Not Fasting Raises Questions

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Dear Miriam,

I can’t fast on Yom Kippur (or any other day) for medical reasons. I’m torn between hiding this from my community and sneaking bites of granola bars in the bathroom, versus being honest about my condition and possibly going as far as having a celebratory meal — it is a holiday, after all. What do you think?

Signed,

No Fast, No Problem

Dear Problem,

Let me start by saying that I am no rabbinic authority or expert in halacha (Jewish law), so you should take my comments as human interest-level advice and not religious doctrine. There are lots of people who are such authorities, and many of them have written extensively on this subject. Like nearly everything in Judaism, everyone you ask is likely to have at least one opinion, and a common suggestion would be to, “ask your rabbi.” But you asked me, so here goes.

When I was nursing my youngest child and debating how to handle Yom Kippur, I remember finding an article that said something to the effect of, “Fasting on Yom Kippur is so important that if you have to lie in bed all day and not go to services to ensure that you can fast, that’s what you should do.” I’m not citing a source, I know, because I really don’t want to refer you to someone with this opinion. I found that approach so counter to my understanding of Jewish community as to convince me further of the importance of eating for my health and the health of my baby, who was relying on me for his food.

So I ate. I ate small, nutrient-dense foods like protein bars and nuts, and I drank a lot of water. I did it discretely, but I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. And a strange thing happened — the more people who saw me sneaking my protein bars, the more people told me about their struggles with fasting.

Some people can’t fast because of medication they take. Some people can’t because of diabetes or other conditions. Some people can’t fast because they know their bodies and that it makes them feel too awful to function. By the end of that holiday, I wondered if anyone was fasting the way they were “supposed” to, or if everyone was actually fasting (or not fasting) the way they needed to. It felt like a revelation to know that even on this day when we lay open our souls, so many of us still felt like there were things we needed to hide to fit in.

There are, in fact, halachik algorithms about how much and how often you can eat where it doesn’t technically count as breaking a fast, and I know some people who will take a bite every nine minutes to fit in this framework. In that scheme, you’re actually spending all day thinking about eating in order to not eat in the wrong way. It works for some people, but I don’t think it would for me.

The idea of a celebratory meal is an interesting one, and if it feels right to you, I encourage you to explore what that’s like. If it doesn’t feel right, you can do something different next year. If you want to maintain the themes of Yom Kippur that deal with denying yourself earthly comforts, maybe you want to take the approach of eating some calorie-rich foods that aren’t really your favorites. But there’s no reason to hide in the bathroom or act like you’re doing something wrong, because you’re not.

My priorities for Yom Kippur are some serious self-reflection as part of a community. If I need to eat a few almonds and a hard-boiled egg to make the rest of that scenario possible, I will. Whatever form your not fasting takes, it’s a huge value to you and to your community to be honest about the many different ways that people’s bodies impact even their most spiritual endeavors.

Whatever you decide, I hope your choices enable you to have a meaningful day.

G’mar chatima tova, may you be sealed for a good year,

Miriam

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