A Few Facts About Fasting in Jewish Tradition

This summer, two things happened at once, making me think about fasting in a whole new way—and as Yom Kippur approaches, it seems like a good time to dig a little deeper into these thoughts.

Back in July, I noticed that the month of Tammuz was approaching. Looking at my handy Jewish calendar, I saw that on the 18th of Tammuz, there was a note: “Fast Day.” That caught me totally off guard.  I thought the only days we fasted were Yom Kippur to atone for our sins and Tisha B’Av to commemorate the destruction of the Temple! My interest piqued, I went to Google and did a search…. and sure enough, my mind was blown with what I learned.

Turns out there are 25 holidays and events throughout the year associated with a tradition of fasting (with Yom Kippur being the only holiday that is commanded of us). Twenty-five! I say holidays “and events,” because technically there are some events that can last several days. The 18th of Tammuz fast is dedicated to the breaking of the tablets, marking the moment that regular sacrifices ceased, Apostemus destroyed the Law and brought an idol into their holy space, and the Romans raided Jerusalem.  That vast majority of fasts are used to mark deaths and/or destruction and sieges.

In Judaism, communal fasting comes with a litany of rules. These rules include:

  • No fasting on Shabbat, or on any holiday or festival (Yom Kippur is an exception to this rule)
  • No fasting during the month of Nisan
  • No fasting for those too ill too fast
  • No fasting for pregnant women
  • In modern interpretations, if you hold a position of rabbi, teacher, security, or other essential personnel you should not fast, so that you are able to perform your duties at your best at all times

If you would like to engage in a private fast, this is allowed but there are rules regulating this too. First and foremost, I learned that you should not publicize your fasting, unless you are fasting to atone for your sins and need to make peace with those you have wronged. But that’s not the only reason to fast on an individual basis—you can fast to mark certain life events, ask for God’s mercy, connect more deeply with your spirituality, show gratitude to God, as part of your mourning process, or to deal with an evil dream about teeth falling out, a burning of a scroll, the beams of your home collapsing, and so on.

As Yom Kippur draws near, many Jews will fast. But I’m thinking more deeply now about other times of year that people find meaning in abstaining from food and water for twenty-four hours. What do you think about fasting? Do you think the rules are good guidelines? I spoke with my co-worker, a rabbi, about this very topic and he reminded me that in Judaism, your body belongs to God and you are the steward of that vessel.  Therefore, it is up to you to take as good of care of your person as possible and causing harm to your body for reasons outside of those deemed acceptable is not appropriate—which is why fasting, while meaningful, is also regulated.

Share your thoughts and insights on fasting in the comments below!

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