The day plays out much the same way every year, around when summer transitions into fall.
Thirst. Hunger pangs around mealtimes. For a coffee drinker, it may include pain in the temple. All the while you spend the day at shul, repeatedly standing up and then sitting back down.
It may seem hard to believe that the goal of fasting is greater focus and clarity.
“It’s a little counterintuitive, I know,” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Merion Station, “because if you’re hungry, you say, ‘How can I concentrate?’”
But nothing quite marks Yom Kippur as special like the practice of fasting. Though there are other fast days on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement is the most observed one and even requires more of a time commitment than the other days, except Tisha B’Av.
“[During Yom Kippur], we should really, really challenge ourselves and struggle with ourselves,” Yanoff explained. “The body and the soul are intermingled in that way, and the body is certainly not exempt from that [challenge]. We almost, at this point in time, remove those physical needs in an attempt to focus on those spiritual needs.”
Judaism is far from alone when it comes to fasting. Devotees of other religions also either decrease the amount they eat or completely abstain from food, for specific holidays or for more personal reasons. The goal of fasting — to increase spiritual focus by removing physical needs — is similar across belief systems.
“A lot of people will say, ‘At certain points in the day, it really does something for me, and I really feel that I’m making a spiritual statement with this physical extension,’” Yanoff said. “For other people, it’s really difficult.”
Kirphi Rajabasa, a monk at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) Philadelphia, a Hindu temple in Mt. Airy, said he finds that fasting helps him focus on God.
“If I fast, I feel like my senses are controlled, and there’s not much [that’s] disturbing [me],” he said.
Hindus observe multiple fast days. One of the most common is Ekadashi, which occurs on the 11th day of the lunar cycle. Its purpose, Rajabasa said, is to become closer to God.
There are several levels to fasting in Hinduism, Rajabasa said, differentiated by what food and drinks a person abstains from.
“We have to think more about God. That is the main purpose of fast,” Rajabasa said. “It’s not that you fast and always think about food. When you’re fasting, that means you have more time, and that time has to be placed in constantly remembering God and his glories and his fast times.”
Further west, Islam is perhaps best known for its practice of fasting among the Abrahamic religions.
During the month of Ramadan (in 2018, the holiday ran from May 15 to June 14) Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. They are encouraged to take a small meal before sunrise during Ramadan.
“Fasting is tied into prayer,” said Imam Hanif Fouse of United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia. “Not only does a person fast, especially during Ramadan, but the actions of fasting, like eating that pre-dawn meal and breaking one’s fast, are around prayer time. The time of Ramadan is also a time for Muslims who may have been lax in terms of their duty of prayer. It’s a reminder for them to be able to do those things.”
Ramadan is the only required fasting holiday in Islam, but there are other optional fast days. These include a day during the month of Hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca — and a day to commemorate God saving Moses and the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
During a fast, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and physical intimacy.
“These are primary needs of the human race,” Fouse said. “So, a person delays these things — or delays the gratification associated with them — for the sake of Allah. It’s almost a lesson in that any vice — because these are not vices, these are permissible things — that any vice a person can give up for Allah’s sake.”
Christians have a looser understanding of what exactly fasting means. They usually interpret fasting as less food throughout the day or abstention from specific types of food, such as meat.
Catholics may fast during Lent (in 2018, it ran from Feb. 14 to March 29) by only eating one fish meal on Friday. They may give up other things during Lent, such as a favorite food or pastime.
In Protestantism, fasting varies between denominations.
“When he is asked about fasting [in the Bible], Jesus takes the view that fasting isn’t really something that’s required for salvation,” said Rev. Mark I. Salvacion, pastor at Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church in Old City. “It’s really more of a test of oneself and a test of one’s personal sacrifice.”
Salvacion grew up Roman Catholic but is now Methodist. He fasted during Lent as a Catholic. As a Methodist, he undertakes fasting in a more personal way, without any specific holiday to anchor the practice.
In Methodism, he said, there is a specific fast called the Wesley Fast, where a person doesn’t eat dinner and then doesn’t eat breakfast and lunch the next day.
Salvacion has fasted before — when he was being considered for his first appointment at a church, for example — but, as a diabetic, has not been able to complete the Wesley Fast. Instead, he makes a conscious effort to eat less. While fasting, he may eat raw vegetables or a crust of bread.
“It’s really not about the community of faith,” Salvacion said. “It’s about the individual.”
When it comes to fasting, individuals can have a variety of experiences. Yanoff said it can vary even over the course of a single day.
“I have been really inspired by how seriously people take the discipline of it,” Yanoff said. “There is no question that this act and this discipline of fasting frames [Yom Kippur] for people. This is not a typical day. That’s not just because people are in synagogue, and it’s not just because it’s the themes of the day that make it a standalone day. When you internalize those by abstaining from eating and drinking, there’s something very profound that happens. There are people who find that momentous in their observance.”
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