If It Takes So Long, Why Do We Call It a Fast?

10/04/2011 05:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2011

It is 2 o'clock on Yom Kippur afternoon and all I can think about is what I am going to use to top my bagel and whether the kugel will be as tasty as my mom's. That thought is usually followed by guilt. Sound familiar? Jews can enjoy food and physical pleasure almost every other day of the year, and on this holy day, one specifically dedicated to releasing our dependence on the physical in favor of the spiritual, I just can't get that kugel out of my thoughts. Shame on me, right?

It may not be so simple though. We stand and sit (and stand and sit again ... and again) in synagogue most of the day. We struggle to concentrate on theologically difficult prayers in a foreign language with a headache from no caffeine. Add the absence of food and it hardly seems an appropriate space to nurture the self-reflection and self-motivation the tradition wants from us. Food is the body's dominant source of energy. All of our organs, including our brains, need fuel to function, and human fuel during the Yamim Nora'im is kugel, tsimmes or pahthut. Doesn't it appear counter-productive that we are asked to perform such extensive spiritual work, which demands physical energy, on an empty stomach?

The Torah instructs us in Parashat Achrei Mot, "...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month (Yom Kippur), you shall practice self-denial (te'anu et-nafshoteikhem); and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien that resides among you. (Leviticus 16:29; see also Lev. 23:32 and Numbers 29:7)

The sages understand this phrase te'anu et-nafshoteikhem to mandate five different physical areas of abstention: 1) not consuming food or drink 2) not wearing leather shoes 3) not bathing or washing 4) not anointing with oil, and 5) not engaging in marital relations. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, 76a)

The overarching theme that links these actions together is restraint from activities associated with physical pleasure, external appearances and affluence. On any other day they are not inherently problematic. It is only when we lose the ability to control them that we become slaves to our cravings. By completely suppressing these pleasures and desires, albeit for one day, we indicate to God and our communities that when necessary, we can prioritize the spiritual to a level we tend to reserve for our bodies. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan similarly writes, "When we refrain from indulging our physical appetites for a limited period, in order to devote ourselves for a time more exclusively to demands that rank higher in our hierarchy of values, we are not denying the physical appetites their just place in life; we are simply recognizing the need of putting them in their place." ("The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion," p.169)

And yet, in the absence of leather shoes, a shower, perfume or deodorant, and marital relations -- for 25 hours -- one can still muster strength to concentrate on holy matters. Even if one does desire a shower right after the closing prayers, it will most likely occur after a little nosh and something to drink. Food and drink, though, are more likely to distract our minds throughout Yom Kippur. We are accustomed to eating three meals a day and with many opportunities to snack along the way. We can surely survive in the absence of nourishment and hydration for a limited period of time, but the drastic change in consumption can be distracting.

The question, then, is not how to suppress those hunger pangs, but how to redirect them, and even embrace them, in the context of Yom Kippur. Reb Mimi Feigelson teaches in the name of the Me'or Aynayim (R. Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, 1730-1797) that we should view the Yom Kippur fast, and the hunger that accompanies it, not as a challenge, but an opportunity. By denying our bodies food and drink on Yom Kippur we can experience a taste of the world-to-come, which the tradition describes as free of physical necessities. When we harness the urges that often consume us in the material world, we can experience, if only momentarily, what it is to just be -- in a way that demands fidelity only to our highest pursuits.

In the Haftarah that follows the Yom Kippur Torah reading, Rabbi Isaac Klein points out that the prophet Isaiah, "exhorts the people that these are not ends in themselves, 'A day for men to starve their bodies' (Isaiah 58:5-7), but rather a reminder: ' let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.'" ("A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice," p.211)

The fast of Yom Kippur is not only a practice of self-denial, but one of self-motivation. It is an opportunity to dwell not on what we might eat at the end of the day, but on who we can nourish, sustain and energize the day after.

G'mar hatimah tovah!