Food for thought on Yom Kippur

By David Schultz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 13, 2005

Someone once said that the meanings of all Jewish holidays could be summed up in three sentences: "They tried to get rid of us. They didn't. Let's eat."

But starting last night and ending tonight is Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of atonement, in which observers are instructed to fast for the entire 25-hour-long holiday. Jews around the world today will be spurning food and drink in favor of daylong prayer sessions punctuated by moments of hunger-induced unconsciousness.

However, fasting on Yom Kippur, the second holiest day of the year in the Jewish religion, is anachronistic, dogmatic and, in fact, negates its intended purposes.

Why do Jews fast on Yom Kippur? I have agonized over this question year after year while I languished away in synagogue, doing mental calculations on how long I would go to prison if I surreptitiously bit into the arm of the woman sitting next to me.

Despite 12 years of Hebrew school, not to mention a year-and-a-half of bar mitzvah classes and three hazily remembered years of Jewish preschool, I have never received a satisfactory answer to this question.

So, to find out the real reason behind this curious ritual, I talked to Deborah Kaye, an adjunct lecturer in the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.

She told me that when translated into English, Yom Kippur means "Day of Atonement" and that it is the climax to the celebration of the Jewish New Year that starts nine days prior with the holiday Rosh Hashana.

The purpose of the process that starts with Rosh Hashana and ends with Yom Kippur, Kaye told me, is to "focus on reflection and self-examination (as well as) examination of the community."

This, apparently, is where the fasting comes in. "(Fasting) is not just symbolic," Kaye said. "It is a means for the (fasting person) to concentrate and put all of their focus on atonement."

Say what? Fasting to increase concentration? That makes about as much sense as starting a war to increase peace or watching "Laguna Beach" to increase your intelligence.

Fasting does anything but help concentration and, while this might seem like common knowledge, scientists have actually done research that supports this claim.

According to the National Council Against Health Fraud's Web site,, fasting can have extremely negative effects on the body and brain including but not limited to "weakness, fatigue, irritability, depression, depressed libido and a sick feeling."

If the purpose of Yom Kippur is truly to concentrate on atoning for one's sins, why burden the atoner with all of these harmful ailments associated with fasting that could only serve to detract attention from the task at hand?

Kaye also said that the holiday "is not just about receiving forgiveness for one's sins but also about Tikun Olam (the Jewish concept of community and global betterment)."

In this sense, fasting also serves the purpose of being "the equalizer," Kaye said. "No matter what one's economic status is, everyone must fast on Yom Kippur," she said.

Kaye pointed out that this creates, for at least one day, a community of equals who can reflect on the state of their community equally.

This might have been true at the time when this custom was conceived, thousands of years ago. Back then, the mere ability to eat was a sign of wealth and communal fasting certainly would have had the effect of bringing everyone down to the same level.

However, access to food is no longer an economic status symbol. It has been replaced by more contemporary items like jewelry, plastic surgery and Ford Explorers with spinning hubcaps and video screens in the headrests. If Jews were commanded to give up Ford Explorers on Yom Kippur, then there might be some actual class equalization.

But as it stands now, fasting does nothing to equalize the community that engages in it. Fasting in modern times has become at best a nuisance and at worst a medically threatening nuisance.

Fasting on Yom Kippur is a millennia-old tradition that shows absolutely no signs of stopping. But when tradition is carried on despite any justification or purpose, it becomes blindly followed dogma that can only serve to alienate its followers.

Think about that while you're wasting away in synagogue today, contemplating the possibility of cannibalism.

David Schultz is a senior majoring in political science and philosophy. He can be reached at