Yom Kippur Without Fasting

How kids can atone too.

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For most adults, the central experience of Yom Kippur is fasting. By abstaining from food and drink, we exercise control over our bodies and do not give in to our most basic impulses. This makes it pretty easy to feel the "affliction" that the Torah mandates. But parents sometimes find it difficult to include children in the holiday observances, since anyone under the age of 13 is not required to fast.

yom kippur for kids

Have your kids refrain from

playing with their toys for the day.

Here are some ways you can help your children have a meaningful Yom Kippur by teaching them disciplined, controlled behavior, as well as the meanings behind the rituals.

Fasting for Those Under 13

Children can develop a sense of what fasting symbolizes if they are involved in their parents' or older siblings' fasting experience. The seudah mafseket (pre-fast meal), as well as the break-fast meal, should be a special gathering for the whole family--fasters and non-fasters together.

During Yom Kippur, you can share your feelings about fasting with your children. If you're not feeling well, your kids might surprise you with how sympathetic they are, and how helpful they can be. Children nearing the age of 13 can fast a few hours to prepare for their forthcoming adult responsibilities.

You can have your children eat on Yom Kippur together with elderly or sick people who are also not fasting. This way, meals are likely to be eaten in a holiday spirit, complete with blessings before and after. Those who are not fasting should make Kiddush over grape juice or wine to sanctify the day, and add a special line in Birkat Hamazon.

Alternatives to Fasting

While fasting from food and drink may be the most well-known of the Yom Kippur rituals, there are several other opportunities for individuals of all ages to "afflict their souls" on this day. It is appropriate for children who are not fasting to still refrain from bathing and using creams or lotions.

Also, children can participate in the custom to abstain from wearing leather shoes, and it can be particularly meaningful to them if you explain why.

Rabbi Moses Isserles pointed out how this practice enforces compassion for all living creatures: "How can a person put on shoes, a piece of clothing for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written 'His tender mercies are over all His works'?" (Psalms 145:9).

Use the days and weeks leading up to Yom Kippur to take your child shopping for a modest pair of shoes for the occasion: canvas sneakers, plastic sandals, or something simple from a local thrift store.

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Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is the Director of Jewish Family Learning & Life at West End Synagogue, A Reconstructionist Congregation in Manhattan. She has her M.A. in Jewish Education and Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also a senior editor of Jewschool.com and Director of Programming for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.