By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have fasted on Yom Kippur as long as I can remember and am nostalgic about the bagels and smoked fish break fasts with my late parents and aunts and uncles. Truth be told, I’ve never been uplifted by the fast. I’ve never felt inspired by causing self-inflicted pain and starving myself. I fail to see what it accomplishes or how it makes me a better person. I still have my health, thank God, and plan to fast this year, but would appreciate some inspiration to make it more meaningful.
— Beatrice W.
I’m glad you still have your health, may you continue to enjoy good health this year and many more to come!
If the fast was indeed to cause pain and starve ourselves, I wouldn’t be very inspired to do so either. Furthermore, if the point was to feel pain, why do Jews traditionally wish others to “have an easy fast”? It should rather be “have a miserable fast”! I think we need to reframe the entire concept of the fast on Yom Kippur, which will enable us to view it in a different light.
The source for fasting is in the Torah, which states “But on the tenth day of this (the seventh) month is the Day of Atonement… and you should afflict your souls…” (Vayikra/Lev. 23:27). “Afflicting” is interpreted by our sages in the Talmud to mean we should fast, hence the mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur. This, however, needs explanation. The Torah does not say to afflict our bodies, rather our “nefashos” or souls, through the fasting. This seems strange, as a fast would seem to afflict the body, not the soul. How can we understand this?
The answer is that the affliction is not the fasting itself. The fasting, which enables us to rest for a while from our physical pursuits, merely provides the backdrop to enable us to focus on our souls, which is the real point of the day. When we focus on our souls and how far we may have strayed from the right path, then the soul is afflicted with that realization. Maimonides points out that the mitzvah on Yom Kippur is not “to fast” as with other fast days, rather to “refrain from eating.” When we are on a higher, more spiritual plane, we have the opportunity, indeed the mitzvah, of getting in sync with our souls and seeing how we can better ourselves.
The mitzvah to “rest” from food and drink also includes desisting from bathing, wearing leather shoes and marital relations. All this elevates us to a higher, spiritual world where we can view the world and ourselves from a different vantage point.
My mentor, the late Rabbi S. Wolbe ob”m, once gave us a powerful illustration by which to understand the day of Yom Kippur and its laws. Maimonides, in discussing the final world of reward, says the following: “The World to Come has no eating nor drinking, rather the righteous sitting with their crowns upon their heads, and basking in the glow of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).” This is the feeling one has on Yom Kippur. This holy day is a bit of the next world transposed to this world. On Yom Kippur, by refraining from the mundane pursuits of this world, we are transformed into an angelic state whereby we don’t need to eat, much like the angels are above eating and derive their sustenance from the glow of the Shechinah. With the closeness we enjoy, we can intensely feel any distance from the Shechinah we have caused, and fulfill the mitzvah of teshuvah, or return to God and our true selves.
May you and all the readers have an easy, meaningful fast and be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet, happy New Year.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.