Some thoughts on Yom Kippur

The Kosher Academic reposted her post on Yom Kippur, and I commented there but I wanted to expand on her thoughts and mine.

I do not fast well at all. There have been fasts that by 3 in the afternoon I am vomiting and dry heaving. My head is pounding from lack of fluids, I am weak and dizzy. One year I even had a dream (hallucination?) that I was wrestling with the devil, but won in the end. That was one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had, and it remains with me to this day. I do not fast the smaller fasts, reserving my energy and strength for Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur.

KA questions the idea that “it’s better to fast and spend all day in bed than to not fast and be able to concentrate and pray and really repent.” I have the same question. During my previous marriage my husband was told by the rabbi that it was more important that he stayed home and looked after the kids, than was in shul davenning, if I was unable to adequately care for them (the kids) and had to stay in bed. My fast, his fast and the rabbi’s fast were just as important even though we spent them differently. The emphasis seems to be on the fasting aspect being much more important than the atonement and repentance aspect. Can someone explain that to me? How can we introspect when we cannot focus?

On Yom Kippur there are 5 major prohibitions, and the idea is that doing without these 5 things makes us more able to be spiritual. No leather shoes, no food or drink, no sex, no ablutions and no applying of lotions. We are supposed to suspend our need for anything physical so we can attain a high level of spirituality and oneness with our God. When I am busy dry heaving I do address God – but I am not sure this is what He meant when He told us in the Torah to fast. We are supposed to be like angels on this day – which is why we suspend those 5 actions – that’s not what I feel like.

As I mentioned the other day, there are people who are well able to transcend the physical, the chazzan who can still be standing by Neilah and puts his heart and soul into his service, those who fast well. Honestly, unless you are a good faster, I do not understand how putting your body through suffering brings closeness to God. There have been some years when I have barely opened a machzor during the day of Yom Kippur. The holiest day of the year and I barely prayed. I laid in bed in abject misery calling to God to just end my suffering in one way or another. I feel much closer to God on Rosh Hashannah in shul than on Yom Kippur. Is it just me, or do others feel this way too?

KA posits that

“[the reason] I think [is that] it’s a communal activity on Y”K. That we are fasting and praying as a community. The Teshuva – repentance – is done on a communal level. That doesn’t mean that there is no point to individual teshuva or fasting, but that the few people who need to stay in bed and aren’t really able to participate in prayers – or all those parents who spend the day exhaustingly taking care of the kids, entertaining them, feeding them, etc., but are still fasting, are still participating in the communal act of teshuva. This idea, in my mind, would be that G-d knows that their intent is to participate as fully as they are able, but their ability is limited by their individual circumstance.”

Is she right? Totally sounds as if she is to me. As we know, there is strength in numbers. A person can daven on his own, but gets more schar for davenning in a minyan. If all the Jewish people are fasting, then as a nation as a whole we are spiritually uplifted. Most Jews will fast on this day. From the ultra religious to the most secular. This is a day that is observed as a fast by the majority of Jews. And many of them won’t be in a shul praying for most of the fast.

I know I am kind of rambling here – I really want to understand the deeper meaning to “and you shall afflict yourselves” and I want to have a more meaningful fast. One of the traditional greetings before Yom Kippur is “have an easy fast” – shouldn’t we be wishing people a “meaningful fast”?

Let me know how you see Yom Kippur and if you have any insights that can help us poor fasters understand better why we need to do this.

(For tips on how to have an easier fast click here)

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11 Comments

  1. YK is NOT a favorite day for me. I don’t necessarily take to bed but when I did fast, I had the pounding headache…the feeling of general unwellness. It’s a day to be endured for me – like you, I feel more kavanah on RH.

  2. YC says:

    Fasting is from torah and the punishment is kares.

    Prayer, is Rabbinical. (Even according to the Rambam who holds it is from torah would not say go to shul and stand and say machzor all day rather than fast. PS Rav Soloveichik ZTL quipped that even the Ramban agrees that one must pray once a day from torah bc all the time is an Es Tzarah)

    I normally say has a meaning fast, in your case, have an easy one.

  3. batya from NJ says:

    i always wish ppl an easy & meaningful fast when i wish it in english although in hebrew i just say tzom kal (but that’s b/c i don’t know how to say “meaningful” in hebrew!). i am not a fan of yom kippur (or any of the fast days except for tzom gedaliah) b/c after over-eating on RH i am almost happy to not eat so much the next day…personally, i try to get to shul on yom kippur as soon as i can get my act together in the late morning & stay there till the break. during the break, i take a nap & whenever i wake up from my much-needed nap, i return to shul (usually somewhere towards the beginning of neila) & then i stay there till the end. it is a good feeling to be in shul at the end of YK once the shofar is blown. i just hate being around others all day with my horse breath since i can’t rinse out my mouth (unlike on the minor fasts)& it makes me very self-conscious to talk to ppl. etc even though we are all in the same boat…
    BTW, i would imagine that your low weight is what probably makes it harder for you to fast b/c you don’t have any fat reserves. i, on the other hand, don’t have that problem-i’ve got plenty of fat reserves :)!
    let me end this by wishing you & everyone an easy & MEANINGFUL fast!

