You Are What You Don't Eat

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Reprinted with permission from Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Yom Kippur edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Jason Aronson).

Jewish law traditionally opposes self-denial. Yet on Yom Kippur Jews are expected to forgo eating and drinking for more than a day.  Perhaps fasting is a necessary counterweight to modern life.

Almost all religions have special foods and diets for their sacred occasions. How, when, and what you eat has long been recognized to be filled with symbolic meanings as well as calories.empty plate

There are special Jewish foods for all the major holy days, with one exception:Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

This day, according to the Bible, is a fast day. For 24 hours, Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything.

What is the Bible trying to teach us by decreeing a day of fasting? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?

Compassion

First of all, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world's hunger problem. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But it isn't until one can really feel it in one's own body that the impact is truly there.

Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action.

Fasting is never an end in itself; that's why it has so many different outcomes. But all the other outcomes are amoral if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting.

As the prophet Isaiah said: "The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor."

Will Power

Second, fasting is an exercise in will power. Most people think they can't fast because it's so hard. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache are all more severe than hunger pangs.

I have on occasion fasted for three days, and I found that after the first 24 hours the pain decreases slightly as the stomach becomes numb. The reason it is so hard to fast is because it is so easy to stop. All you have to do is take a bite; and the food is all around, in easy reach.

Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat. Our society has become one of self-indulgence. We lack self-discipline. Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing "softness" in life.

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Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Rabbi Allen S. Maller was the rabbi at Temple Akiba in Culver City, CA for 39 years before retiring in 2006. Rabbi Maller is a graduate of UCLA and the Hebrew Union College. He has taught at Gratz College in Philadelphia, the Hebrew Union College and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and at the UCLA Extension.