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What’s Behind Fasting, Anyway?

It’s fascinating to see the wide range of intense emotions that fasting has generated on Virtual Talmud, from gratitude and appreciation to distaste, even disgust.

I think one of the reasons we may have such strong feelings on the subject is that fasting stands outside of much of our day-to-day experience of Judaism, with its emphasis on thankfulness, divine service, celebration, and giving back to the world. Fasting draws on another facet of Judaism, one that is generally less pronounced–that of penance.

As Rabbi Grossman reminds us, the Torah tells us that on Yom Kippur we are to “afflict our souls” as a part of the way we make atonement. We don’t bathe, we don’t eat, we don’t drink, we abstain from sexual intimacy. It can feel foreign, like someone practicing self-flagellation to cleanse himself or herself of sinfulness which, in a way, it is.


Perhaps it’s our ambivalence about fasting and other forms of penance that we recognize when we wish fasters a ‘tzom kal’–an easy fast. If the purpose is to afflict our souls, wouldn’t an easy fast sort of defeat the point? It’s clear that we fast for a variety of reasons, and some find it more meaningful than others. But I think the different philosophical bases for fasting may be part of why this practice is harder to get behind emotionally than many others in Jewish life.

May we all have an easy–and meaningful–fast.

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Howard Katz

posted September 28, 2006 at 3:24 pm

I must say, I am – yet again – amazed by the provincialism of American Jews displayed in this discussion. Fasting is, of course, a universal spiritual practice meant to connect one with the Divine. Every spiritual tradition one can think of -including non-theistic ones – make use of it for one obvious reason: when done with the proper intention(“kavannah”) it can put one into an altered state of consciousness and bring one a direct connection with God. The only mention of other traditions that I’ve seen in this discussion so far has been Ramadan(itself historically modeled on Yom Kippur). Even though the Torah describes the Yom Kippur fast as an “affliction”, it is clear that the motif of fasting-as-means-to-divine consciousness is primary here as well. See the various commentaries(Kabbalistic and others) that describe the Kohen Gadol(High Priest) as going into an altered state of consciousness when he entered the Holy of Holies – and the concommitant precautions made to save his life. Unfortunately, so mired in the oppressive and heavy handed discourse of American Jewish life are most American Jews (including, as demonstrated in this discussion, its’ rabbis) that they can’t see this. They can see neither the spiritual power of fasting nor its’ use for this purpose in other spiritual traditions. All they see is either “a meaningless ritual”(Rabbi Stern) or a variety of tedious cliches (“spirit of sacrifice”, tradition, etc.) A bit less provincialism and a lot more openness to genuine spirituality would do wonders here.

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Janaki Kuruppu

posted September 28, 2006 at 10:55 pm

Wow – I’m a bit surprised by the venom in Mr. Katz’s comment!! I think he’s being a bit harsh on American Jews… My own experience is that I did not grow up Jewish, but chose to convert as an adult. I did grow up with a focus on spirituality, and was involved in organized religion (and unorganized practices of various kinds – none of them satanic or devil-worshipping, or animistic, but “out there”). My formative years were spent in California, where I, and my friends, would periodically fast. The notable difference I see with “fasting” as a “New Age” kind of practice, and fasting on Yom Kippur, is that the former was in my “control” – I chose the time and duration. Yom Kippur, as with so much else in Judaism, is externally imposed by the calendar. Just like Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday, whether I’m ready for it or not, so too does Yom Kippur start at sundown, ready-or-not!! Of course, I spend the month of Elul and the 10 days following Rosh Hashanah, trying to prepare myself. I can’t argue that I have no warning or preparation time….but, still, I have no choice in the matter!! That really changes the experience for me. Mostly in a good way – I think that the Mitzvot are a good reminder that we are not in control of everything – a myth that is particularly prevalent among Americans. But, the lack of control adds an element, for me, of dread and anxiety – will I be ready? will I be in the appropriate frame of mind? so, as Yom Kippur draws near, my trepidation increases, as I believe it should when we contemplate approaching the Divine for forgiveness. Will I be ready? I won’t know until the first note of Kol Nidre is sung.

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posted September 29, 2006 at 2:27 pm

Janaki, That was a fantastic post. I’m serious. Like when you say, “so, as Yom Kippur approaches, my trepdiation increases”, it reminds me of the part of the prayers where we read that the angels themselves feel fear and do not see themselves as blameless. I think you’re completely in the right frame of mind for this season. Best wishes for an easy and meaningful fast, and may you be written into the Book of Life.

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posted September 29, 2006 at 5:25 pm

I think that Janaki’s post made a great deal of sense. There are really many fasts during the year that most Jews don’t know about (including me), much less observe. And they generally are closer to the Ramadan way of fasting, which is no food or drink from dawn until sundown. I fasted for years and all we did was synagogue hop, I lived in a town that was 50% Jewish and, at that time there were 4 main synagogues, 3 of which were all on the same road. So, we’d go visit friends at one, go to another, sit for services, go out again, sit for more services and count down the hours until we could eat, plus what we would eat. It wasn’t very spiritual. Now, I takes medications for depression and anxiety and must have at least a little bit of coffee in the morning with a small amount of milk so the meds will not make me ill. Also, the coffee is so I don’t need to take more meds for a headache. I try to fast most of the day, drink water as, again, it is a medical requirement for I take meds 3 times a day. And, try to stay in synagogue. Do I pray for forgiveness? yes, I pray for that everyday. Do I pray to be inscribed in the book of life for a good year for my family and myself? Yes, I pray for us everyday. Do I feel a spiritual connection. Sometimes. In the Torah, G-d also said to practice self-denial. I never exercise on Yom Kippur and I do 364 days of the year. That, to me, is self denial. This year I was asked to participate in the afternoon service and translate a small portion of the Torah about revering your mother and father and abhorrance of idolatry. Both very important to me. Therefore, I believe there was a time when Yom Kippur was considered the holiest day of the year and still do except for Shabbat. But, I truly believe that true faith in G-d is what is being asked of us. Everyday. Also, many people fast to lose weight and I think that is considered a sin as well. Am I wrong? May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life this year. And, my trepidation each year is always there. I am not even sure why. Is is the lack of choice of a day to fast or fear of not being inscribed.

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posted October 1, 2006 at 9:34 pm

so what is wrong with doing what is requested- when it is requested?

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