November 19, 2019

Why fast for Yom Kippur?

In a time when fasting can be a political statement or a fitness trend, you might wonder about its enduring value as a spiritual ritual. To learn more, we asked people who fast on Yom Kippur what they get out of it. Our modest sample yielded folks who are interested only in a meaningful personal experience, unrelated to why anybody else fasts. For these people, the act of fasting on Yom Kippur is a choice that has nothing to do with contemporary exigencies.

“The High Holy Days are one of the first traditions in the Jewish world that has stayed steady, even if you’re not observant of other holidays,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino. “Many observe this ritual, and with a seriousness that they don’t with others. … They do it not because it’s culturally compelling, but because the religion asks it of you. … Fasting is basic to a beginning of spiritual practice.”

Judy Gordon, a member of the Conservative Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, is 72 and said she wanted to fast on Yom Kippur long before her parents allowed it when she was 12. “I remember being so proud I could do it, because all the adults were doing it,” she said. “[Fasting] was a progression to being a mature Jew.”

Gordon, who works against domestic violence at Rainbow Services in San Pedro, relishes the opportunity each year to renew her choice to fast. Making the choice, in fact, is part of the process. “I happen to like Yom Kippur,” she said. “I rejoice in the fact that I have the ability to change my choices, to make better ones next year. … It’s my way of looking forward.”

If the full fasting experience — no food or water for 25 hours, as well as abstinence from sexual relations, bathing and wearing leather shoes — seems difficult and exotic to some people, others accept that it can be a mutable experience.

In the Mishkon Tephilo congregation, “Virtually everybody fasts to some degree,” Rabbi Dan Shevitz said. “It’s not a binary situation.” Some people, he said, consciously take nothing by mouth for a few hours, some consciously eat less than they normally would. “I don’t see it as an all-or-nothing proposition,” he said.

Meaning can be found in different applications of the ritual, he said. One member of his congregation used to observe the full fast, but now must take medication that requires water, so he customizes his commitment. This man is no less devout for minding his health; God wants you to take care of your body. Fasting, Shevitz said, “is not about sacrifice. That’s not a serious religious exercise. I would resist the question ‘What’s the point of fasting?’ It’s a spiritual exercise, a somatic exercise, to be in touch with your body in a way you aren’t during the spiritual exercise of prayer.”

Fasting, he said, is about awareness. “Fasting puts us in touch with the fact that we have bodies and take up space,” Shevitz said. “We buy things, eat them — often too much or too often. Fasting puts us in touch with our bodies in a way that helps us feel our place in the universe.”

Feinstein seconds that notion. “We live in a culture where a person is identified with their body. That’s America, and it’s L.A. … Once a year, you’re reminded that you are not your body, there’s something called spirit and soul.” On Yom Kippur, he said, “We’re reminded of a different set of values. … We’re reminded that we are more than our bodies.”

Shevitz offered that simply being hungry isn’t in itself meaningful; that it’s not necessarily debilitating. People delay meals all the time when something more important pops up, he said.

Something more important often popped up for Dr. Richard Braun. The retired surgeon, 83, has fasted on Yom Kippur since his bar mitzvah, but going without was part of his profession. “As a surgeon,” he said “you miss meals. It’s part of the fact of being a surgeon.” But that’s different from the fasting that’s part of Yom Kippur. “It’s an imperative, it’s a conscious thing to do,” Braun said. “You clear the table and think about other things; whether you’ve lived up to your expectations.”

Braun has been a lay cantor at the Valley Beth Shalom Yom Kippur service for 40 years. He approaches the holiday with a sense of anticipation of “performing” and davening, and with concern that he’s “exemplary enough to convey the meaning and spirit of prayer.” Hunger and thirst really don’t cross his radar. “I feel happy because Yom Kippur ends on a high note. I don’t think I realize I’m thirsty. … Hunger doesn’t matter.” 

The sense of clarity that comes from assessing how well he reached his goals for the year, and in setting new ones, overrides physical stress.

On Yom Kippur, Gordon just wants to be in shul. “I resonate with it,” she said. “I’m very much a prayer person.” That she revels in the spiritual realm doesn’t mean reality takes a holiday. Gordon gets joy from fasting, but also headaches. At least she used to before developing the coping mechanism of avoiding caffeine two days before Yom Kippur. That way, she said, “You get the [withdrawal] headache a day before, not on the holiday.”

Who says you can’t be both spiritual and practical?