September 22, 2019

Why fasting matters on Yom Kippur

As we sit in synagogue or at home on Yom Kippur afternoon, trying — but often failing — not to look at the clock every five minutes, our stomachs grumbling, our mouths parched, our heads hurting, what may be most painful is that many of us don’t know why we’re “afflicting” ourselves, as the Torah commands. 

“You shall afflict your souls,” the 16th chapter of Leviticus tells us, “for on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God.” 

Cross references with other verses in the Torah indicate that “affliction” relates to “humility,” which in turn relates to hunger, and, via the Jewish oral tradition of rabbinic argumentation and interpretation of the written Torah, we understand “affliction” on Yom Kippur to mean a 25-hour fast — full abstention from both food and water.

As Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, one simple reason we fast is because “the Torah says so.”

But because “the Torah says so” isn’t enough for many Jews today, and even for Torah-observant Jews, it may not be a particularly satisfying comfort when the hunger pangs hit at 6 p.m. on Yom Kippur, and there’s still more than an hour and a half to go.

Fasting, as UCLA Medical Center’s senior dietitian, Dana Hunnes, wrote in an email, has a powerful, albeit tolerable and safe (for most people) impact on the human body. The lack of water “can slow down mental abilities, make us feel tired, slow down metabolism, and make our brains feel sluggish,” she said. “Blood sugar lows can make us groggy, give us headaches, and basically decrease our mental abilities. I have heard some equate it to being ‘drunk.’ ” The state of being inebriated, even if very slightly, is actually common on most other Jewish holidays. Wine and other forms of alcohol are staples on Shabbat and holiday tables, particularly Passover, Purim and Simchat Torah. On Yom Kippur, perhaps the goal is to reach a similar mental state, but through physical deprivation rather than indulgence.

“Many commentaries have said that Yom Kippur is an enactment of death and that it’s supposed to be this kind of near-death experience that enables us, as with all near-death experiences, to treasure life in a way that we never understood the day before,” said Rabbi Naomi Levy, the spiritual leader of Nashuva. “I think the fast does start to work on you. It kind of wears down your defenses. I believe that even the words start to impact you differently when you’re hungry and you’re thirsty. After a while, you stop becoming hungry and thirsty; you just feel lighter. It’s like an altered state.”

Other examples of how Yom Kippur can be seen as a “dry run of the day of death,” as Levy put it, are the customs of wearing white (like the traditional shroud that is wrapped around the deceased) and the confessionals recited on Yom Kippur, which have many similarities to the traditional confessional a Jew recites when death appears imminent.

“That’s one interpretation — that we’re supposed to get as close to the scene of our own death as possible, and survive it,” Levy said.

And because Judaism teaches that the soul outlives the body’s death, Yom Kippur, with the body’s desires ignored, becomes a soul-centric holiday. “The idea of refraining from eating and drinking is that one day of the year we focus only on our souls,” Adlerstein said, “Imagining, as it were, that we’re transcending the physical and living a spiritual existence.”

Most fasts in the Jewish calendar, and throughout Jewish history, as UCLA history professor David Myers pointed out, are connected either to mourning for a past tragedy or as a form of prayer to avert an impending tragedy (such as the many pogroms in Eastern Europe leading up to and including the Holocaust). Tisha b’Av is a fast of mourning, as is the Fast of Gedaliah. And the Fast of Esther is a commemoration of the Jews of Shushan’s fast, which was intended to help avert Haman’s planned genocide.

“It’s one of those rare instances in which we can speak of klal Yisra’el [the whole of Israel],” Myers said of the near-ubiquity of Jewish observance of fasting on Yom Kippur. “It isn’t universal, but it is a religious ritual, and a very serious religious ritual, marked by a large number of Jews the world over, regardless of their minhag [custom], regardless of their ethnic origins.”

“It’s not about mourning, which is what the other fasts are about. It’s not about sadness. It’s about a focus on spirituality,” said Rabbi Eli Rivkin, co-director of the Chabad of Northridge. Drawing on Chasidic teachings, Rivkin said that just as in messianic times, when eating and drinking will no longer be needed because the physical world will have been elevated (in that context, today’s laws of kashrut and blessings over food are related to sanctifying the physical), the negation of the physical on Yom Kippur “is a taste of that.”

For us physical beings, though, even a taste of those redemptive times doesn’t change the fact that, well, we’re really hungry, thirsty and tired as the day wanes, which can also distract from the heavy task of introspection and self-awareness that Yom Kippur demands.

 “Of course it’s a distraction, but the challenge is to focus,” Adlerstein said. “You don’t throw in the towel from distractions in life. You learn to focus. We sit at our desks, at our jobs, and there’s plenty to distract, but we learn that we have to concentrate and we have to focus.” 

If the previous year’s shortfalls and sins served to “create a distance between yourself and your Creator,” Adlerstein said, Yom Kippur is about bridging that spiritual divide. “You learn to look away as much as you can from the hunger and refocus on the value of the day,” he said. “You get as much out of Yom Kippur spiritually as you put into it. It would be a terrible shame for people to go only through the motions of the fasting and to miss what the fasting’s all about.”