Holding Fast

Food is not on the plate, but it is on the minds of those observing Yom Kippur.


September 11, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

A person can get hungry waiting around for God's judgment.

It's much the point on Yom Kippur, which makes the most solemn day in Jewish life something of an anomaly. There's the worship and the gathering of family and friends, but the center of it is empty of holiday abundance. No brisket, no turkey, chicken, noodle puddings, smoked white fish, bagels or challah. In the way of food, the Day of Atonement offers bupkes.

Which is not to say that food does not loom large on Yom Kippur; it only does so in absentia. It's there and not there. The family gathers not around a nice roast with some lovely rice pilaf but a 25-hour fast, the only fast prescribed in the Torah.

Anyone who has seen the T-shirt explaining all Jewish holidays in nine words -- They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat. -- will grasp the gravity here. The Yom Kippur fast is considered a bedrock of faith, observed widely even by Jews who otherwise don't practice. A culture steeped in the notion of food as a bond calls its strays home each year -- to an empty table.

"For whatever reason, fasting on Yom Kippur is one thing people feel very strongly about," says Rela Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

God saw how "that kind of a day will have that kind of a hold on a soul," says Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, a dean at Yeshiva University in New York.

It is that kind of a day when you wake up needing a cup of coffee and can't have one. Glass of OJ? Sorry, not today. Not even water. Get dressed, go to the synagogue. Take a walk, chat with a friend. Read, think about your life and the meaning of this day. Try not to think about food.

Try not to think about food.

Food and sex, after all, are at the center of the mundane universe, and Yom Kippur is a space set apart from the mundane universe. Neither food nor sex are permitted.

Bigger concerns rule. At the rolling of the Jewish New Year, God's judgment of one's behavior is pending. All day the jury is out. What sort of a soul have you been these many months? Whom have you hurt? What amends are you prepared to make? God's decision is final.

Who could eat with these things going on?

Charlop makes the comparison to the time he was on a commercial airliner passing through a bad storm. Amid dreadful turbulence, passengers were uneasy, perhaps keenly aware of their own mortality. Who could think about eating?

"If you don't eat, you're saying to God, I know the most important decision is made" on this day.

As it says in Leviticus, prescribing a Day of Atonement: "ye shall afflict your souls."

The exact meaning of that instruction -- repeated several times in the Torah, which consists chiefly of the first five books of the Old Testament -- is not in the Torah. Rabbinical interpretation has taken it to mean abstention from earthly concerns and comforts, which along with food, drink and sex also include wearing leather, washing, anointing oneself with oils and working.

The Yom Kippur fast has been interpreted as an exercise in self-discipline, as a form of penitence for the year's transgressions and as a way of identifying with the plight of the poor. Many rabbis encourage their congregations to donate to the poor money that would otherwise have been spent on the day's food and drink.

While asceticism has historically played some role in Judaism, rabbis say it would be a mistake to consider Yom Kippur an ascetic expression.

"|cm SUPDLR|we are not denying the physical appetites their just place in life," wrote Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, a 20th -century philosopher of Judaism, "we are merely recognizing the need of putting them in their place."

In other words this is not mainly about self-punishment. Sometimes it only feels that way.

The "last meal" is traditionally completed before sundown of the evening Yom Kippur begins. It would be a substantial meal, food that sticks to the ribs. Nouvelle cuisine probably would not do, but the particulars are determined more by family preference than religious custom. Nothing too salty or spicy, lest the thirst be aroused too much.

This relatively brief repast is squeezed between returning from work and heading off to synagogue for the evening service. So begins the fast that will not be broken until after sundown the next day. What's 25 hours without food?

"The biggest problem is not with food, it's not having caffeine," says Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council and a member of the Chizuk Amuno Congregation, a conservative synagogue.

He gets up about 5 a.m. every day. By around 7, 8 o'clock Yom Kippur morning the caffeine withdrawal headache develops. He doesn't take anything for it. No problem.

"It's easily survivable. I know it's only a few hours," says Abramson.

Try not to think about coffee.

"I start tapering down (on coffee) a few days beforehand" to ease caffeine withdrawal, says Steve Salzberg, a Baltimore psychiatrist and member of the conservative Chevrei Tzedek Congregation. Any other day he'd have two enormous cups by 11 a.m.

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