“Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?”
Growing up, going to services with my parents and grandparents, I would ask my grandfather how his fast was going. “Since lunch, it’s been going great,” he would reply with a smile and a wink.
Yom Kippur is our most revered day on the Jewish calendar, and it is for many our most challenging holiday. Fasting is supposed to be difficult; we don’t exuberantly throw ourselves into it.
We fast because it is a mitzvah, a sacred commandment. In Numbers 29:7, we are instructed: On the tenth day of the same seventh month you shall observe a sacred occasion when you shall practice self-denial (‘ee-ni-tem et naph-sho-tei-khem). Take a look at the calendar, and you will see that the holiday being described in Numbers is none other than Yom Kippur. But what is meant by a practice of self-denial?
The word ‘ee-ni-tem comes from the verb to afflict or to deny oneself. It also is the Hebrew root for the concept of humility, Anavah. On Yom Kippur the action we are supposed to be engaged in is one in which we have subdued ourselves and humbled ourselves. Consider also the next word in the command: naph-sho-tei-khem. Perhaps we recognize the word nephesh within that word. Nephesh is one of the words for soul. The Yom Kippur affliction is of our souls and our very beings. Whatever we are to do when we fast, it is supposed to not only have effects upon our bodies, but also to move our beings in a particular direction, namely toward t’shuvah, or repentance.
Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, explains in the Mishnah Torah that we observe this affliction of the soul on Yom Kippur by fasting and refraining from drinking. Also, we are to refrain from washing, wearing leather, or engaging in sexual relations (Hilkhot Shevitat He-Asur 1:3-4). Each of these actions—eating, washing, leather and sex—are all things that should be pleasurable. On Yom Kippur, affliction of the soul is the refrain from such enjoyable things that we are so used to doing.
Fasting isn’t supposed to be fun, and it isn’t supposed to be easy. It is meant to be impactful. When I think about what my grandfather used to say to me, I cut him slack because I know he did not fast for medical reasons. It is important to note that the affliction is not supposed to be harmful. There are many who cannot observe a full fast because of medical reasons, and that is respected.
Personally, I do observe a complete fast. I expect now on Yom Kippur, sitting in services, that I will hit a low point sometime in the mid-afternoon. It’s miserable. Still, I also know that out of that low point comes a rising tide, a wave that carries me through the rest of the service and right up to the open ark, the closing shofar blast, and the gates closing.
We so often go looking to create meaningful spiritual moments for our lives, and we wonder where those moments exist within our own tradition. Here’s the good news: Once a year on Yom Kippur, with a complete fast, it is easily built into what we as Jews are called upon to do.
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