As we prepare for our fast on Yom Kippur, I offer these 13 thoughts on fasting...some personal, some educational.
1. Jews actually have two major fast days and four minor ones. The major ones are Tisha B'Av, the 9th of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple (twice!) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is coming up on Saturday. The minor fasts are: 17th of Tammuz, the day the Romans breached Jerusalem's walls, the 10th of Tevet, the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Tzom Gedalia (3rd Tishrei) which is the date a Babylonian governor of Judah was killed, and Ta'anit Esther (13th Adar), the Fast of Esther, which is the day before Purim. The minor fasts start at sunrise and end with 3 stars in the sky. The major fasts are 25 hours long, beginning at sundown and ending with 3 stars in the sky.
2. It is traditional to give charity/tzedakah on a fast day as well, some say to replace the food one would have eaten with equivalent to those in need.
3. We fast for three major reasons: one, it is conducive to atonement and repentance; two, a communal memory, such as the destruction of the Temple; and three, a communal gratitude for what we do have.
4. Fasting can be difficult! Those who are unable to fast for health reasons are exempt, although many feel that there are ways to "replace" the fast with other personal abstentions.
5. Some tips for an "easier" fast: drink lots of water in the days before; taper off your caffeine intake to avoid the caffeine headache; don't overeat the meal right before; don't talk about food; take an afternoon nap...
6. I have not fasted for the last two years due to pregnancy. This year, I'm back to fasting since my baby decided she no longer wanted to nurse...oy. It's been a while for me...
7. Fasting can be a very spiritual experience. Knowing that you are choosing to deny yourself something in the name of holiness is a powerful thing.
8. It's not just about fasting. We also refrain from washing, anointing, leather shoes, and sex.
9. Children do not fast for the full day until after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah (age of 13). But it's important to begin "training" probably around the age of 9. No snacks, no treats, etc.
10. I'm always amazed at how many people don't fast. They will tell me that it just doesn't mean anything to them or that they just don't "buy it." I say...try it!
11. Fasting for a whole day can certainly put the brakes on our way of life. It gives you the opportunity to pause and remember that for many people, this is an existence -- no food. It also gives you the opportunity to think about what's really important in your own life.
12. One beautiful custom I've read about is to place books on the table after the pre-fast meal. Instead of food on this day, we spend our time in prayer and study at our mikdash me-at, our mini-altar, in our homes. Remember, in Judaism, eating is indeed a mitzvah, a commandment. Therefore, a fast should be replaced with something equally important and holy.
13. I like to begin a fast with something sweet. This brings me back to when I was a teenager at summer camp, fasting for the first time on Tisha b'Av (which falls in the summer). A counselor who was also fasting told me that it should begin with sweetness even though the reason for the fast is not sweet. We dug up some cookies and shared them. Each time I prepare to fast, I taste those same cookies. I think it was then that I decided to become a rabbi.
How do you feel about the fast? What is your own personal tradition?
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