Yom Kippur: Fasting Reveals Simplicity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yom Kippur

I heard the most beautiful teaching at Seudat Shlishit- the
Third Meal late on Shabbat afternoon- last week, from a gentleman
whose name I never heard but whose Torah stuck with me. He pointed out
that “ten day of t’shuvah” from the beginning of Rosh Hashana through
Yom Kippur are actually seven days when you subtract the holy days
themselves- in other words, seven days, the space of a week between
two holidays. Creation was completed in a week, so we can compare the
seven days it took to make a world to the seven days in which we think
about re-creating & re-orienting ourselves, going forward into the New
Year. It was even suggested that on every day between Rosh Hashana and
Yom Kippur, one think about how one wants that day – be it Tuesday,
Wednesday, Shabbat, etc.- to be for the coming year.

Excellent idea!

And with that, let’s consider Yom Kippur for just a moment. Most
people reading this know that the practice of Yom Kippur includes
fasting from food and drink (for those who are physically able to do
so), and other will remember that the idea of fasting also includes
refraining from bathing, anointing oneself with oils or cosmetics,
wearing leather shoes [a sign of luxury], and sex. The Torah tells us
to “afflict ourselves”- “tanu et nafshotechem,” literally, “afflict
your souls,” which is understood as including more than just food and
water. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:29, and 23: 26, among other places.)

We’ll talk more about the moral and spiritual meaning of fasting- in
its five components- here at TBE tomorrow night, but for today, I’d
like to bring to your attention a small disagreement over the
obligations of Yom Kippur found in the Mishna, the early part of the
Talmud. In a Mishna discussing the Yom Kippur restrictions, one rabbi
proposes that the idea of “afflict yourselves” doesn’t apply to everybody:

“On the Day of Atonement, eating, drinking, washing, anointing,
putting on shoes, and sexual intercourse are forbidden. But a king,
and a bride, may wash their faces, and one who gave birth may put on
her shoes- this is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages forbid
it [to everybody].” (Mishna Yoma 8:1)

Perhaps R. Eliezer thought that it would be especially psychologically
difficult for a king- who is used to luxury- or a bride to refrain
from washing their faces, but the Sages understood that the whole
point of Yom Kippur is to recast the way we think about ourselves and
other people. On Yom Kippur, we’re ALL aware of our frailty- it only
takes a day to feel pretty weak and grumpy from hunger. On Yom Kippur,
it really doesn’t matter what you look like- you can say your prayers
in bedroom slippers. On Yom Kippur, the king and the pauper are equal
before God, each person grappling with his or her core values and
spiritual struggles, without benefit of titles or the distractions of
being “consumers.”

On Yom Kippur, the ancient rabbis wanted us to understand ourselves
and each other as human beings, unadorned, simple, stripped of our
distinctions and artifice, each of us equally made in the Image of God.

That’s something to consider for more than a week or ten days.

With wishes that each of you is inscribed for a good year,


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