On Yom Kippur, You Are What You Don’t Eat

7 reasons for fasting on the Day of Atonement.

Jewish law traditionally opposes self-denial. Yet on Yom Kippur Jews are expected to forgo eating and drinking for more than a day.  Perhaps fasting is a necessary counterweight to modern life.

Almost all religions have special foods and diets for their sacred occasions. How, when, and what you eat has long been recognized to be filled with symbolic meanings as well as calories.

There are special Jewish foods for all the major holy days, with one exception: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

This day, according to the Bible, is a fast day. For 24 hours, Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything.

What is the Bible trying to teach us by decreeing a day of fasting? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?

1. Compassion

First of all, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world’s hunger problem. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But it isn’t until one can really feel it in one’s own body that the impact is truly there.

Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action.

Fasting is never an end in itself; that’s why it has so many different outcomes. But all the other outcomes are amoral if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting.

As the prophet Isaiah said: “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor.”

2. Willpower

Second, fasting is an exercise in will power. Most people think they can’t fast because it’s so hard. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache are all more severe than hunger pangs.

I have on occasion fasted for three days, and I found that after the first 24 hours the pain decreases slightly as the stomach becomes numb. The reason it is so hard to fast is because it is so easy to stop. All you have to do is take a bite; and the food is all around, in easy reach.

Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat. Our society has become one of self-indulgence. We lack self-discipline. Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing “softness” in life.

When people exercise their will power and fast, they are affirming their mastery over themselves.

3. Penance

Thus, fasting serves as a penance. Self-inflicted pain alleviates guilt, although it is much better to reduce one’s guilt with offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why contributing tzedakah, charity,is such an important part of Yom Kippur, and indeed fasting which doesn’t increase compassion is ignored by God.

However, the concept of fasting as penance helps us understand that our suffering can be beneficial. Contemporary culture desires happiness above all else. Any suffering is seen as unnecessary and indeed evil.

While we occasionally hear people echo values from the past that suffering can help one grow, or that a life unalloyed with pain would lack in the qualities of greatness, the dominant attitude among people today is that the most important thing is “you should only be happy.”

Thus the satisfaction one can derive from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we have to experience anyway.

Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain, especially if by doing so we eliminate the symptoms without reaching the root cause.

4. Denial of Dependencies

Fourth in our list of outcomes, fasting is a denial of dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising that tells us we must have this thing or that to be healthy, happy, popular, or wise. By fasting we assert that we do not need to be dependent on external things, even such an essential thing as food.

If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for 24 hours, how much more can our needs for all the non-essentials be ignored?

Judaism doesn’t advocate asceticism. In fact it is against Jewish law to deny one’s self normal pleasures. But in our over-heated consumer society, it is necessary to periodically turn ourselves off to the constant pressure to consume and forcibly remind ourselves that “man does not live by bread alone.”

5. Health

The fifth outcome of fasting is improved physical health. Of course, one 24-hour fast will not have any more effect than one day of exercise. Only prolonged and regular fasting promotes health. The annual fast on Yom Kippur however, can awaken us to the importance of how much, and how often, we eat.

For many years, research has shown that when animals are underfed, receiving a balanced diet that in quantity was below the norm for maximum physical health, their life spans were prolonged from 50 to 100 percent.

Other studies indicate that people with a below average caloric intake are less susceptible to cancer.

It was common in Kabalistic and Hasidic circles to fast every Monday and Thursday. If one eats normal meals the other five days, this would result in a decrease of 25 percent in caloric intake. Over the years this could add years to one’s life span.

6. Good for the Soul

Sixth, fasting is good for the soul. It is an aid for spiritual experiences. For most people, especially those who have not fasted regularly before, the hunger pains are a distraction.

7. Performing a Mitzvah

The seventh outcome of fasting is the performance of a mitzvah. We do not do mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah) in order to benefit ourselves. We do mitzvot  because our duty as Jews requires that we do them.

Fasting is a very personal mitzvah. Its effects are primarily personal. Fasting on Yom Kippur is a personal offering to the God of Israel from each member of the family of Israel.

For more than 100 generations, Jews have fasted on Yom Kippur. Your personal act of fasting is part of the Jewish people’s covenant with God. The only real reason to fast is to fulfill a mitzvah.

The outcome of your fast can be any of a half-dozen paths to self-fulfillment. Simply knowing that you have done one of your duties as an adult Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.

Finally, fasting should be combined with the study of Torah. Indeed, the more one studies, the less one has need of fasting. A medieval text states: “Better eat a little and study twice as much, for study of Torah is superior to fasting!”

Fasting is a very personal experiential offering. However, while study is also a personal experience, it takes place with a text and/or a teacher. The divine is more readily and truly experienced in dialogue with others than in meditation. Let your fasting be for you the beginning of the removal of the chains of oppression.

Reprinted with permission from Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Yom Kippur edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Jason Aronson).

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