You Are What You Don't Eat

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Penance

Thus, fasting serves as a penance. Self-inflicted pain alleviates guilt, although it is much better to reduce one's guilt with offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why contributing tzedakah, charity,is such an important part of Yom Kippur, and indeed fasting which doesn’t increase compassion is ignored by God.

However, the concept of fasting as penance helps us understand that our suffering can be beneficial. Contemporary culture desires happiness above all else. Any suffering is seen as unnecessary and indeed evil.

While we occasionally hear people echo values from the past that suffering can help one grow, or that a life unalloyed with pain would lack in the qualities of greatness, the dominant attitude among people today is that the most important thing is "you should only be happy."

Thus the satisfaction one can derive from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we have to experience anyway.

Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain, especially if by doing so we eliminate the symptoms without reaching the root cause.

Denial of Dependencies

Fourth in our list of outcomes, fasting is a denial of dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising that tells us we must have this thing or that to be healthy, happy, popular, or wise. By fasting we assert that we do not need to be dependent on external things, even such an essential thing as food.

If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for 24 hours, how much more can our needs for all the non-essentials be ignored?

Judaism doesn't advocate asceticism. In fact it is against Jewish law to deny one's self normal pleasures. But in our over-heated consumer society, it is necessary to periodically turn ourselves off to the constant pressure to consume and forcibly remind ourselves that "man does not live by bread alone."

Health

The fifth outcome of fasting is improved physical health. Of course, one 24-hour fast will not have any more effect than one day of exercise. Only prolonged and regular fasting promotes health. The annual fast on Yom Kippur however, can awaken us to the importance of how much, and how often, we eat.

For many years, research has shown that when animals are underfed, receiving a balanced diet that in quantity was below the norm for maximum physical health, their life spans were prolonged from 50 to 100 percent.

Other studies indicate that people with a below average caloric intake are less susceptible to cancer.

It was common in Kabalistic and Hassidic circles to fast every Monday and Thursday. If one eats normal meals the other five days, this would result in a decrease of 25 percent in caloric intake. Over the years this could add years to one's life span.

Good for the Soul

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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.