These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Why Fast?

Posted on September 24, 2012 by The Director of Digital Media

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By Tyson Herberger (PEP ’08-’10)

Everyone knows Jews fast on Yom Kippur, but why?

The simple answer is “tradition”. The Torah (Vayikra 23:7) says to afflict our souls on Yom Kippur and the rabbis understand this affliction to be a number of prohibitions – including fasting. Fasting stirs up teshuva and brings us closer to God. But if you are anything like me, the word „tradition” alone isn’t adequate. Anything could have been tradition, and fasting is ours. So again I ask, why?

We learn a lot about fasting from the Book of Yona, where the people of Nineveh are told God will destroy them, but by fasting they are able to get God to change this decree. But Judaism says fasting alone didn’t save them. The Mishna (Taanit 2:1) discusses the line where God annuls the decree and notes that the verse doesn’t say God saw the people of Nineveh fasting, but rather it says God saw their deeds.

Our fasting needs to actually impact the world. To result in us being better people with deeds to show for it. Yom Kippur is not just a day without food, it is a day to make us better people.

Some say fasting is a way to inflict pain upon ourselves. We messed up throughout the past year, and now we need to pay for it. Perhaps fasting’s pain is punishment enough to atone for our ways, or perhaps it is only a metaphoric drop in the bucket to teach us not to inflict suffering on ourselves or others in the future.

As the prophet Isaiah may hint at (58:5-6), the deprivation of a fast can instill compassion for the less fortunate: “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.” Fasting can also strengthen our appreciation that we normally don’t live in uncertain times.

Judaism’s religious rites used to be centered on physical sacrifices – taking items destined to be our food and offering them on the altar. In some way, this is what we do when we fast. Instead of offering rams or doves in the Temple, by not eating on Yom Kippur we symbolically and literally offer our own flesh and blood to God.

Fasting can also be seen as a way to detox. Our bodies need a break to cleanse themselves, and most certainly need a time with no ‘unhealthy’ inputs. The fast isn’t just a chance to eliminate foods and chemicals we don’t want, but also spiritual influences. Whether that means the lingering energy of food eaten in gluttony, of non-fair trade bananas or perhaps even of treif food; Yom Kippur lets us distance ourselves from these items and focus on what is important to us. From a purely physical perspective, studies by the US National Institute on Aging, US National Academy of Sciences and University of Chicago show intermittent fasting has positive health impacts from longer life span to increased stress resistance.

More than one rabbi has explained that the real detox of Yom Kipur isn’t the avoidance of any particular food or desire, but rather it is overall entire reduction of our engagement in the physical world. Our other prohibitions (no washing, sex, anointing, leather shoes) all relate to physicality and attempts to remove us from it. Perhaps this explains the stress resistence – as the fast can be viewed as a way to take ourselves out of the petty world of our animal desires and to raise our conscious to a level beyond asking about base desires and instead focusing on what really matters. In the case of Yom Kippur that means we learn to focus on the big questions of identity, purpose, spirit and meaning in life. When we focus on the big issues in life, it is easier to cast aside the irrelevant.

The sages say that by de-emphasizing our physicality we enter the spiritual and imitate angels. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Orach Chaim 610:4) explains wearing white on Yom Kippur brings us closer to our image of angels. As angels are spiritual, we too can be spiritual – if not every day than at least on Yom Kippur.

This time of the year we think about who we are, who we want to be, and how to bridge the gap between the two. In the way we have numerous obstacles, but by taking a step back on Yom Kipur and giving up on the basic necessities of life we are pointing out that anything is possible. Getting up fifteen minutes earlier to exercize, taking a few minutes to study Abraham Joshua Heschel, reading the weekly parsha to your kids, or deciding not to eat shrimp from now on are minuscule decisions compared to not eating or drinking. If we can give up on food and water – things we need to live – even if for just one day – we are saying we can overcome anything in our way.

Yom Kippur helps us realise that everything is mind over matter. We can only get through the fast if we put our will into it. Perhaps from Yom Kippur we learn to stay focused and concentrate on things that matter. In this day of constant facebook messages, mobile phones and diminishing attention spans; Yom Kippur makes us focus again and again on one thing – not eating. We multi-task all day – praying, reading, talking, sleeping – but no matter what we do our hunger and thirst remain. For most of us, our bodies simply won’t let us forget we are fasting. Perhaps our bodies are reminding us that we have the ability to focus even in this age of ADD and ADHD.

None of the above answer are definitive, for as with most big questions in Judaism there is no one definitive answer. The most important thing it to ask the question. And no matter which answers we find – we should all have an easy and meaningful fast this Yom Kippur. May it be a day that inspires each of us to make teshuva and to be better people, better Jews, better community members, better friends, and better family.

May we all be sealed in all the good books – gmar hatima tova!