As an Orthodox rabbi guiding Congregation Beth Solomon in Philadelphia, Rabbi Solomon Isaacson has a deep understanding of why it’s so important to fast on Yom Kippur.
But let’s let him explain it.
“God measures us. Our lives are at stake,” he said. “We fast to put ourselves in the mood to say, ‘Why are we fasting?’ That fasting brings to mind how serious the day is.”
At the same time, despite his doctrinal belief in Judaism and strict adherence to its practice, Isaacson said it’s OK to sacrifice the most serious ritual of the religion’s holiest day. In other words, it’s OK not to fast if your life depends on it.
Isaacson is willing to defer to a doctor on this question. On Yom Kippur, it’s the man or woman of medicine who serves as the moral authority, even if he or she is not Jewish.
If the doctor tells you it’s dangerous, then you must eat,” Isaacson said. “Not a rabbi, not an uncle, not a father, not a husband, not a wife. A doctor.”
There are many types of Jews who may fit into this category: someone who needs to eat and drink due to a medical condition, someone who needs to eat and/or drink with a medication and a woman who is pregnant. Among others.
Rabbis Abe Friedman and Adam Lautman mentioned that mental health is as much of a consideration as physical health. A person recovering from or still struggling with an eating disorder probably needs to eat and drink on Yom Kippur, they said.
“Fasting may be traumatic or dangerous for certain individuals,” said Lautman, who leads Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, New Jersey.
Friedman, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, called eating disorders “a life and death matter.” He explained that rabbis must not only listen to doctors but mental health professionals as well.
“I always respect the expertise of medical and mental health professionals,” Friedman said. “They know things I don’t know.”
According to Rabbi David Englander of Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey, it is doctors who determine the line between fasting and not fasting, between eating a normal amount and a little less than that, and between the medical and the spiritual.
But if a person does not need to eat and drink like it’s a normal day — if it’s still safe to keep the fast to an extent — it’s the rabbi who can provide guidance.
Isaacson believes that those who must eat and drink should still be reluctant. Unless they have to, “they should not sit down and have a six-course meal.”
Instead, if they begin to fast and feel weak, they should “take a teaspoon of something and then stop,” Isaacson said. And if they feel that way again in a few hours, they should do the same thing.
Take a little bit. Not the whole meal. Regain your strength while still observing the spirit of the holiday, he said.
“Of course, you should try to fast,” Isaacson said.
Rabbi Geri Newburge of Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, compared that approach to the way kids fast. In general, children are not supposed to fast if they are still growing. They need the sustenance.
But as they grow older, they can start to cut back a little. This helps them understand the holiday. As Newburge explained, maybe instead of eating two Pop-Tarts and scrambled eggs for breakfast, they just eat eggs. Or, in an adult’s case, maybe it is apple slices instead of a three-course meal.
“The whole idea is for us to think about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, why we’re doing it,” she said. “As long as we’re not putting our health at risk.”
Fasting, though, is not the only way to observe the holiday. It’s a tool, explained Friedman — a means to an end. But not the end in itself.
Friedman said it’s still important for someone who can’t fast to go to services and participate in the life of the community. The point of Yom Kippur, he said, is to take an honest look at our lives to make a more concerted effort to live by our values.
You can break the fast and still repent, he said. This can be difficult for Jews used to fasting to understand and accept, especially if the medical necessity to eat on the holiest day is new.
“You don’t need to work within an all-or-nothing mindset,” Lautman said. “That once you broke your fast, you’ve failed and should give up the rest of the day.” PJC
Jarrad Saffren writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication where this first appeared.