We Jews are often amazed to discover that in some faiths, “fast” means not eating meat for a day. They should try Yom Kippur sometime to know what a real fast is.
The Jewish Day of Atonement, this year, starts at sundown Friday October 3 and continues through nightfall Saturday. We fast the entire time. That means at least 25 hours with no food, no water. There’s only one other fast day like this in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, which commemorates the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There are also several “minor” fast days, usually commemorating some disaster of Jewish history, when no food or water is taken from sunrise to sundown, similar to the way Muslims observe the Ramadan fast. Fasting sunup to sundown is probably not too difficult, but it’s hard for non-Muslims to imagine doing that for 30 consecutive days. Especially in the summer when the days are 18 hours long, and hot!
Aside from Yom Kippur, which is widely observed, most of the Jewish fast days are little known and even less practiced outside of the Orthodox community.
A Biblical commandment
The commandment to fast on Yom Kippur comes from Leviticus (16:29-32):
In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.
Yom Kippur comes 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year. Yes, the New Year starts on the first of the seventh month—that’s one of the oddities of the Jewish calendar I’ve never been able to figure out.
Supposedly, fasting also helps us free ourselves from the mundane concerns of everyday life—what to prepare for our next meal, and so on—and concentrate on the business of the day, which is atoning for the sins we committed during the past year, begging forgiveness and asking God for blessings in the new year. Of course what really happens is we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to keep our minds off of our growling stomachs, our dry mouths and our caffeine-withdrawal headaches.
What’s the best way to prepare?
The best way to prepare for a fast is a perennial fall topic in the Jewish community. Some eat a huge meal the night before, feeling that the extra calories will carry them through the day. Others don’t like feeling bloated; they feel eating a full meal without stuffing themselves will make the fast day more comfortable.
My husband and I used to start the fast with a meal that included salmon and cheesecake; it seemed to stave off the next day’s hunger pangs pretty well. For the last dozen years or more we’ve been preparing for the fast with a friend who has a severe dairy allergy, so no more cheesecake.
Now we usually start with chicken or lentil soup, then have chicken, potatoes or a noodle kugel (pudding) and lots of bread. This year I’m thinking of going back to salmon, perhaps with the easy and tasty recipe below.
I asked my Facebook friends what they do to start the fast. The winning choice was chicken, accompanied by potatoes or rice and vegetables; many also include chicken soup. Most include a dessert.
All agreed on some basics: don’t eat anything heavy or fatty, because it’s hard to digest, avoid salt and salty foods, and take in lots of liquids. Except for one friend who enjoys a shot of vodka, saying it puts her in a better mood, everyone agrees that alcohol before a fast is a bad idea.
Some experts advise eating lots of complex carbohydrates in the days leading up to a fast. Carbs help maintain energy and help the body absorb water.
From personal experience, I know that not drinking water, rather than not eating, is the hard part. One year I developed cystitis on Yom Kippur, and so while I continued to fast from food, I drank lots of water to help my system heal. That was the easiest fast I’d ever experienced, and I didn’t even feel hungry when it ended.
Caffeine headaches are a killer!
The worst part of the fast usually hits around 4 p.m., when there are still about four hours to go. It’s very common to get a whopping headache at this time, a combination of dehydration and caffeine withdrawal. To minimize that, I start cutting back on caffeine after Rosh Hashanah, which is 10 days before the fast. The week before Yom Kippur I transition to decaf coffee, and a few days before the fast, I stop drinking cola, tea or anything else with caffeine.
One commentator suggested that sniffing fragrant spices—cinnamon, cloves and the like—can help stave off hunger pangs. I think I’ll try it this year! Do any of you have tips for preparing for and surviving a fast?
Care to read more about Yom Kippur? In addition to my column today, you’ll enjoy this column that provides a broader overview of the observance. (And, yes, the co-author of that column Joe Lewis is my husband.)