Your Guide to Fasting (or Not) on Yom Kippur

Kate Bigam Kaput

For many Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a fasting holiday – a day during which we abstain from eating, drinking, and even brushing our teeth or using perfumes. (Learn more about what we abstain from and why.)

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan once said,

“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.”

In an effort to get beyond our corporeal body on this day, many Jews forego food and drink – but it’s important that we do so safely, that we provide alternatives, and that we consider the personal importance of fasting in our own lives.

1. If you plan to fast, prepare in advance, and take safety cautions.

Everyone’s body responds differently to the act of fasting. To do so safely, check out “How to Prepare to Fast on Yom Kippur” for practical suggestions for fasting (hint: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!) to help ensure that you can focus on your spiritual needs without harming your body.

2. Figure out what fasting means to you.

How do many of us find meaning in our fast, going beyond the physical discomfort and into serious introspection? And what meaning, exactly, do we find?

From those who always fast to those who have considered not doing so – and those who share how health reasons impact their fast – seven Reform Jews share personal perspectives about fasting on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

3. Do not risk your health by fasting.

Jewish tradition recognizes that fasting is not a safe practice for all Jews. For this reason, children under the age of 13 and individuals who are pregnant or ill are not required to fast in Yom Kippur. In fact, people who are pregnant or nursing are explicitly exempted from fasting, lest it harm them or the fetus/baby.

Those who are ill or have chronic medical conditions should talk to their doctor before fasting to make sure it is safe, and any medications you take daily should also be taken on Yom Kippur. Fasting is not supposed to endanger your life or your health.

For those who are unable to fast during Yom Kippur, Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub has instead written this thoughtful “Meditation Before Yom Kippur for One Who Cannot Fast,” provided in partnership with The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services.

4. Be kind to yourself.

In the personal essay “Why I Won’t Be Fasting on Yom Kippur” Julia Tortollo-Allen writes, “For years, Yom Kippur trapped me in a cycle of misery. If I chose to fast, I reinforced the dangerous behaviors that were controlling my life, and if I chose to eat, I felt shameful and disappointed in myself. Either way, I felt like a bad Jew for allowing my disorder to control my experience with prayer and spirituality.”

The “Meditation Before Yom Kippur for One Who Cannot Fast” is also applicable and may be meaningful and comforting to individuals recovering from eating disorders.

5. Make your fast even more meaningful.

Dedicate your Yom Kippur fast to the millions of people worldwide who face hunger and starvation on a daily basis by donating the amount of money you would have spent to feed yourself and your family during the day to a hunger awareness/advocacy organization. One such organization, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, offers projects that connect hunger-related education and advocacy with the High Holidays.

You might also consider these activities from our Yom Kippur Social Action Guide to help assist the hungry in your own community:

  • Volunteer at a local food pantry or homeless shelter as a family.
  • Join a meal delivery program to deliver hot meals to homebound individuals.
  • Coordinate a High Holiday food drive.

6. Break your fast with beloved Jewish foods.

Browse our Food and Recipes page to find Jewish foods that appeal to you and/or have special meaning to you. You could make something that makes you nostalgic for childhood, like matzah ball soup, or a traditional break-the-fast food like this Fragrant Rice Flour and Milk Pudding, which is popular in some Sephardic communities. You may also want to chose from "18 Easy-to-Make Jewish Comfort Foods" or "21 Jewish Recipes That Use Ingredients You Have at Home."