Jeffrey S. Rosenthal

(September, 1996)

I am of 100% Jewish ancestry, but I was not raised with any Jewish traditions or culture. I am not religious and do not believe in God (in fact I am a Secular Humanist). I have few religious friends, and attend few Jewish events (religious or otherwise). Why is it, then, that for approximately the past ten years I have followed the Jewish tradition of fasting (abstaining from all food and drink) for the 24-hour period that is Yom Kippur?

This is not an easy question for me to answer. I believe I began following this tradition because I had friends who did, because it seemed "cool" and an interesting test of my strength, and because it had an exciting if mysterious historical connection. But now in my adult life, it seems appropriate to answer this question more fully, to articulate what pulls me, despite my lack of religious feeling, towards this tradition. I believe the answer is many-fold.

HUMILITY: Fasting helps me to remember that I am not all-powerful, that I cannot have everything all the time.

SACRIFICE: Fasting reminds me of the many who suffer, who go hungry, on a daily basis; and helps me to sympathize with and identify with them.

TRADITION: Jews have been fasting on Yom Kippur for many thousands of years; it is both inspiring and humbling to be a part of that tradition.

HISTORY: It is impossible to deny that we are all a product of our ancestors, both genetically and culturally. During Yom Kippur, I try to read a little bit about Jewish history and tradition, to understand this attachment.

STRENGTH: Fasting is a test of, and encouragement towards, my ability to master my physical self through mental focus.

REFLECTION: While fasting, I attempt to think about my situation and place in life, where I have been and where I am going.

ATONEMENT: While I do not believe in atoning to God, I do believe we should take time to ponder our failings, both to make amends and to improve ourselves.

HEALTH: It is possible that fasting for one day a year helps to clear out our digestive system, leading to health benefits.

VARIETY: It is all too easy to lead a life in which every day is the same. Fasting on Yom Kippur ensures that at least one day per year will be very different.

Addendum (October 2003): So What Do I Do?

A reasonable question is, what do I actually do on Yom Kippur?

The answer is:

Addendum (September 2004):

This year, for the first time in many years, I decided NOT to fast on Yom Kippur. Partially the scheduling was inconvenient this year; partially I was already on a careful diet, so fasting seemed like excessive punishment; and partially I suppose that I still, despite the above, have mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. I'm not sure yet what I will do next year.

Addendum (October 8, 2011):

I have continued to fast on Yom Kippur most (but not all) years, including today. (Well, last night I cheated slightly -- I was performing in an evening improv show, so I allowed myself a little flexibility on the timing, and finished eating about 40 minutes after sundown, and drank a bit of water a few hours later too -- but that's still a pretty minor cheat.)

During the day today, I did a little Yom Kippur internet reading, and learned that the fast is actually supposed to last for about 25 hours, not 24 -- ending only at true "nightfall" when at least three medium-sized stars are visible. I think I will conveniently ignore that rule; 24 hours (sundown to sundown) seems long enough to me.

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