Why Do We Fast on Yom Kippur?

Rabbi Aron Moss contributes regular Q&A commentaries to Gather the Jews.  Rabbi Moss is the proprietor of Nefesh and can be reached at rabbimoss@nefesh.com.au.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Moss.

Question of the Week:

I understand that fasting on Yom Kippur is supposed to make me focus on my soul rather than my body. But by around lunch time I am so starving that for the rest of the day all I can think about is food. Doesn’t this defeat the purpose? How can I become more spiritual with a growling stomach?

Answer:

Fasting is no fun. By mid-morning on Yom Kippur, we think back to the pre-fast meal and bitterly regret not eating that extra chicken leg. As the day goes on, we begin to glance at our watches every few minutes, desperately anticipating the breaking of the fast. We may be holding a prayer book in our hands, but all we see is a menu in front of our eyes. While the Cantor beseeches G-d to forgive the sinner, we beg Him to give us dinner.

I know of no magic way to make the fast easy. But fasting can certainly be a spiritual experience. Rather than trying to ignore the body’s hunger, you can actually use it to bring you closer to your soul. But it takes some contemplation.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, when the sounds from your stomach start to drown out the Yom Kippur prayers and you begin to see mirages of food in front of your eyes, try this meditation:

Look at me! I am a mature and reasonable human being, who usually functions pretty well. But today, just because I missed my morning coffee and toast, I can’t think straight! Here I am sitting in synagogue on the holiest day of the year, and all I can do is hallucinate about paprika chicken and mashed potatoes. An empty stomach has turned a grown man into a ravenous beast.

And what’s even more ridiculous is that, in a couple of hours, it will only take a few mouthfuls of cake and a cup of Coke to make me forget the whole ordeal! Is a plate of food all that I amount to? Am I no more than a composite of my dietary intake? If you take away my tuna sandwich, is that the end of me?

The answer is: if your body is all there is, then yes, you are what you eat, and no more. But in truth, your body is not all there is to you. You are much more than a sum of your carbohydrates and proteins. You are not just a body. You are a soul. The body is merely a frail, needy, and temporary home for the soul, your true identity.

We take our body and its needs very seriously. We can live our lives pursuing our body’s cravings and urges, forgetting that there is more to life than our creature comforts. Fasting is a powerful reminder of the fragility and dependence of the body. The hungrier you get, the more you realize how delicate and unsubstantial the body really is. There must be more to your life than breakfast.

The body is no more than an outer shell, a thin surface level of who you are. Your true identity is the part of you that can see beyond your own hunger and feel the hunger of others; can divert itself away from your own needs and focus on the needs of those around you. That is your soul.

All year we work, shop, cook, eat, and exercise to feed our body. One day a year, we step back from our bodily self and step into the world of the soul.

On Yom Kippur, become an observer of the body from the point of view of your soul. Watch your body hunger, pity it for its weakness and frailty, and resolve that in the year to come, you will not make your body and its temporal pleasures the be-all-and-end-all of your life. Rather, you will care for your body so it can serve as a vehicle of goodness, to achieve the mission that your soul was sent to this world to fulfill.

Regards,

Rabbi Moss