This is a guest post by Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN.
Hundreds of years ago, not much unlike today, it was common for someone to celebrate a Yom Tov with heavy eating and drinking, expenses disproportionate to the rest of the year, and time off from work. Our Sages, therefore, instituted a series of days consisting of repentance, prayer and fasting following our Holy Days.
Essentially, the rabbis reinforced the custom to observe BaHaB, which stands for Bet-Hey-Bet (2nd-5th-2nd), or better, Monday-Thursday-Monday, as a spiritual and physical cleanse. They understood that on the macro- level, the Jewish calendar ebbed and flowed between a cycle of fasts and feasts, and on the micro- level, we needed a similar rhythm to return to everyday life.
For several months in college, I experimented with fasting every Wednesday.
It was a 24-hour fast. I would go to sleep Tuesday evening and not eat again until sundown on Wednesday night. It wasn’t mandated by Jewish law, but it was inspired by Jewish tradition. Wednesday to me was the midpoint of my week (—my college brain thinking it akin to BaHaB). It provided me clarity. It gave me a sense of what I really “needed” in life and what I didn’t. It gave me a sense of the impact I had on those around me, and frankly, the impact those around me had on me—and how much I am dependent on others.
I eventually stopped my regular fasting when I realized I did not need them any longer to balance my weekly rhythm. My chol time (the six non-shabbat weekdays) became more mundane and my Shabbatot and weekends were richer. And life ensued.
But fasting still remains an incredibly powerful tool for seeing deeper within ourselves and the world around us.
Enter: Yom Kippur.
No doubt Yom Kippur is the apex of our High Holy Day season. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah follow, but it is that moment when we transcend our hunger, no longer checking our clocks, staring with bright, wide eyes at the open ark at the close of the Ne’ilah service—it’s that moment we long for each year. That is the moment we strive to reach, finally reintroduced to our purest selves.
But is our fasting on Yom Kippur only about gaining clarity and heightening our senses?
Our tradition would suggest “no.” On the one hand, our fast becomes a spiritual hunger strike. When we fast in conjunction with prayer, it tells God we are serious, that we mean business. When we are willing to forgo eating, implicitly putting our physical needs at bay, we are saying to God, “Listen to me! My prayers are all that matter right now!” But then we can’t force God to act, per se. In fact, the Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur reminds us that God doesn’t want us only to fast and that such “hunger strikes” don’t work in God’s Court. Further, it is our actions toward others that matter most.
If clarity can be achieved on any day, and the “hunger strike” doesn’t satisfy, then why specifically fast on Yom Kippur? It is because as my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky teaches, on Yom Kippur we experience a spiritual death.
There is a tradition to fast on the yahrzeit (death memorial anniversary date) of a loved one. Though many of us do not have this practice today, we still measure our years one year at a time, counting our birthdays and yahrzeits and High Holy Days. And as we measure the years in annual increments, we approach the end of the year hoping for closure.
On Yom Kippur we are supposed to be brought as low as possible so that we can be spiritually reborn. We empty our stomachs. We empty our hearts. We empty our souls.
We wear white, and some of us wear kittels, which are ostensibly our burial shrouds. We observe our own yahrzeits—and, God-willing, we come out on the other side, awakened by the startling, resounding blast of the Shofar to a fresh new year. On Yom Kippur, we die. But at the close of this Awesome Day, we are reborn.
This is why we don’t wish each other any “easy fast.” This is why we don’t wish each other a “good yuntiff.” We wish each other a “Gmar Tov” or “Gmar Chatimah Tovah”—a good closure, if you will.
This year, as Yom Kippur rolls around, fast for whatever reason brings you fulfillment, but know that your fast is most important if it inspires you to do better and spring to life renewed in the coming year.
(Photo: Fonzie’s cousin)