Tonight, I begin the fast for the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur.
If you’re not Jewish, you may have noticed there have been quite a few Jewish holidays lately. That’s because September is always a haven for Jewish holidays. But, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in particular are different than other holidays. Instead of commemorating a certain event in history, these days, as well as the days in between, serve as a time for self reflection. Essentially, they’re there to keep ourselves in check, and start fresh in this new year.
Sometime in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are to conduct a self-cleansing ceremony called Tashlich. A prayer is said next to a body of water and symbolically, we throw away our sins. On Yom Kippur, we atone for our sins and we spend the day fasting and praying to do so.
While there is much more to Yom Kippur, the most common association people make with the day is the fast. The idea of giving up food from sunset to sunset is both a sacrifice and a self-punishment. But from what I understand, the more important reason we do not eat on Yom Kippur is because it would distract us from the purpose of this day. Our focus is on cleansing ourselves and showing our dedication to righteousness and G-d, and we should be so focused that we don’t even need to eat.
But, not only do we fast, we’re supposed to eat large feasts right before the fast. It’s considered a mitzvah (good deed) to do so. I’m not entirely sure why (if you have an explanation, please clue me in) but from what I can deduce, it makes the fast more of a challenge, and hence therefore more of a sacrifice.
For me, succeeding at the fast was a gradual process, year by year. Obviously as a kid, I was still fed on Yom Kippur. You can’t exactly ask a child to fast, but eventually there comes that time when you realize you’re not a kid anymore. I’m not exactly sure what year that was but I do recall one year around 14 or 15 when I went 24 hours and couldn’t make it the last hour. My mom and I were sitting in Ne’eelah (the last service of Yom Kippur) and I couldn’t take it anymore so my mom took me into the kitchen for an advance on the honey cake and juice they were preparing to put out an hour later. I took a bite, and just like Leah Koenig, I felt satiated but extremely guilty. What would one more hour have actually done? But the next year, I pulled through and realize that maybe you can’t do it cold turkey and need to take baby steps. I say this now, but I’m sure tomorrow night, precisely around 6:30, I’ll be wishing I was 14 or 15 again.
While honey cake and juice are usually served in synagogues as a break fast starter, most people go home to break the fast with a larger meal that is traditionally dairy and/or fish.
-Hillary, off to feast and fast