It’s Complicated: Fasting on Yom Kippur

Part of: Alma’s Guide to the High Holidays

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fasting is the best-known custom. According to My Jewish Learning, “We abstain from satisfying our hunger and thirst based on two Torah commandments: ‘You shall afflict your souls’ (Leviticus 16:29) and ‘For a soul which is not afflicted on that day will be cut off (Leviticus 23:29).'”

In other words, “Fasting is an opportunity for each of us to observe Yom Kippur in a most personal way. It is a day of intense self-searching and earnest communication with the Almighty. This search requires an internal calm which derives from slowing down our biological rhythm. Fasting on Yom Kippur provides the key to our inner awakening.”

However, not everyone chooses to fast, and fasting can be complicated especially for those recovering from an eating disorder or dealing with a chronic illness.

To fast or not to fast?

When it comes to Yom Kippur, that is the question for many who find themselves somewhere on the wondrous spectrum that is not-strictly-religious-but-still-identify-as-Jewish Jews. Maybe you tried it in college and passed out during your Organic Chem lecture (not the worst timing, tbh). Or maybe you refuse to fast because you’re not into the whole masochism thing. Whatever you’re reasoning is (or isn’t), what’s important is that you feel good about your decision and stay healthy along the way.

Read: 19 Jews on whether or not they fast, and why.

Eating disorders

“The first time I fasted for Yom Kippur, I was 16 years old. Because I was raised in an interfaith and largely non-denominational household, I was never expected to participate in religiou+s traditions, and I certainly wasn’t asked to fast from sundown to sundown. But at 16, I felt compelled to commit myself to observe the High Holy Days with what resources I had at hand. In a way, it felt noble to take a firm stance in my Jewish identity in a place where Jews were few and far between. At least, that is the narrative I crafted for the world. For myself, it was an entirely different story.” — Blair Nodelman

Read the full essay: When You’re Recovering from an Eating Disorder, Yom Kippur is Complicated

Chronic illness

“Until recently, I fasted each year on Yom Kippur for atonement and to show solidarity with my Jewish ancestors who suffered and those who currently face oppression. This all changed last year when I developed a then-unknown illness and was told by doctors that I should not fast. Fortunately, fasting on Yom Kippur is flexible or excused for pregnant women, children, and people told by their doctor that they cannot fast. But, in my situation, I did not want my extended family, who I barely talk to, to know that I was sick from a mostly invisible illness.” — Julia Métraux

Read the full essay: Please Don’t Ask Me Why I’m Not Fasting on Yom Kippur