The Many Ways Chronic Illness Affects My Jewish Observance

I didn’t expect how my poor health would affect the role of Judaism in my life.

I’ve never fasted on Yom Kippur. Since children are not required to abstain from food or drink on Yom Kippur, and I developed chronic pain and illness when I was 11 years old, I’ve never even tried. It’s no mystery what would happen: I’d feel fatigued, I’d feel faintish, or more likely, I’d just faint.

One afternoon a few days after last Yom Kippur, I was in my college’s Hillel talking with two other Jews. One had just told an arduous tale about how difficult his fast had been, and how he struggled fighting off hunger all day. “And how was your fast?” he then asked.

I answered matter-of-factly and in an affect tone:

“Oh, I don’t fast.”

Thankfully, the conversation quickly moved on and neither the guy who asked me, nor the Hillel staff member we were chatting with, had any follow-up questions. They didn’t say anything that would hint that they were judging me for not fasting, but it still felt like I had just been caught with my hand in a jar of honey.

I’m extremely active in the club as one of the student leaders, though many of the club’s members were raised quite differently than me. I grew up attending Hebrew school, went to services at a Conservative synagogue, and live a life that is noticeably different from non-Jews (lighting candles weekly, buying turkey bacon, abstaining from chametz on Passover, etc) but I never followed all the rules of halakhah (Jewish law). However, a significant chunk of the Hillel community were raised Modern Orthodox: They attended private Jewish day schools, lived in a strictly kosher home, and were/are Shabbat observant — all experiences I cannot relate to.

So when I say things like “I don’t fast,” I assume they think it’s because I didn’t grow up Orthodox, not because according to Jewish law, I am barred from fasting since it would cause me physical harm. I wish I could fast, and if I could, I would. But this isn’t a matter of religious practice, it’s a matter of health.

I’ve feared that I’ll be judged for not observing parts of Judaism, like fasting, by people who assume I simply don’t value the Jewish religion enough to practice it. However, my desire for privacy, and to not divulge my medical information to every person I know, outweighs this fear. It also helps that Judaism explicitly states that the sick (as I am) should not fast. So privately, I know I’m doing the right thing despite what others may or may not think.

The situations that are more difficult to navigate are when I alter how I practice Judaism because of my health, where there are no specific rules to guide whether I, as a chronically ill person, am making the right decision.

My official diagnosis is fibromyalgia (also associated with chronic fatigue syndrome), though this is more of an umbrella term for a list of symptoms than a word that defines my chronic pain and fatigue 100% accurately. Though I have little desire to become Shabbat observant in the strictest sense of the word, in an ideal world, I would love to observe certain aspects of Shabbat. I love that my religion values work/life balance and am particularly attracted to the idea of disconnecting from the digital world, business world, and academic world once a week. However, because I am a college student with chronic pain and fatigue, this is simply impractical.

I often come home from class during the week utterly fatigued, or sit down to work on a school assignment or my freelance writing only to be met with sharp pain in my ankles, wrists, and legs. I rely on my ability to work on Friday nights and Saturdays to make up for the times during the week when I can’t complete a task because of my discomfort. The times when I’m in too much pain or too fatigued to be productive become my times of rest instead of a devoted Friday to Saturday night. I never know when I will and won’t feel well. If I feel well enough to accomplish a necessary task on Shabbat, I need to take advantage of that opportunity, because on Sunday I could feel like an utter wreck and accomplish nothing. The same goes for Jewish holidays that I would love to observe in a more traditional way.

It would also be great to attend synagogue on Shabbat like I did as a child, but I most often wake up in too much pain on Saturdays to go. Instead, I take advantage of the fact that I live in the modern era and can do things like watch television and films to distract myself from pain. I’ve tried to choose to read books instead, a non-digital activity, but I don’t have the energy to be imaginative or creative when I don’t feel well, and the attempt makes me more aware of the pain I’m already in.

For a few weeks last year, I tried to half-follow the rules and only break Shabbat when I didn’t feel well, or when I needed to complete an assignment due Monday that I was too sick to do earlier in the week. However, I quickly realized that this method is utterly depressing. I have no desire to feel like a failure every time I turn on my phone to distract myself from pain — to start a race but then drop out before the finish line. So instead, I light the candles, I say the prayers, I eat (and sometimes bake) challah, but I don’t actively abstain from anything I do on other days of the week.

I’m constantly reminded of my failures in observancy just by the nature of the Jewish community I’m in. I hear about the services my college peers attend, and watch as they proudly shut their phones off before our Hillel Shabbat dinners.

A recurring theme in Judaism is that life is more valuable than Jewish law. Eat non-kosher food to prevent starvation, drive in a car to get a sick person to the hospital on Shabbat. But I’m not dying. I’m just sick. I must rely on my own conviction, not on some clearly laid out passage in a Jewish text, that my decisions are justified. When it comes down to it, I don’t value Jewish law over my own health and my wish to experience as little pain as possible.

This doesn’t change the fact that I’d still like the option of experimenting with my level of observancy without it affecting my pain levels, my work, and my academic career more than those who do not experience chronic illness.

When I first started having chronic pain in the sixth grade, I knew it would drastically affect my life. I would have to limit the amount of physical activity I took on, would often have to cancel plans with friends and family if I suddenly felt unwell, and would constantly have to swallow my pride and explain the status of my health to teachers, and later, bosses, so they knew why I was often absent and needed extensions on assignments. I didn’t expect how my poor health would affect the role of Judaism in my life.

I’m trying to be kind to myself when I can’t observe all of the rituals I’d like to, and to remind myself that by valuing my own health, I’m prioritizing Judaism in the way I need. Still, I can’t help but see my Judaism as one more area of my life that would be different if I were healthy.

Image by Ponomariova_Maria via Getty Images

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