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?
See more Thursday Thirteen here....
This is a wonderful post!
I just found your blog rabbi...but I am glad I did!
I learned a little and also was quite familiar with much of your post.
L'shanah Tovah and may you have an easy fast.
My Thursday Thirteen is posted!
The Egel Nest
Fascinating... thanks for sharing!
Brilliant---a very concise summary of the meaning of the holiday. I knew some of this, but not all of it.
I was shocked to find out (from the ultra-orthodox teacher of my lactation counseling course) that according to strict, i.e. haredi, halacha breastfeeding mothers are only exempt if they are less than 3 days post-partum! I can't imagine trying to fast while taking care of an exclusively breastfeeding 4 day old baby. The haredi women do it, though. Of course, they also do many other things that I choose not to adopt in my own life...
Wishing you a zom kal, an easy fast, and a gmar hatima tova, a good inscription for the coming year.
I love your post. I have not fasted in a while. Ever since my hubby has been away on his trip I have fallen behind in alot of stuff.
mine is up on
Thank you for the great article! I learned so much. My parents have often fasted during hard times to devote themselves to prayer; I'll have to think on that awhile. I am grown up and all now :)
Robin (and others...) - you'd actually be more shocked to learn that the strictest orthodox authorities also indicate that a pregnant woman must fast on Yom Kippur. Interestingly, though, these authorities indicate that *her* fast is more important than her husband's attendance in synagogue, so if she needs to remain bed-bound in order to fast, he must stay home and attend to her (and probably care for the other children too) to insure her fasting. Hmmm...
I've even done a week's fast once. Problem with that was still having to cook for the children. How do you handle that part, even for just a day?
This was so interesting.
Episcopals, and probably many other Christian denominations, fast during Lent. And it sounds very similar. It is a time of not doing, not eating, not for the purpose of deprivation, but to empty oneself to make intentional space for god.
When I have fasted before what strikes me is that I realize how much energy I give to the thing I'm fasting from, whether it be food or tv or shopping. To consciously release something is power.
I had learned that a pregnant woman is still supposed to fast (and was no less shocked by that I admit), but I hadn't heard the part about the husband staying home to care for her if need be.
Personally, I gave myself a pass for both pregnancy and breastfeeding, because I just assumed it had to be so and because I couldn't imagine not doing so. OTOH, once I'd stopped fasting for a few years it was an awful lot easier not to go back to it, which I suppose has something to do with why the rule is there in the first place...
I'm not a good example though, since I don't really practice anymore (much too long and depressing a story for here). My Judaism these days is really more my nationality than my religion (hence my "bicycles for atonement" post), but that's a luxury that comes from living in Israel. That's a topic for another time though.
In any case, I wish you and all who are fasting this year an easy fast.
I wish you an easy fast this year. May you and Klal Yisroel be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Shana Tova, my friend.
If you are in the midst of fasting do not come over to my blog. It's a bunch of pictures of food. I have fasted a few times in my life. Growing up we would fast on Good Friday. It does give you pause to consider and think on other things.. Blessings on your fast...
Very interesting list. Thank you.
how *do* you cook for the children? it's very hard. actually, my husband once made a sandwich for the kiddo, and started to make one for himself...until he realized it. it's hard!
G'mar Hatima Tova...v'Tzom Kal!
I just found your post through Robin and I'm glad I did!
I'm new to the US (after not living here for 18 years)..I'm on sabbatical from my teaching post in Israel and may I add that it's nice to gather information for both sides of the cultural and spiritual coins through the magic of these blogs.
A little bit of introspection never does hurt.
I'll be back
I skipped fasting the year I was still pregnant past my due date on Yom Kippur but resumed the next year when I had a 12-month-old who wasn't nursing much.
This year, my (2 weeks shy of) 3-year-old fed herself from the buffet of healthy sandwiches and cut fruit in the fridge. I'm glad I thought ahead - it made one less thing to worry about with my husband out of town. I was disappointed I couldn't go to shul this year, but it turned out to be the easiest fast yet the most emotionally difficult and meaningful Yom Kippur in my life.
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