Fasting and Asceticism

What is prohibited on Yom Kippur?

Print this page Print this page

Of course, in the extreme, the restriction of food and water results in death. On Yom Kippur, this concept is significant in two ways. First, as on Rosh Hashanah, the act of standing to be judged in a sense entails facing death, for we are waiting to see what the verdict in our trial will be, whether or not we will be written in the "Book of Life." By denying ourselves material sustenance, we symbolically engage in self‑sacrifice, a recognition that we deserve to be punished. (The weight‑conscious will take heart in the fact that fasting reduces the body's fat content.) That innocent animals lost their lives for human wrongdoing (their fat was burned at the altar) should have made people aware of their actions. Today it's not animals, but what, we should ask ourselves, is being sacrificed when we err?

Experiencing hunger that we know is temporary should also encourage us to do something for those who suffer from lack of food. This is the real purpose of the fast, as Isaiah explains in the day's prophetic reading. A problem since biblical times, it has not abated yet, with recurring wars, famines, and other natural disasters leaving millions to die of starvation. When we resume feeding our bodies, we are revived and, as people who have experienced near death attest, feel like we are starting over. When we do so, it should be with our priorities in order.

Since Torah stipulates that the fast begins on the ninth day, but we are to deny ourselves only on the 10th, it is understood that the fast begins before sundown and concludes the next day at nightfall.

To revive themselves during the long hours without food, worshippers sometimes sniff smelling salts (in former times, tobacco or snuff), spices, flowers, or a clove‑filled etrog (citron) prepared after the previous Sukkot. Among the religious, spices are used this way just to give them the opportunity to say a berakhah [blessing]. (The rabbis instructed that 100 benedictions be said daily, which is more difficult on Yom Kippur because of its restrictions.) If you smell spices, the blessing to be said is: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who creates species of fragrance.

Sexual Relations

The normal and healthy drive, encouraged on Shabbat because it is an act seen to involve God and assist Him in ongoing creation, is prohibited on Yom Kippur. Again, it is an appetite whose satisfaction can lead one into sin.


Cleansing oneself for pleasure or comfort is prohibited. Observant Jews do not shower, bathe, or wash their hands or faces, unless they are soiled with mud. The focus of this day is on internal, rather than external, cleanliness. You should not think you are rid of soil just because you have applied soap and water to your skin.


The application of oil to the body was once done regularly, particularly after bathing and was part of the cleansing process. Today, anointing generally refers to the use of face and hand creams, which on Yom Kippur are not to be applied except for medicinal purposes. As for the prohibition against washing, thoughts should be directed to what needs to be cleaned out from the inside.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Lesli Koppelman Ross is a writer and artist whose works have appeared nationally. She has devoted much of her time to the causes of Ethiopian Jewry and Jewish education.