A Meaningful Fast

What is fasting and why does G-D command us to fast?

Leviticus 23:27 “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the L-rd.”        

According to Leviticus 23, fasting is a disciple of self-denial. Based on good midrashic methods of interpretation, self-affliction is interpreted as abstaining from food and drink during a set time. The Bible generally regards fasting as a practice that works on the heart, usually as an individual expression of grief, prayer, concentration (meditation), and revelation.

Fasting as a Mourning Rite

There are 6 traditional fasts within Judaism, only one of which is Biblically mandated, and only two which are 24 hours fasts. The other four fasts are sunrise to sunset fasts.

The most common fast in Judaism is as a mourning rite. Most of these are centered on the destruction of both Temples. These include the following.

  1. The Fast of Gedaliah
  2. The fast of Asarah B’Tevet
  3. The fast of Esther
  4. The Fast of Tammuz
  5. The Fast of Tish B’Av

There are two predominant reasons for these fasts within Judaism. The first is because it is Jewish tradition and it is an ongoing discipline. The second is Historical! Personally the second reason holds more significance for me. Rather than fast simply because we have always done so, it is better to understand the significance of your fasting and connect it historically with Israel and the Jewish people and remember the tragedies that have been afflicted upon the 1st born of G-D.

Personally, I have struggled with connecting in a meaningful way to some of these fasts. Yes, there were massive upheavals and wide spread death and suffering during these terrible days. Yes, the Temple is seen as a connecting point between heaven and earth, the earthly dwelling place for the divine presence. Yes, the Temple is seen as the geographical, political, and spiritual center for the Jewish people. But these reasons seem distance chronologically and emotionally.

So how do we connect these fast days to our hearts and make them meaningful to us again?

Fasting on Yom Kippur

The most important fast is of course Yom Kippur. Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar. The books of life and death are opened in the heavenly court room. On a national level atonement was made in the Tabernacle (The earthly copy of the heavenly court room) so that we could continue to fellowship with G-D in the midst of us. The two primary offerings were the two goats, one for an atoning sacrifice and the other as a scape goat. The sacrificial goat is a reminder of our need for atonement. We cannot come at any time and under any condition into the court room of G-D. We must be covered in righteousness. The scape goat is a reminder of our responsibility as a nation to remove sin from the camp. All of this takes place on a national level, but Yom Kippur also reflects on us as individuals. Atonement, just like total forgiveness is only applicable if it coincides with repentance and reconciliation. Yom Kippur is a yearly reminder of self-examination and reconciliation with our family, friends, and neighbors.

Matthew 5:23-24 “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

You get the impression that how we treat each other is pretty important to G-D? So what does all of this half to do with Fasting? Fasting connects us with the sacrificial atonement made by the High Priest in a personal way.

Making our Fasts Meaningful

Isaiah 58:3-7 “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the L-rd? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

Our fasts must involve our hearts. A fast just for tradition sake is not really a true fast. A true fast must involve a vacation from our personal pursuit of pleasure. Judaism doesn’t advocate asceticism, but in our over-heated consumer based society, it is necessary to turn ourselves off from the constant pleasure to consume and remind ourselves “Man does not live by bread alone”.

The appetites and desires of the physical body can become our masters, rather than our servants. It is as if we are saying “I am not going to worry about feeling good. In fact I am going to let myself not feel good. I am going to set aside these fast days as a time of reflection, self-examination, and mourning. Not just mourning the Temple but mourning the state of human nature, even our own state. To remind us how self-consumed we are with our own pleasure and gratification. To remind us how much we depend upon physical things of this world to make us happy. We know the teachings of the Master “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also”, but have we really taken it to heart”?

Or the Masters teaching “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

The denying of the flesh reclaims ownership, even if for a short time. It has a profound effect on the heart and mind.

Fasting teaches compassion! It is easy to talk about the world’s hunger problems from a distance. We can feel sorry for the millions who go to bed hungry each day, and even feel pity.

But it isn’t until we feel it in our own body that the impact is truly there. Compassion based on empathy is stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. Empathy will lead to action!

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to lose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

As Isaiah 58 teaches, there are many reasons for fasting but fasting becomes amoral if our compassion is not enlarged. Denying the body reduces the amount of energy available to the brain, and so it becomes more difficult as the day wears on to think in our usual linear way.

It slows down our train of thought so that we can actually see the world more clearly.

Fasting makes meditation and kavanah (Direction of the heart) easier! What you are looking for becomes more visible! For me having kavanah during prayer is like riding a bike up hill. As the day goes on fasting makes it seem like you are going downhill.

Couple of suggestions!

  1. During your fast dedicate some extra time to pray at the end of the day.
  2. Fasting should be done with the study of the Scriptures. Fasting opens the heart and mind to our great teacher. Just as the Spirit of G-D hovered over the face of the waters at the beginning of creation, the spirit of G-D hovers over the words of the Torah. Fasting attunes our eyes to His spirit and our ears to His words more clearly.

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