been decreed that I have to beg for my livelihood, then let this be my atonement — I will ask my wife, I will ask my son, “Please, give me a piece of cake,” and let that be the fulfillment of the decree that I have to beg, so that the rest of the year I won’t have to ask anybody for food or for money. That is one aspect of the reason for asking for lekach.

There is another reason given for the custom of asking for lekach: The way a person earns his living is only the means by which he receives that which HaShem has decided to give him. HaShem decides how much a person will get, and by what means. Now people would not only like to earn their money, they would like to earn it in a manner that is not embarrassing. People would like to earn it with a friendly face in a pleasant way. The Rebbe gave out thousands and thousands of pieces of lekach to people from all over the world. Now, why is that when a person gets a piece of lekach from the Rebbe, he doesn’t feel embarrassed? If you have to go asking for a piece of bread, it’s very embarrassing. But if you go ask the Rebbe for lekach, you don’t feel embarrassed. The reason for this is that even when you give money, or something else, it is really not you who is giving it, but HaShem through you. He is the real provider of the money. You can see this clearly when you compare two beggars on two sides of the street. Roughly the same amount of people pass them by, but the guy sitting on this side of the street collected forty-seven shekels, whereas the guy on that side got sixty-seven. How come one got more and one got less? One was given dirty looks, and one was smiled at. This is not simply chance. This is all from HaShem. Of course, the people who give the money are HaShem ’s messengers. So the person giving lekach , or the person giving tzedakah , is really a divinely sent messenger, and you get that hand-out without feeling the humility and the unpleasantness of having to get a handout. This is especially so when one receives lekach from the Rebbe — because of his tremendous humility, when he gives out lekach , one feels clearly that he is a divine messenger, and that the lekach is really coming from HaShem.

May you all have a good, sweet year.