Mishnah Yoma Chapter 1 Mishnah 4 Pt. 3

by Bronwen Mullin, Faculty

מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהַמַּאֲכָל מֵבִיא אֶת הַשֵּׁנָה
…because food induces sleep.

As I was enjoying my yogurt and mango while y’all were in hevruta (and admittedly, I was feeling pretty jealous because so much magic happens in hevruta!! I want to be in it!!), my mind wandered to our High Priest. Not only are they being kept up all night long, but they’re being denied a big meal because, as our text today explained, food induces sleep. Well, I guess you can say the authors of this Mishnah were definitely in touch with the ways of us late-night eaters. Am I right?

But I found myself feeling really struck—doesn’t the High Priest deserve a hearty meal so that they can maintain their strength and mental alertness to do all the ever-pivotal rituals of Yom Kippur while they are otherwise fasting? It seems counter-instinctual to me. Y’all brought up some very interesting points about the way fasting can alter ones state of consciousness, which makes sense to me when it comes to why we would have the ritual of fasting as part of the spiritual practice of Yom Kippur, but this act of the elders denying the High Priest food even before the start of the holiday feels excessive to me. So what’s going on?

I think it’s interesting to look into the word that we poetically translated as “induces”, מביא, which is a causative form of the root בוא, meaning “to come”. Functionally the word means “bring” or “brings”. So our Mishnah more literally says, “food brings sleep.” But is it a healthy sleep? Is it a sleep where our stomachs spend all night digesting, turning and turning over fibers and all sorts of things? (Let me be clear, if it wasn’t already, that I’m pretty limited when it comes to anatomy lol.) But the point is—our ancestors clearly believed that the High Priest served the tender role of being our vehicle to the Divine on this one critical day, when the gates of repentance would be open unlike any other day. And who knows what a year could bring—we may not be here for the next opportunity to approach. It’s remarkable to think that our ancestors were not intellectualizing the role of the High Priest, but rather saw it as a practical art form, a discipline, an embodied ritual. It was not about denying the High Priest food entirely, but monitoring how they might sleep, how they’re natural circadian rhythms might allow them not only to perform at the highest quality, but at the most organic state with themselves. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, before critical moments in our lives, we were supported to consider our physical well-being on such an intricate level. May we seek out those supports in our lives, may those supports make themselves known to us, and may we come to be those supports for others—not only on Yom Kippur, but every day. Can’t wait to learn with you again soon!

Check out the rest of the Yoma Learning Guide here!

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