Yom Kippur is the day for personal and communal self-reflection –
an opportunity to contemplate our foibles and failings and to seek to overcome them in the following year.
It is described in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 16:31) as ‘a Sabbath of
Sabbaths’, indicating its uniqueness and characteristic demand to cease our daily activities for a more significant purpose.
Leviticus (16:29 and 30) adds we are to use Yom Kippur ‘to afflict our souls’ in order that ‘…atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins before the Eternal One’.
It is not either obvious or clear in the Bible how this day is to be
spent, but Jewish tradition came to understand that ‘afflicting the
soul’ involved depriving oneself of pleasures: leather shoes, sexual intercourse, anointing the body with oil, bathing and the consumption of
food and drink.
On drinking and eating, the tradition is remarkably liberal, exempting children under the age of nine, women in childbirth and even a healthy person seized by a fit of ‘ravenous hunger’ that causes faintness.
Nevertheless, this is not the point and the Liberal Jew ought to ask: “Does fasting enable me better to fulfil the purpose of Yom Kippur?”
If abstention from food facilitates a longer period in reflection, prayer and study, then it is to be commended for the Liberal Jew.
However, if, as in the case of my late grandmother who would get a terrible headache and have to remain in bed all day, it causes health issues or even distraction from the Yom Kippur tasks in hand, then fasting is not for the committed Liberal Jew.
The answer to the question, therefore, is the choice should be made by the individual, reflecting on the very purposes of Yom Kippur itself.
υ Danny Rich is Liberal Judaism’s senior rabbi and chief executive