“Why do we fast on Yom Kippur? If I’m not going to take the day off of work, does it still make sense for me to fast? Would that mean anything?”

The answer to “Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?” is a relatively simple one…Torah told us to. “On the tenth day of the same seventh month (Tishrei, when Yom Kippur happens) you shall observe a sacred occasion when you shall practice self-denial” (Numbers 29:7). Those who have attended a Jewish celebration of any kind know that we love our food. So it is no surprise that our tradition interpreted “self-denial” to include fasting, among other things (e.g. refraining from sexual pleasure, wearing perfumes or luxury clothing, etc.). The rationale for this ancient practice has been understood in many different ways.

Some think this to be a form of Jewish asceticism, assuming that we might attain a higher level of spirituality by depriving ourselves of that which brings pleasure. Others eschew that notion, reminding us that this is not the norm in a tradition which celebrates abundance, delight, and joy. Some favor the interpretation that fasting is an exercise of self-control. By depriving ourselves of what we need most—food and drink—we prove to ourselves that we are more able than we realize to control our other inclinations throughout the year: those which lead us to cheat, lie, or gossip, for example. What a helpful reminder on a holy day dedicated to reflection, self-assessment, and renewed commitment to do better. Still, others see fasting as a means to avoid distraction during hours dedicated to prayer, study, and community (as long as your grumbling belly isn’t equally distracting).

I like this one: Rosh Hashanah, taking place just 10 days before Yom Kippur, is a celebration of life. So much of the day’s symbolism celebrates beginnings (a new year), renewal, and birth (you may recall that the traditional Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is about the birth of Isaac). Yom Kippur, by contrast, is a day which brings us to the brink of our own mortality. Many Jews wear the kittel—a plain white garment also worn to one’s grave. We abstain from the procreative act of sex, and we deprive ourselves of food and water which sustain our own lives. Rosh Hashanah reminds us that a new year is upon us, and with it, limitless potential for us to make our lives, our communities, and our world better. Yom Kippur forces us to confront the fact that we are mortals with only so much time to realize this potential. Fasting is one such reminder.

Yes, even if you have to work on Yom Kippur, you could still fast and draw on almost any of these potential meanings. However, the Torah verse which instructs us to fast finishes with, “You shall do no work.” If you would take a few hours off from your job to wait at home for someone to fix your dishwasher, or to get your car its needed maintenance, or to tend to your physical health by seeing one of your physicians, then I urge you to take (at least) a few hours off on Yom Kippur to tend to the repairs needed on the emotional, the spiritual, the ethical you.

created at: 2012-09-19

Rabbi Todd Markely is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation in Needham. 
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