Is It Better to Fast?

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Several weeks ago, Rabbi Feldman wrote concerning a flyer published by a Jerusalem shopping mall. The flyer contained an article about the then-upcoming fast of Yom Kippur, and provided several tips in order to help keep one’s mind off fasting. According to Rabbi Feldman’s translation, the advice included: “meet with friends and family; read light books; play enjoyable games like Monopoly, and watch some video.”

Several commenters took umbrage with Rabbi Feldman’s first reaction, which was to express dismay at the combination of “observing and desecrating” at the same time. They seemed to take it as axiomatic that fasting is a wonderful Yom Kippur observance, regardless of whether the same individual chooses distracting entertainment in lieu of prayer or appropriately sober activities. In response, I wrote the following:

Whether it is appropriate to foist 25 hours of meaningless annual starvation upon the next generation—and expect them to come out with a positive image of Judaism—is hardly open-and-shut. Or, if it is, it would have to fall in favor of eating. Don’t you agree? Aren’t the surveys pretty clear about that by now?

To which ksh responded: “Fall in favor of eating on yom kippur? You can’t be serious.”

Actually, I was completely serious.

When someone is loading up the VCR while fasting, it is somewhat obvious that his or her motivation has little to do with issurei kares, a reference to the prohibited behaviors on Yom Kippur. It is, rather, a positive expression of remaining attached to Jewish tradition. It is a reflection of the pintele yid, the Jewish spark waiting to shine once again. It is all very commendable — and I would note, in Rabbi Feldman’s defense, that he came to a similar conclusion.

But it is also a terrible message to transmit to the next generation.

We all recognize that fasting is, at best, unpleasant. Those who enjoy 25 hours of starvation are few and far between, and if that’s all there is to Yom Kippur then it will be a negative experience. And if that is the one of the very few Jewish observances undertaken by a family, Judaism itself will be regarded negatively. I have already said the same about placing Holocaust memorials at the center of Jewish life, and believe me, I mean no slight of the six million kedoshim (holy martyrs).

By no means am I suggesting that eating on Yom Kippur leads a person to yeshiva. But a more positive Yom Kippur experience begins with attending the prayers, and thinking about the serious nature of the day and about making a new start. Obviously fasting is what everyone should do on Yom Kippur, as but one observance in a much larger context of a day set aside for what Judaism calls, kaviyachol, G-d’s closest approach to us of the year. Fasting is a terrible starting point — and, tragically, a pretty solid end point.

This Yom Kippur, a gentleman I had not seen before joined the congregation for Mincha (the afternoon service), with a yarmulke of thin fabric perched precariously on his head. His cell phone rang not once, but twice, during prayers. Not only didn’t it ruin my davening, but I somehow felt a positive feeling about this person, clearly not observant, who nonetheless came back to join the services late in the afternoon. Who comes back to shul in the afternoon, other than someone feeling a special connection to the day?

Honestly, whether his belly was full was irrelevant. One way or the other, he was paying attention to his Creator more than someone whose concentration was monopolized by games, visits to friends, and the latest video. Even if the latter person was fasting.

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8 Responses

  1. Barry says:

    Just to touch on something Ori mentioned about heterodox jews.

    “most non Orthodox Jews have a very oppressive view of Judaism. We tend to see it as a mess of extra rules to follow, which would make our lives more difficult if we did. Fasting on Yom Kippur, while playing monopoly and watching a DVD, is unlikely to change that opinion and lead to more observance.”

    I’m a little confused what exactly these heterodox jews expect from a religion. To call yourself a jew means that you believe in g-d and that he created the world. So how can one say that judaism is a mess of rules to follow that make lives more difficult? Life isnt all about fun and games. we have responsibilites as jews, to follow the commandments and wishes of the g-d we believe in. If that is ‘oppresive’ to some, thats fine, but if you believe in it being a commandment of g-d, then it must be done. Since when is everything supposed to be easy and fun? Thats the problem with the world today, and with the forms of judaism which allow people to
    to do as they please and still remain ‘jews’ in their ‘hearts’. it is a glaring contradiction.. to put it in another form: people who work for a living are members of the workforce. They in turn have responsibilities – show up on time, work xx hours a week, make sure the business runs smoothly, wear such and such dress code etc etc. these responsibilities and rules make life difficult if they are followed but those are the rules of being in the workforce. if you don’;t want to follow them because they are difficult and oppresive, fine, but then you are not part of the force.

    This is not to say that non-observant jews are not jews. G-d forbid. but don’t say I’m jewish, and I don’t want any responsibilities or rules that are too ‘difficult’ or ‘oppresive’.

    just my opinion

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Ori, Thank you for the kind words. Hyrax, it’s too bad I don’t hear from you the rest of the time!

    I will re-emphasize that I was talking not about the person, but about what it says to the next generation. When internally motivated, I wrote concerning the otherwise non-observant individual that fasting is “a positive expression of remaining attached to Jewish tradition. It is a reflection of the pintele yid, the Jewish spark waiting to shine once again.”

    Nor did I in any way contradict ksh’s statement that “The ones whose parents fasted and went to shul were much more likely to take the whole business seriously.” That was, in fact, exactly my point. Fasting must be merely one part of a larger picture in order to convey a positive message.

    But what about when fasting is the only thing transmitted? ksh writes “what is wrong with fasting as a starting point?” To answer a question with a question, would any Kiruv worker even imagine creating a Kiruv program where the discussion — and practice — of Yom Kippur begins with fasting? [Yes, Shmulky Gebrachts.]

