Is this the fast I look for?
On Yom Kippur, we Jews imagine our deaths. We spend the day in prayer and contemplation. Some of us wear a kittel, the simple garment in which we will be buried. We turn away from daily pleasures of comfort, including bathing, wearing cosmetics and leather, and any intimate contact. Many of us fast, interrupting the rhythm of sustenance that orders our ordinary days.
The Yom Kippur fast is the only fast of the Jewish year that is mentioned in the Torah. Leviticus 16:29, read in many synago-gues on Yom Kippur day, states, "In the seventh month, on the 10th day of the month, you shall practice self-denial." Throughout the ages, "self-denial" has been considered to mean abstaining from food and water.
The fast of Yom Kippur is not only an individual fast. The fast has great power to create and sustain community. Just as sharing food is an essential tool for bringing people together, a sense of shared intention in eschewing food forges connections as well. Eating together brings us to a shared table, and once together, not only food, but also ideas are shared. This dynamic is enhanced and extended in a communal fast.
Many who fast gather with others for a meal that precedes the Kol Nidre prayers. We then join with others who are fasting in synagogues, where the fast is mentioned in the liturgy and is often referenced in sermons. Yom Kippur invites us to spend both the evening and the entire day in synagogue, so we are distanced from both socializing and from food.
The Yom Kippur fast is the most consistently observed throughout Jewish history by observant and non-observant Jews alike because it combines a powerful yet time-bound spiritual act with tradition and community. For those who attend synagogue services, the reading of Isaiah 58 underscores the imperative of complementing one's abstinence from food with just acts:
"Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Is not rather this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?"
This year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat. In his classic Days of Awe, S.Y. Agnon cites, "When the Sabbath has a guest who is very great, than whom is none greater, that is the holy day, Yom Kippur … it surrenders all its prayers, and all its feasts too." So instead of preparing an elaborate Shabbat meal, preceded by Shabbat blessings that we eat after sunset, on this Kol Nidre eve we prepare a simple meal, without special blessings, that we eat before sunset.
And at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we Jews re-enter life. As the sun sets, we conclude our prayers and our fast. We sound the shofar with a powerful blast. As we began our observance together, many of us break our fast with friends, sometimes with foods symbolic of plenty and celebration. Ecclesiastes teaches, "Go on your way, eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has accepted your deeds." In this new year, may each of us be nourished by both fasting and eating, as we deepen our connection to one another and to the Holy One, the source of all sustenance.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell.@urj.org.