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The Meaning of Yom Kippur Fasting

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The New York Times recently featured an article that described the growing popularity of Yom Kippur break-fast parties. As it was reported, these parties at times overshadow or replace the actual rituals of Yom Kippur with some participants skipping prayer services and fasting altogether.

A great nosh together is fantastic, but when it replaces Yom Kippur service or fasting, an opportunity has been missed.

It is understandable if Jews do not readily look forward to Yom Kippur, with its emphasis on prayer, introspection, repentance and, yes, fasting. However, the Times article quoted one individual as describing Yom Kippur as loathsome. I love to eat and do not enjoy being hungry, but I have come to realize that there is a lot to be learned from fasting.

Not ingesting food or water for more than 24 hours can be a powerful physical and spiritual experience. By not focusing on communal meals and get-togethers, we make time for unrushed prayer, repentance and reflection. The High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur force us to confront our death and, therefore, our lives and legacies. The mental and physical toll of fasting heightens this contemplation of death. When we allow ourselves to examine fully the meaning of our lives, we can discern what needs fixing in our beings and actions. We can create a path to better ourselves and our world.

Fasting also facilitates our ability to exercise discipline and endurance. If we can master our urge to eat for one day, perhaps we can have better control over our behaviors all year long. When we fast, we can feel our inner strength. We can also isolate our spiritual and physical weaknesses. As the day of fasting wears on, we recognize the cycle of cravings we experience throughout the day. Usually surrounded by a society filled with food, we rarely get to separate need from want. As we face our deprivation, we can also identify our dependence on sugar and caffeine as we do without them.

Finally, there is another important reason to experience temporary hunger: compassion. As we confront our own discomfort with feeling hungry, we must remember how many people in the world suffer with true, involuntary hunger and food insecurity. Our hunger should compel us to help the hungry of our communities and beyond. We know that our fasting has a finite end; others do not have that luxury. As Isaiah (58:5-6) chides us, "Is this the fast I choose? When man merely afflicts himself? ... This is the fast I choose: To break open the shackles of wickedness, to undo the bonds of injustice..." Our fasting should enrich us, make us better people and compel us to do better.

Just a reminder, Judaism does not want people to hurt themselves by fasting. Therefore, if one is pregnant or nursing, or has another health issue that precludes fasting, such as a medical problem, an eating disorder, or age, one should not fast. Addressing Jews who cannot fast due to health reasons, "Meditation Before Yom Kippur for One who Cannot Fast," written by Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, provides a beautiful reflection for the day. As a rabbi, I find that Jews who cannot fast are often disheartened at the prospect of missing the experience. This reading frames the day for them, emphasizing their connection to the greater community and experience of Yom Kippur. Of course, children below bar and bat mitzvah age are not expected to fast.

Interestingly, Jewish tradition does not provide specific prayers for fasting. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell wrote modern suggestions for prayers before, during and after fasting. They can be found in her article "Tzom" ("The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic"). Rabbi Elwell offers for the end of the fast:

Blessed is the One who has guided me through this time of reflection and turning. As I return to the practice of physical sustenance, may I be mindful and intentional. May my insights gleaned from this period of abstinence sustain me as I go forth. Blessed are You, the Source of all.

Of course, the meal at the end of the fast can be festive. It has always reminded me of the celebration at the end of running a marathon. You feel tired, achy, but really proud of what you have accomplished. As you eat, surrounded by family, friends and community, you feel satisfied and blessed, knowing that your fasting has transformed you.

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