Indulging in the Physical? No, Not on Yom Kippur
“When we refrain from indulging our physical appetites for a limited period, in order to devote ourselves for a time more exclusively to demands that rank higher in our hierarchy of values, we are not denying the physical appetites their just place in life; we are simply recognizing the need of putting them in their place.”
(Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan)
Three mornings each week, fighting the urge to hit the snooze button, I join a friend in my building’s basement gym, stretch my muscles, and walk briskly on the treadmill for 30 minutes. During that time, it’s all about my body: the ache in my calves as I trek uphill, the increase in my heart rate, and the sweat that drips from my brow and trickles down my back, soaking through my T-shirt.
On Yom Kippur, I’ll skip this physical workout for a spiritual one instead. In fact, Yom Kippur is all about getting beyond our physical selves so we can focus solely on doing the difficult, sacred work the High Holidays demand of us, free from the distractions of our bodies and their needs.
Although many Jews expect to fast on Yom Kippur, to help ensure we devote ourselves to a most accurate cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul), it is customary to refrain from five specific activities related to our bodies throughout the holiest day of the Jewish year:
- Eating and drinking: The majority of our lives take place in our physical selves, which require sustenance to function optimally. In an effort to get beyond our corporeal body on this day, we forego food and drink. Of course, you should only do what your body can manage in a healthy way. Those who are sick, pregnant, elderly, or otherwise unable to fast should not do so or should do so only in a modified way.
- Wearing leather: In an earlier era, leather shoes often were among our most comfortable. If we’re focused on our personal comfort, we can’t also be fully attentive to our spiritual selves. For this reason, you may notice clergy or other worshippers sporting canvas sneakers in lieu of leather shoes on Yom Kippur.
- Bathing and shaving: Because we are engaging with our souls on this day, cleaning and grooming our bodies can take a backseat on Yom Kippur.
- Anointing ourselves with oil, cream, cologne, perfume, or other balms and salves for physical pleasure diverts our attention from the spiritual reckoning for which Yom Kippur is intended. Thus using lotions and the like also is an activity from which we abstain on this sacred day.
- Sexual relations: For all the reasons noted above, refraining from sexual relations on Yom Kippur turns our attention away from our bodies, centering it instead on our actions and misdeeds of the past year.
By abstaining from these activities for the day, we set ourselves up to truly examine our innermost, intimate beings in a most meaningful way, giving ourselves an opportunity to explore what we can do differently in the coming year to tip the balance toward good.
When the sun sets on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, we slowly ease back into our physical selves – returned, revived, refreshed. Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor (High Holiday prayer book), eloquently petitions:
May this long day of fasting and self-denial
inspire acts of creativity, generosity, and joy.
May we go from strength to strength.
Yes, throughout the coming year and beyond, may it be our bodies that feed the hungry, comfort the bereaved, clothe the naked, and bring justice and humanity to the places they are needed most.