June 20, 2019

Think you can’t observe Yom Kippur? Not so fast

Like many people with health concerns, Arianna Haut cannot fast on Yom Kippur — in her case, because of low blood sugar. 

“I used to have to sneak out of synagogue to eat a granola bar, which is the fastest way to make a person feel like a shmuck,” said Haut, a Mid-City resident and head of school at Summit Preparatory Charter School in South Los Angeles.

The 34-year-old tried cutting down on the amount she ate, but she still couldn’t make it through the day. 

“I realized that I should eat as I normally would,” she said. “I have to, in order to feel like a whole person and observe the gravity of the occasion.” 

Haut is not alone in facing the cognitive dissonance of trying to balance an approaching fast with a health issue. These people want to fulfill the spiritual mitzvah of repentance through fasting on Yom Kippur but must also uphold the mitzvah of respecting one’s body. 

Tradition says that one’s health must always come before fasting — or even praying — on Yom Kippur. As Maimonides wrote in Hilchot De’ot, “Bodily health and well-being are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits.” 

For some, the biggest challenge in choosing whether to fast is interpreting the gray area in between serious illness and discomfort. Different areas of Judaism approach the subject in different ways. 

Rabbi Yakov Vann of the Calabasas Shul said, “Jewish law recognizes the need for someone who would become seriously ill to eat even on Yom Kippur. With that said, there are differing levels of eating. Ideally, in this circumstance, they would eat below a certain minimum spread over time, as the Torah’s prohibition is mitigated in this manner and the circumstance warrants it. 

“If they must eat and drink freely to avoid becoming dangerously ill, then they would be allowed, or better yet, required, to eat,” he continued. “In this situation, we are taught that even so, they should limit the amount and type of food to that which is needed and refrain from eating pleasurable foods so that the spirit of the fast is felt even if the technical observance from a fasting perspective is not.” 

The good news for someone in such a situation is that fasting is not the only mitzvah that can be observed on Yom Kippur, according to Rabbi Daniel R. Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

“Abstaining from bathing, cosmetics, leather shoes and sex are all traditional observances, even if health issues prohibit fasting,” he said.

“As far as that goes, one should eat and drink only what is necessary for protecting health. A restricted diet, in this case, is still an acceptable observance.”

He added that there are other things one could do to make up for an inability to fast completely.

“Isaiah taught us that social justice is an indispensable component of our observance. In the event that health concerns prohibit fasting, giving of one’s resources to alleviate hunger is certainly praiseworthy,” Shevitz said. 

Rabbi Sam Spector of Temple Judea in Tarzana agreed, saying that giving to food pantries is commendable. He also said one key is to understand the point of fasting in the first place.

“When we look in the Haftarah that we read on Yom Kippur (Isaiah 58:3), it tells us that God does not accept insincere fasts — if you are fasting then going out oppressing people tomorrow, the fast doesn’t count. So the key for people who cannot fast is to find an alternative for them to still find the meaning behind why we fast. If they do this, then they are fulfilling the commandment more than people who fast without intention. 

Because Yom Kippur is a day when we do things out of the norm, Spector said he encourages people to find ways to bring that to the forefront of their minds. 

“Even wearing different shoes [that aren’t leather] than usual can help bring you into the mentality of thinking about why Yom Kippur is different, and therefore, how we can act differently in the year ahead,” he said. 

“Mishkan Hanefesh,” the new High Holy Day prayer book for the Reform movement published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, addresses the issue of those who cannot fast directly. 

It offers multiple prayers and meditations on the topic, including one that states:  “For those unable for reasons of health to participate in the fast, it is a commandment to eat and drink on Yom Kippur. For Torah is not a source of punishment, but an instrument of compassion and loving-kindness, intended to enrich and improve our lives. I honor the diving gift of my life and the sacred imperative to preserve life… “May I experience the spiritual intensive of this day with a whole heart, and may I go forward this year to fulfill many mitzvoth, in life and health, in sincerity and dedication.”