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Starving for Meaning on Yom Kippur

If there’s one thing American Jews and Muslims have in common, it’s that they share a very similar relationship to corporeal forms of atonement. Roughly half of the American Muslim community fasts in the month of Ramadan. The same number of Jews fast on Yom Kippur. While some think this is a low number compared to worldwide statistics (some say about 80 percent of secular Israelis fast on Yom Kippur!!!), I think it is unbelievably high. And to be honest, I don’t understand why so many Jews fast.

The reason Jews have always fasted on Yom Kippur is because, for the most part, that’s what they’ve culturally grown up with. I try to have reasons for most of the rituals I perform, but this one is purely a result of how I was raised. I fast only because that’s what my father and mother did and continue to do, and what my sister and her husband do and their children will probably do.


Do I always follow what my parents do? No, of course not. I am just like most Jews; I pick and choose what things about my parents’ Judaism I like and what I don’t like. I fast because I am supposed to and that is the end of the story.

Yet, starving has never made the day a bit more meaningful for me. I get my meaning on Yom Kippur by closing my eyes and thinking about what matters most in my life.

Let me be clearer. I don’t care if it’s healthy, I don’t care if it makes me appreciate my food more, I don’t care if it is spiritually moving or not. There are people who have theories about how fasting makes them be more “mindful” of what they consume, but I don’t need starvation to teach me “mindfulness.” I don’t like emotional, physical or spiritual shock therapy. I don’t like fasting or any form of self-mutilation.

For most Jews, fasting on Yom Kippur is one of those big Jewish things that they saw their parents do and they think, somewhere in the back of their minds, they might go to hell if they don’t do. And no one wants to go to hell. I sure don’t.

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posted September 26, 2006 at 4:06 pm

Rabbi Sern, Perhaps one needs to broaden one’s horizon a tad. I recall a class I had years ago on Modern Jewish Thought(Joint senior seminar from the History and Philosophy Depts where I went to Undergrad), and in studying the works of M. Mendohlsohn, we learned that Ritual is an “unwritten script” that invites us to ask questions, to constantly try to re examine why we do things. I’m reminded of the the Story of the 4 sons from Passover, specifically the oldest who asks the question about the laws and customs… Perhaps we need to say its more than because my parents and family fast. Its to remind us that even though we have much and have plenty of food, there are those in our community and our towns and country who have nothing. It could be the standard:”to set us free from our base, animal natures for 25hrs”; the important thing is that one should not look at it as a form of starvation, but perhaps something bigger, or connecting us to a higher state of being.

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jewish guy

posted September 26, 2006 at 8:07 pm

rabbi stern is absolutely right. most american jews aren’t very observant, and the few things they do observe are usually twisted and reinterpreted to fit modern sensibilities. fasting on yom kippur is the exception. we do it without any accompanying wacky spiritual theories, because it is one of the few rituals considered important enough in its own right to preserve. after all, it’s YOM KIPPUR!!!

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posted September 26, 2006 at 9:50 pm

I am completely unable to believe that a Rabbi who trained at Yeshiva university could so cavelierly dismiss the halakhic basis for fasting. Maybe the majority of American Jews are unaware of the theology behind the practice, but Rabbi Stern is not. By the way, Rabbi, fasting is NOT starving. The people in Darfur are starving. One could use the Rabbi’s argument against keeping Kosher, not driving on Shabbat and , heck, even for giving tzedakah. Of course we mirror what we see as children, but ultimately all of us need to invest whatever rituals we follow with our own meaning. Sometimes we need to be aware of something greater than our hedonistic selves. That’s the magic of the Days of Awe, and why so many Jews to this day want to be part of this community on these days.

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posted September 27, 2006 at 4:47 am

Rabbi Stern… why are you so depressed? Why are you so angry at our tradition? I respect your point of view, but hey, reading your stuff is bringing me down. :o( We need to get you in a better mood. Life is awesome, judaism is fantastic and yes, we love tradition! Don t you?

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annamay Podgorna/separdic jew

posted September 27, 2006 at 2:39 pm

Rabbi Stern you should be ashamed of yourself. I studied with Reb Zalman Schechter-Shalomi (’82-“84) and he would not say what you have said He stressed “always” that to follow torah was a blessing we should be greatful for, ALL ITS COMMANDMENTS all 613of them as for “fasting” it is a way of cleansing the physical so we cal let the soul expand and move within us and let the Creator’s Light enter us!!