  4. Giti says:

    there is definitely truth to what was said here, it is very hard as a mom, let alone a mom of four boys to be able to fast, fasting as it is makes you weak nevermind having to take care of children as well, the truth is that in the past we as jews fasted I believe on purim in order for the jews to be saved from the king achsheverosh and so that they wouldnt be destroyed as a nation, so there is a source to the fasting as a whole nation to be redeemed, as you stated it isnt easy for all of us to fast, some of us get very weak and need to stay in bed, but as an entire nation the fasting should be a zechut to redeem so that we can be redeemed, you also stated that the prayers of those who can fast more easily should be able to redeem us as well, we are one nation, brothers and sisters, so the prayers of many or few will connect us all, this is a joint effort both by fasting- physical and by praying- spiritual. The point is that we are working together as one to redeem ourselves on this holy day, my younger sister told me she learnt a long time ago back in seminary, that once you are a mother, your children come first, if you dont daven god understands, and same goes here for YK. Hope this enlighted you a bit, although I was extending on what others already said. Have an easy and meaningful (haha had to add that in) fast:) May we be in Jerusalem next year at the beit hamikdash in lieu of shul!

  5. Ariela says:

    I used to have similar fasting experiences to you and I learned two important things that make it better:
    1. Don’t go to shul at ALL – even for kol nidreh.
    2. Drink 1 L water per hour the entire day b4 the fast. Don’t waste tummy room on too much food. You can also drink pediolite (basically gaterade) – it better than water.

  6. Dave says:

    There is a Tefilah in the Yom Kippu machzor that many say right before Maariv called Tefilas Zakkah.

    It ties each of the abstentions that we do (food, shoes etc) to a set of sins that are related to those activites.

    By abstaining on Yom Kippur we are performing an act of Tinkun to “repair” our souls.

    Why these abstentions are the best Tikun for the Neshamah and why Tefillah us not sufficient is probably best left to the Mekubalim who understand the inner workings of the world.

  7. Susan says:

    My life is limited by a chronic illness. i stopped fasting years ago. In the past few years i have not been able to get to shul because of the illness. I LOVE YK. I love the communal sense of (wrestling with the devil and coming through to the other side)the day. It was not necessary for me to fast to be in the spiritual, communal longing of YK. Now, I imagine that I am in shul with my Jewish family. I am not fasting, i am not in shul, yet I am with my people, I am “particiapting in the act of teshuvah”. I long for the day that I have the strength to be in shul again. Having said that, if I was healthy and fasting kept me from shul, I would choose to not fast so that I could be in shul. I would eat and drink just enough to keep myself from being sick so that i could pray and daven and be with my community on Yom Kippur. That is just me. i like to keep things as simple and straighforward as possible. It is the intention of the day that is most important, not the act of fasting. If my rabbi (if all of the rabbis) disagreed, so be it. Being physically, as well as with my heart and soul, with my community, turning toward G-d would be more important than the act of fasting. Just me.

  8. Danny says:

    It’s all down to caffeine addiction. Get that out of your system and fasts become a walkover. That’s what causes the dry vomiting.

    Until I managed to kick the habit just over a year ago (and what a massive struggle it was) I had various other issues that I didn’t dream were connected with it – eg heartburn from white bread, red meat, cholent etc – they all went away at the same time.

    Now I can get away with a coffee every now and then, but never more than one, 2 days running, at the most.

    Good luck.

    DG

    • hadassahsabo says:

      i am glad that kicking coffee worked for you. there were a couple of years that i had given up coffee months before YK and it had absolutely no effect on my fast – it was still lousy. it seems that different tricks work for different people. i have a friend who swears eating a bag of crisps / potato chips before the fast makes her fast better. Some have a humungous cup of coffee right before hand to and that helps them.

      May we all have a meaningful fast.

  9. Lady Lock and Load says:

    I hope you will have an easier fast this year. ever try kalay tzom pills?

  10. Alan Levin says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I experienced one of my worst fasts yesterday. It included all your symptoms as well as hallucinations. I could feel my body shutting down from 5pm, it was just too painful to sit in shul and way too weak to walk home. I had to try find a quiet warm spot to curl up and writhe and wretch. I’ve been fasting for more than three decades although I’ve become frum in the past three years. I attend shacharis every day, but next year YK I’ll be fasting at home.

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