Why I Do Not Fast on Yom Kippur

For the longest time, I felt guilty about it. Then I did it – fasted the whole 25 hours, in my orthodoxy, and really I had no trouble physically fasting – only emotionally.

Because I had no trouble physically, I wondered if it was because someone else was telling me what to do, or what to eat or not eat. We strong-minded people often bristle at someone else exerting control.

I am honest enough with myself to admit I’m not perfect and I don’t like others telling me what to do. But it wasn’t that, I finally surmised. It was something deeper and more complex.

So when I left orthodoxy and started to define for myself my own spirituality and belief system, I had to reckon with my rebellion against fasting. Would I do it? Would I not do it but pretend like I did? Did I care what others thought of me? Did any of it even matter?

This is the first year that I’ve said honestly, to anyone who cares to listen, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur. I told my kids the same and explained why, with the caveat that if they find it to be meaningful to them as they get older, by all means, they should fast.

So here’s the answer: for so many Jews, fasting becomes the meaning of Yom Kippur, and all they focus on for this single day is food (or the lack of it). In my first orthodox Yom Kippur, during the break between services, I sat outside in 70-degree sun with a crowd of devout lovely people, and we talked about … food.

Yesterday, during the family service, the lovely leader asked the children, “Why are we here today? What is Yom Kippur all about?”

The answers, from congregants large and small: “We have to not eat.” “You can try to fast for half a day.” “You can start by going without dessert.” “If you don’t eat candy, that’s good!” “On Yom Kippur, we have to fast.”

Where was the notion of repentance? Reflection? Atonement? Trying to do better? Improving who we are and how we interact with others?

Was there any concept of Yom Kippur being a day when we contemplate the mark we are making in this world, whether it’s the direction we want to go in, and how we might steer the ship more purposefully?

It was all about food and depriving ourselves of it.

A friend said to me last night at the break-fast, “I got a headache and I felt that was punishing enough.” I don’t recall Yom Kippur being about punishing ourselves. I see the wearing all white, and cleansing notions of the day, as being about rebirth – getting a second chance, a clean slate, a new start.

But the fasting part of it has transformed the meaning for so many to be about punishing ourselves because we’ve been bad.

So that’s why I don’t fast on Yom Kippur.

I want the day to mean something to me. I go to services to be among my community and hear the familiar tunes of the prayers. I go on a hike with my children to do tashlich in a soothing river – we throw bread crumbs into the water as symbols of the choices we have made in the year past and how we’d like to redirect those choices in the year to come.

I gather with my family, because Judaism has always been, for me, about family and ancestry and community. And I take some quiet moments to myself just to be, just to think, just to contemplate on the moments past and moments to come and how I can maximize every single one of them. That’s the best start I can give to a new year.

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