This article is written from a traditional viewpoint. While most Jews fast on Yom Kippur, a smaller percentage follow the prohibitions regarding washing and attire. Reprinted with permission from Celebrate!: The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook, published by Jason Aronson Inc.
In its instructions for observing the 10th of Tishrei (Leviticus 16:29,31; 23:26,29,32; Numbers 29:7), the Torah specifies that we are to “afflict our souls.” After searching Scripture and Mishnah in order to determine what affliction means, the rabbis identified five activities from which we abstain on the most solemn, but not mournful (despite the posture of many Jews, particularly of Eastern European background) day of the year. The purpose is not to punish ourselves but to gain control over our bodies and their potentially harmful appetites, which can become ends in themselves: Rambam describes the prohibitions of Yom Kippur as “resting,” as if not doing them were relief from ordeals. While not engaging in our normal daily concerns and pleasures, we become more conscious of how our physical urges so often lead us into trouble.
In Talmud’s terms, for a brief time we elevate ourselves to the status of angels, who have no corporeal needs and whose sole role in the universe is to serve God. (The rabbis also explain that the things we abstain from are all those that make the soul comfortable in the body. By engaging in activities that make it uncomfortable, the soul is more likely to rise up from the body, taking us to a higher spiritual plane.)
Derived directly from the Torah, abstaining from eating and drinking from before sundown until after the following sunset is probably the greatest test of self-control during this holiday. How are we supposed to accept the promulgated notion that fasting frees us to worship when hunger pangs and distaste in a parched mouth create strong distractions to concentration on lofty spiritual thoughts?
The abstention in and of itself cannot create a sense of spirituality. The idea is to be able to refrain from giving in to our impulses. We prove to ourselves that we can control our bodies in the extreme; under normal circumstances we should certainly be able to prevent our desires from leading into damaging excesses. Allowing the body to rid itself of the toxins eating produces mirrors our efforts on this day to purge ourselves of the impurities of unhealthy thoughts and deeds.
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