When Fasting is Actually a Sin
Rabbi’s Message – September 22, 2020
To fast or not to fast?
Perhaps the most well-known Yom Kippur custom is that of fasting. The tradition is based on the command in Leviticus 16:29 to afflict our souls, and in the Mishnah Yoma 8:1: “On Yom HaKippurim it is forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals (leather), or to have intercourse…”
While fasting is an “iconic” Yom Kippur practice, not eating or drinking is one of several actions we refrain from on this Holy Day. For me as a rabbi, the essence of these “afflictions” is that we are rising above our most basic urges that lead to physical pleasure, in order to focus on the spiritual dimension of our being.
For some, that grumbling stomach is part of the Yom Kippur experience. For others, it isn’t. You’ve heard us saying throughout the pandemic that Judaism holds life, and the preservation and protection of life, as one of our highest values. Fortunately, in the Mishnah, there are explicit exceptions to fasting for those who are ill or recently married, among others.
If, in any way, refraining from food and drink is not healthy for you, Judaism REQUIRES you to eat and/or drink on this day. If a medical expert has given someone advice to eat, and they go against that advice, then that person is considered to have sinned, not to be pious. Whether one is pregnant, seriously ill, has a chronic condition like diabetes or an eating disorder, has medication that needs to be taken with food/water, or something else – fasting is not an option, and you aren’t getting any brownie points with God for attempting to do so.
So, for those, like myself, who are forbidden by Jewish law to fast, this year (or any year), what can we do? Remember, the essence of this practice is to focus on the spiritual. There may well be other things on the list above that one can refrain from. We can still attend services and focus on our spiritual selves, even while having a snack or meal in between (or during, if needed). We can still practice serious self-reflection. We can still find words of prayer in our own hearts. We can still… do almost everything else related to Yom Kippur.
But we eat. And here’s my advice. Take some time this week to think about what it is that your body requires. Call your doctor if you need to. The year I had Gestational Diabetes, pre-made all my meals and snacks and I set a reminder on my phone to eat them and test my sugar levels, so that I didn’t have to put mental energy into counting carbs or remembering when it was time to test. For children, maybe skip a snack and dessert (with permission from your grown-ups). For anyone, perhaps you skip your favorite foods that day. But the bottom line is this: Eat what you are supposed to eat; do not eat what you are not supposed to eat, and may our eating be a prayer in and of itself, as a service to God while we protect our bodies and health.
ReformJudaism.org offers this prayer and mediation for this who cannot fast.