Fasting From a Functional Perspective

Recovering the benefits of denial.

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Later, however, the effects of fasts became secondary to their historical and social significance. In the "Zechariah fasts" that were later made part of Jewish law, that significance is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

As Eliezer Diamond has shown in his book Holy Men and Hunger Artists, talmudic rabbis often took up fasting as an ongoing discipline, but as Diamond also shows, mourning the destruction of the Temple was almost always provided as a rationale. Perhaps the Temple was but a pretext for an ascetic practice the rabbis wanted to take on; there is certainly evidence for that view, and fasting remains to this day a common practice among the pious.

But today, if you look at a traditional Jewish explanation of "why we fast," this is what you'll learn about the fasts: not their effects but their historical "reasons." So, we are told, we fast on Tisha B'Av to commemorate the destruction of both the First (in 586 B.C.E.) and the Second (in 70 C.E.) Temples in Jerusalem. We fast on the 17th of Tammuz, three weeks earlier, to commemorate the breaking of the gates of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. 

Effects Instead of Reasons

Now, however, these historical rationales often cause more harm than good.. Personally, I have struggled for decades to connect in a meaningful way with the destruction of the two Temples. True, these catastrophes are the halakhic basis of all the public fast days except Yom Kippur. True, they were massive upheavals that caused widespread suffering and death. And, yes, the Temple was seen as the connecting point between heaven and earth; the earthly dwelling place of the divine presence; and the geographical, political, and spiritual center of the Jewish people. The tears of exile, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, all flow from the wound of its destruction.

But these reasons are also distant--chronologically, theologically, and above all emotionally. In fact, I have found the effects of fasting on body, heart, mind, and spirit are far more powerful than the reason the fast may have been instituted by rabbis two thousand years ago.

First, occasional fasting can be good for the body. It is a healthy way to "clean out the system" of toxins that have accumulated. There can be, at the end of a fast, a powerful sense of catharsis. Sometimes I feel like I've sweat out the garbage from the industrialized food I've been eating, and I've cried out the accumulated grime of the emotions I've been ignoring. It is a primal, embodied act, which makes as little sense as does love, passion, or beauty.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a writer & teacher. He is a columnist for the Forward, the chief editor of Zeek, the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, and the author of God in Your Body. He is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a J.D. from Yale.