Fasting on Yom Kippur? Follow this Playbook

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Rabbi Yochonon Goldman (Jay Gorodetzer Photography)

Fasting on Yom Kippur is an ordeal. After all, God designed it that way.

As Jews, we’re supposed to repent for our sins from the previous year. Unless you have a medical condition that requires you to eat or drink, you probably do this every year, too.

So, after all these years, you likely have your own strategy for atoning/getting through the day.


The Jewish Exponent talked to several rabbis and regular Jews in the area about how they approach their fasts. Their methods can now form the basis for this very unofficial Yom Kippur playbook.

Kol Nidre is on Sept. 15.

Play No. 1: Drink a lot of water the day before.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is not a pulpit rabbi. The Cherry Hill, New Jersey, resident runs Camp Ramah in the Poconos. So he experiences Yom Kippur with the rest of us down here in the masses.

But like a true rabbi, he thinks hard about his approach to Kol Nidre. The gorge meal theory, to keep yourself full through the next day, is a myth, Seltzer said.

The better strategy is to drink enough water. As Seltzer explains, a lot of times you just want a sip of water on Yom Kippur. But you can’t have one. Chugging the day before helps you experience fewer of those moments.

It also helps you avoid one of the worst parts of the fast day: the afternoon headache.

“Overly saturate to avoid dehydration,” Seltzer said.

Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of B’nai Abraham Chabad in Philadelphia, said drinking water the day before helps him power through the profound challenge that rabbis face every year.

Their fast day is also their busiest work day. Without eating or drinking, synagogue leaders must run services from Kol Nidre all the way through break the fast.

If he drinks enough water, though, Goldman is good to go. The services even become a nice distraction.

“I’m not at home, near the kitchen, smelling the food for break the fast,” he said.

Play No. 2: Go to services.

As Goldman alluded to, there is no better distraction on The Highest Holiday than attending services.

Several rabbis chuckled at the question of “How do you deal with fasting on your busiest work day?” For them, it’s easy to lose oneself in prayer and forget about food and drink.

Rabbi Lance Sussman (Congregation Keneseth Israel)

Rabbi Lance Sussman, who leads Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, compared it to working a busy retail job.

“If your cash register is busy and you’re moving around, you don’t notice the clock,” he said.

Congregants can’t possibly stay as busy as rabbis do on Yom Kippur. But they can go to synagogue or, in the COVID era, attend virtually, and lose themselves in prayer all the same.

It’s the most important thing to do on Yom Kippur after fasting. It’s also something, anything to actually go and do.

Jackee Yerusalem-Swartz, a resident of the suburbs, went to services at her Northeast Philadelphia synagogue for 20 years. She would attend a morning session, then a midday study group and then an afternoon session, too.

By the time she left, she could go straight to break the fast with her family. After staying home last year during the pandemic, Yerusalem-Swartz joined Congregation Kol Ami, a reform shul in Elkins Park, for 2021/5782.

She is planning on returning to her old synagogue routine.

“A lot of times my hunger has to do with boredom,” Yerusalem-Swartz said.

Play No. 3: Talk to other people.

The best way to stay busy, according to Yerusalem-Swartz, is not just to pray hard. It’s to talk to people, too. That’s another reason she stays at synagogue all day.

Sussman said the same thing.

“During breaks, interact with your congregants and friends,” he said. “That sense of community lifts you up and carries you through.”

Play No. 4: Remember why you’re doing this.

Gevura Davis of Bala Cynwyd is a former Reform Jew who became Orthodox as an adult. She said learning to focus on the deeper morality helped her grow to love The Highest Holiday.

Davis said we should complain less and contemplate more.

“We live in a generation that only wants to feel comfort,” she added. “But pain is one of our greatest teachers.”

Ultimately, according to Davis, Yom Kippur is about disengaging from the material world and connecting with our souls.

“When we feel the frailty of hunger, it reminds us how reliant on God we are for everything,” she said. “That’s a really uplifting concept.”

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