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posted September 27, 2006 at 6:02 pm

I am not Jewish but in my faith we fast too. Well some Catholics fast on the Easter holiday. I feel some of these comments are a bit harsh. It is a right to question every thing that we read whether it is in the Torah, Bible or Quaran. I think Rabbi Stern, that you are on the right track. If you question the Light of Hashem – He will probably give you a better answer than the comments you received from the fellow Jews on this site. When you receive the answer please share it with me – I would love to hear it.

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posted September 27, 2006 at 6:15 pm

Oh I forgot something in my last post. Rabbi Stern, perhaps you can do what I so when I fast. I ask God that any meal I have not eaten on my fast be given to someone who rarely gets a meal. This way if you can’t find meaning in fasting then you can do it for someone else. While you are starving for the Yom Kippur – you can try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who starves daily and try to image what it would be like if you had to live this way daily. An even more amazing gift would be to go to a Soup Kitchen and serve the homeless but that may prove difficult. Because the hunger you feel may cause the temptation to steal a bit of bread, but I think God would forgive you anyway, especially if He isn’t looking. But then again it is written that He knows everything we do, think, and feel.

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posted September 27, 2006 at 6:22 pm

Rabbi Stern? I know our beliefs are different for I am a Messianic Jew. However, please know that I am praying for what seems to be a sad time for you. Yes, it is not about the highs. Life is full of highs and lows and for what it is worth, I am praying for you through your low. Shalom in Yeshua,TJ

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posted September 27, 2006 at 8:33 pm

Rabbi Stern, One comment in your blog read absolutely true: “I fast because I am supposed to and that is the end of the story.” IF I were a gambler, I would lay my last dollar on the line that you could (and do) discuss the importance of fasting and not because it is healthy, part of tradition or child-rearing, or even the individual’s choice; bottom line is we fast because that is what G-d commanded. What better way to make people look at themselves and their reasons for fasting than to present the rest of your “argument”? In my case, because I am a Type I diabetic, I have no choice whether I fast or not; passing out during the middle of services is not a “good thing” for others to witness and it harms my physical being. My compromise is to eat and drink the bare minimum to sustain me. Yes, I need a little water, but I don’t need coffee or my favorite diet soda; I eat just enough food to keep me on my feet. Kosher? I have been told it is not; then again I have been told it is worse to harm my body than to fast.

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posted September 27, 2006 at 11:01 pm

Man, some people really need to stop with all the “shame on you rabbi” talk. Isn’t that exactly the mentality that the rabbi was talking about in this article? I think the first post said it best: sometimes we do things not only because G-d told humanity to do so, but because by practicing it, we keep the tradition alive and continue our investigation of it. Although I am not Jewish, I see this reason as more than adequate. If you don’t want to do it, fine by me. But, at the same time, I practice certain customs not because I understand them fully, or that I believe everything that is contained in them, but because it maintains something that my ancestors have done and in a way, connects me to them. As this world is increasingly homogenized into a global community, don’t you want to be someone who maintains its beautiful diversity and unique heritages?

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Rabbi Eliyahu Stern

posted September 27, 2006 at 11:25 pm

Mightmountain, Well said. I just dont think every single mitzvah must have some kind of reason. While i do feel that most religious actions and deeds should have reason, not everything can be rationally explained. In response to some of my critics I would say that my response to fasting is neither traditional or radical, pessimistic or optimistic, or pro Judaism or against Judasm, its just ment to be honest: Most Jews fast becuase that is what their parents did and they don’t want to go to hell.

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posted September 28, 2006 at 4:28 am

Rabbi The overwhelming majority of Jews who fast on Yom Kippur don’t believe in hell, so I doubt that it plays a role in their thinking. Whether they fast because they are part of a Kaplanian religious civilization that has selected this ‘instrument’ because it is an effective spiritual tool, or whether they believe that the written and oral Torah was revealed to Moses on Sinai, they all have reasons–and fear of hellfire isn’t the biggee. Some of us fast to make our nonobservant parents feel proud that they raised such a wonderful Jewish lad. An easy fast for you, Rabbi.

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posted October 2, 2006 at 6:19 pm

Hey Jethro, If someone has a last name “Kaplan” Are they Kaplanians? Can you explain to all of us what that civilization is all about and..also is your last name Tull? brunette

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posted January 28, 2008 at 11:44 am

hi. i am not jewish but am facinated by your holy faith and tradition. i have one question regarding your fasting. do you have a fast in which you fast for gratitude to g-d in saving the isrealites from pharoah. i am told that its a jewish custom as your phrophet moses observed this fast? is this true or false? an answer would be greatly appreciated. thank you.

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