What it means to fast on Yom Kippur
It's the one day of the year when there is no food and yet everyone shows up, says Rabbi Mendel Shemtov of the ritual Yom Kippur observance, which begins Tuesday.
Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the Jewish day of communal and personal atonement for sins committed during the past year. It is among six communal fast days in the Jewish calendar. Eating and drinking are forbidden for 25 hours from sundown to sundown. On other Jewish fast days that mark a solemn historical event or tragedy, eating and drinking are forbidden only from sunrise to sundown.
What is Yom KippurYom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, beginning before sunset Tuesday and ending Wednesday after sundown.
• It's the day of atonement observed 10 days after the start of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. Jews seek God's forgiveness for the sins of the past year and to secure their fate. It also is known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths.
• Many faithful observe the holiday by fasting. Some will avoid working, wearing leather shoes, applying makeup or lotion, washing or bathing, or having sexual relations with spouses.
• During this time, Jews attend worship services where the machzor, a prayer book used during the High Holy Days, is read and specific prayers are recited. At the end of the services, a shofar or ram's horn is blown to signal the end of Yom Kippur and the breaking of the fast with a celebratory meal.
• Jews believe the first Yom Kippur occurred after God gave Moses the "10 utterances" or commandments at Mount Sinai. When Moses came down from the mountain, he found the Israelites worshipping the idol of a golden calf. After they atoned for their sin, God forgave them and offered Moses a second set of tablets.
• Females over the age of 12 and males over the age of 13 must abstain from food or beverage for the duration of the holiday. Children under the age of nine are not allowed to fast. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and those who are sick also are exempt from fasting.
Source: Daily Herald research
Fasting is one of its central components and most Jewish adults are commanded to fast on Yom Kippur, except for pregnant women, nursing mothers and the sick. Fasting becomes obligatory once children reach puberty and mark their coming of age with the bar or bat mitzvah ritual.
The observance also involves abstaining from bathing or washing, or engaging in sexual intimacy with spouses, among other restrictions.
"The basic reason for fasting is to become more aware of the soul," said Shemtov, co-director of Chabad Jewish Center of Elgin. "Judaism believes that a person is in this world in order to use the physical and material to become closer to God. But every once in a while, we take a step back to refocus on what's really important ... on the purpose of it all."
Yom Kippur commemorates the day God forgave the Jewish people for rejecting his commandments and the sin of worshipping a golden calf after their exodus from Egypt. Their collective sin was lifted only after Moses climbed Mount Sinai seeking God's forgiveness, Shemtov said.
"The day Moses came down (the mountain) with a second set of tablets was Yom Kippur ... this was where God cleaned the past transgressions and we were going to start again," Shemtov said. "Every year on the anniversary of that day we do the same thing ... whatever it is we've been suffering from for the past year we try to fix and at the same time we ask God to forgive us for our sins of the previous year."
Humbling the soul
The period between Rosh Hashanah -- the Day of Judgment, also the start of the Jewish new year -- and Yom Kippur are known as the 10 days of return/repentance, or teshuvah.
"Everything about everything in the world is judged on the day of Rosh Hashanah ... God writes down your provisions for the year but doesn't sign it until Yom Kippur," Shemtov said. "You have 10 days to pray, give charity and repent. The soul gets covered up by the body and we lose track. It's a time to reconnect with that purity."
Afflicting one's soul through fasting is a means of attaining humility and developing discipline, said Orin Rotman of Buffalo Grove, a gabbai who facilitates Torah and Talmud studies and is a member of Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove.
"There is also the sense in Yom Kippur ... that you are going to be written in the book of death instead of the book of life," Rotman said. "The integrity of it is to be so involved (in worship) that you shouldn't have time to eat."
The festival is bookended by two celebratory meals at the beginning and end. But the goal on Yom Kippur is to stay focused on the bigger picture of "connection to creation, to life and death decisions, to making vows and determining whether vows were broken," Rotman said.
"It's like AA's (Alcoholics Anonymous) 12-step process in Judaism ... acknowledging that you have done something wrong ... and the final step is when presented with this situation you would do things differently," Rotman said. "It's not about the ritual itself. It's about where the rituals can get you."