Fasting From a Functional Perspective

Recovering the benefits of denial.

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Second, on the emotional plane, fasts are like vacations from the pursuit of pleasure. Sometimes the appetites and desires of the physical body really can become our masters, rather than our servants; without getting carried away, it's useful to think about fasting as correctives at such times. As a lifestyle, denying ourselves the pleasures of the world is anti-spiritual and anti-Jewish: God lives in manifestation, and our souls are attuned to wonder. But as an occasional practice--such as the six days a year prescribed by halakhah--it's a welcome break.

It's as if I say: This day, I'm not worried about feeling good. In fact, I'm going to let myself not feel good. Supported by my community, I'm going to set aside these six days a year for reflection, introspection, even outright mourning. I don't flip a switch (one day happy, the next sad), but I do invite in whatever emotions might ordinarily be beneath my cognitive radar.The most profound effect of fasting, though, is on the level of the mind. For those who have difficulty meditating, I recommend fasting. Denying the body food reduces the amount of energy available to the brain, and so it becomes increasingly difficult, as the day wears on, to think in the usual, linear ways. You lose track of lists, you get frustrated trying to plan. All the routine activities of the thinking mind get disrupted, which is why it's such a waste to try to have a "normal" day during a fast.

Fasting is an opportunity: the momentum of thought decreases, and you become quite satisfied just to be here now. This, of course, is just what meditation does also: slow down the train of thought so that we can actually see the world (internal and external) more clearly. Fasting makes meditation easier; if meditation is like biking up a steep slope of thought, then meditating while fasting is like biking downhill. Try it for yourself: sit for 45 minutes toward the end of a fast day, and see how much easier it is, as the quantity and intensity of distracting thoughts markedly diminishes.

It's no wonder, then, that fasting has been part of contemplative, prophetic, and even magical practices from the Bible to the present day. It's not that the altered state is enlightenment or devekut. Rather, in a concentrated mindstate (known in Sanskrit as samadhi), it's easier to see what you're looking for. None of this is magic; it's simple, and biological. But as long as these provisos are borne in mind, fasting and samadhi can show you the way. Thus fasting leads even to the fourth plane of reality, atzilut (emanation), not because the concentrated mind is itself the ultimate reality, but because, in a concentrated state, the mind can visit territories otherwise beyond our ken.

Finding Meaning in Traditional Fasts

Why, then, fast on these six days, rather than whenever the inspiration is present? First, I draw strength from the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people are also fasting on this communal day--even if my reading of the day's significance is different from theirs. Jews have never agreed on why we do anything; we have four New Year's, and three names for the Passover holiday. Yet community is built by doing.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a writer & teacher. He is a columnist for the Forward, the chief editor of Zeek, the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, and the author of God in Your Body. He is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a J.D. from Yale.