    It’s also worth noting that the basic Halachic standards, as found in the Shulchan Aruch and elsewhere, are not the only consideration when dealing with the non-observant. In the law books, marrying a Jewish woman and not keeping family purity is a greater wrong than marrying a non-Jewish woman. Yet it is certain that DB and ksh would agree with Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l, among others, who said that it is obvious that we should encourage Jewish marriages, and this is preferable.

    Nonetheless, I did not say that a person should stop fasting. I cannot imagine a person reading my essay and saying, “oh, good, so I’ll go to shul for 2 hours and eat, rather than fasting like I did last year.” On the contrary, the reader will, I hope, recognize the need to transmit something more than a combination of monopoly and fasting as the Yom Kippur observance — and respond by doing more, not less.

  3. DovBear says:

    Dry halacha is not an ends, but a means to something else.

    I agree, but dry halacha is the starting point, and the Torah’s demand, on Yom Kippur, is that we fast (And otherwise afflict ourselves.) There’s no getting around that.

    Don’t be so quick as to judge what God prefers.

    We can attampt to deduce what God prefers from the words of the Tortah itself, and the Torah on this point is perfectly clear. We’re not commanded to sit in shul. We’re commanded to fast. Sitting in shul, though commendable, is not the ikkur hadin.

  4. Holy Hyrax says:

    Dovbear,

    Don’t be so quick as to judge what God prefers. Technically, you are right. It does say to fast on Yom Kippur and these people are clearly doing it. But there is something more to Yom Kippur than just an empty fast devoid of all meaning. Yom Kippur is all about atonement.

    As the prophet Isaiah wrote “…Bring your worthless meal-offering no longer, it is incense of abomination to ME…My soul detests your New Moon and your appointed times…”.

    Dry halacha is not an ends, but a means to something else. This is actually the rare case that I see Rabbi Menken’s point. With that, I will totally concede that a lot of Israelis (and Jews) are not up to this level and don’t even know what Yom Kippur truly means. So I am content with at least knowing some remnant of the tradition lives on through them fasting.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Menken, this is exactly the kind of attitude that makes Heterodox Jews (like me) come to torah.org. I am not Orthodox now, nor do I expect I will ever be, but I am a lot more observant than I used to be.

    DovBear, most non Orthodox Jews have a very oppressive view of Judaism. We tend to see it as a mess of extra rules to follow, which would make our lives more difficult if we did. Fasting on Yom Kippur, while playing monopoly and watching a DVD, is unlikely to change that opinion and lead to more observance.

    The Torah says to fast on Yom Kippur. But the Torah also says to rest on Shabbat, observe family purity, eat Kosher food, and so on. I think that Rabbi Menken’s point is that fasting on Yom Kippur while playing monopoly with a DVD in the background is unlikely to bring people closer to G-d, just that like fasting in a hospital under doctor’s orders, on a day that happens to be Yom Kippur, is unlikely to bring people closer to G-d. If one is going to pick one Mitzvah, there are better choices.

  6. ksh says:

    “Obviously fasting is what everyone should do on Yom Kippur, as but one observance in a much larger context of a day set aside for what Judaism calls, kaviyachol, G-d’s closest approach to us of the year.”

    No, it’s not one observance in the larger context of a day set aside for blah blah. V’inisem es nafshoseychem IS the mitzvas hayom. That IS the mitzva.
    This post is a complete conflation of (a warping of) mussar and d’oreisas.

    I note again the confusion of issurim with positives, that seems to pervade contemporary frum discourse and posts on this blog.

    Even empirically, I believe you are incorrect. Those I know who grew up with parents who went to shul for yizkor or on yom kippur didn’t necessarily do so themselves as adults. The ones whose parents fasted and went to shul were much more likely to take the whole business seriously. (Fasting without going to shul seems to be an Israeli twist; going to shul and not fasting was fairly common in the US and it didn’t produce exceptional results.) Fasting makes a big impression on people. It is difficult to do if you’re not used to it, and people have a sense of accomplishment – they did something – that they don’t get from going to shul. No one thinks they “faked” fasting as they might think they faked davening; there’s no issue of not following what’s going on, or anything similar. Fasting is something they *did*.

    “Not only didn’t it ruin my davening, but I somehow felt a positive feeling about this person, clearly not observant, who nonetheless came back to join the services late in the afternoon.”

    It is not about YOUR feelings. It’s about God’s commandments.

    “Not only didn’t it ruin my davening, but I somehow felt a positive feeling about this person, clearly not observant, who nonetheless came back to join the services late in the afternoon.”

    “Fasting is a terrible starting point—and, tragically, a pretty solid end point.”

    I’m just flabbergasted. And what is wrong with fasting as a starting point; you’d like the starting point of tshuva ALSO to be positive? Feel good all the way?

  7. DovBear says:

    One way or the other, he was paying attention to his Creator more than someone whose concentration was monopolized by games, visits to friends, and the latest video

    I disagree. The Torah says Fast on Yom Kippur. It does not say Think about God on Yom Kippur.

    You might prefer to see a full sanctuary, but it’s clear from the verses God prefers an empty belly.

  8. Yaakov of Dallas says:

    I had a similar experience driving to our shul in Dallas for Kol Nidre. On the way, we passed an extremely liberal Reform Temple whose parking lot was so full that people were parking (clearly with permission) in the parking lot of the Greek Orthodox Church accross the street. I asked my wife: Is this a Kiddush Hashem, a Chillul Hashem, or both?