Three Alternative Ways to Fast That Aren’t About Food

by Avital Kadosh, Director of Jewish Experience & Innovation at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center.

As Yom Kippur quickly approaches, I am struck by the meaning behind the rituals and customs that surround our holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Chief among them: fasting for 25 hours. The Torah commands us to abstain from eating and drinking between sundown on the evening before Yom Kippur and nightfall the next day. Fasting is meant to be a vehicle for repentance – to “self-deny” (Leviticus 23:32) – and is believed to cleanse the body and spirit (not to serve as a punishment).

On Yom Kippur, we ask God for forgiveness so our names can be enshrined in the Book of Life, so how can we find alternative ways to cleanse our bodies and spirits and, ultimately, be inscribed in the Book of Life if fasting would be harmful? Fasting can be triggering for people who suffer from disordered eating or who have at some point in their lives, so are there alternative ways to cleanse our body and spirits if you are someone who finds food regulation or the monitoring of your food intake to be a punishment or triggering?

From the time Jews accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, it was all about “na’aseh vnishma” – “we will do and we will understand.” Understanding the meaning behind a practice or a law is important, valuable and, certainly, the ultimate goal. I love the idea of an annual time of year to do some serious ‘soul-accounting.’ It is imperative that we find ways to be inclusive of all people of all backgrounds in our holiest of holidays and celebrations, so I’ve compiled this list of alternative ways people have interpreted the idea of self-denial and made it their own:

Fasting from Social Media

We’ve all complained about the repetitiveness of the endless march of baby photos from our school peers and political memes, but when it comes down to it, we can’t seem to put the phone down! I put my phone down, only to immediately pick it up 17 seconds later to scroll mindlessly, before realizing what I’ve just done and throwing my phone down in disgust.

This fast is, frankly, deeply appealing. What better way to connect with yourself and reflect on the past year, than by removing the device that may be a gateway, but is also one of the biggest barriers to connecting to your larger social world? Disconnect, power down, and let yourself sink into the past year without the aid of your newsfeed. What went wrong? Where could you have done better? The answers might be hard, but they won’t be found behind your screens.

Before you put away your electronics, check out Reboot’s online reflection tool, 10Q. 10Q was inspired by the traditional ten days of reflection that occur between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a period of time that’s long been considered an opportunity to look at where you’re at, where you’ve come from, and where you’re heading. Whether you’re Jewish or not, though, 10Q is a great way for anyone to look back at the year that’s past, look ahead at the year to come, and take stock.

Fasting from Waste

GatherDC’s Rabbi Ilana Zeitman started a cleanse four years ago (5780) as a different way to connect with the High Holiday season. Cleanse 5780 was a 10-day initiative using the Days of Awe (the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) to intensively reflect on “the mind/body/spirit connection” by eliminating food-based, single-use plastics from your life.

This “cleanse” fit with the rapidly growing environmental panic and allows for the space and permission to start thinking about how we can change our habits to be kinder to our world. The idea of fasting from some of the most wasteful aspects of our modern life aligns well with a global approach to the themes of Yom Kippur. In refraining from participating in needless and harmful waste, we can use these energies instead to reflect on the things we can repent for as it pertains to our ecological sins and focus on how we can change our actions to do and be better going forward.

Fasting from Judgement

Judgment is a daily part of our lives, and sometimes it can be helpful – being able to take stock of social situations and make snap judgments is critical to navigating our social world and maintaining one’s physical safety. However, I think many of us often find ourselves unfairly judging strangers, our social networks, even our friends and family, and it becomes harmful very quickly when this judgment shifts from doing it for yourself and to being a harmful action you do to others.

Our connected world makes it easier than ever to pass this mean, petty type of judgment, to feel judged by the virtual masses, even to pass overly critical negative judgment on ourselves! What if we left the judgment to God on Wednesday and chose to navigate our day entirely without judgment, in order to more fully focus and turn inward to reflect on our own actions of the last year?

These three alternatives to fasting might not be enshrined in the Torah, but they’re still a way to connect with the themes and the meaning behind the day. In really sitting and thinking about what this holiday and process represent, we are forced to put more thought into our “Teshuva” (Jewish process of reflection and repentance, literally meaning to turn inward) than in years past. And isn’t self-reflection, repentance and growth what this time of year is all about?