Guide to the High Holy Days: Symbols and Rituals
One of the things Yom Kippur is best known for is the practice of fasting for the duration of the holiday. The purpose of the fast—which traditionally includes abstaining from food, drink, sex and bathing—is to purify the spirit and concentrate the mind on the theme of forgiveness and moral renewal. The fast begins at sundown when the holy day begins, and it ends at sundown the following evening, often with synagogues offering a small spread of food.
In traditional Jewish practice, children under 13 are not expected to fast. Neither are pregnant women, or anyone with a medical condition that fasting would exacerbate. The idea isn’t to create a health hazard—it’s a spiritual practice.
It’s also not an all or nothing proposition. People who take daily medications generally maintain those routines through Yom Kippur, even if they are fasting. Some people take on some aspects of the fast but not all: they might refrain from eating but drink water during the day, or just fast for part of the day. Some people who can’t fast for health reasons choose to donate the equivalent of one day’s worth of meals to a food bank to honor the tradition. Whether someone identifies as Jewish or not, everyone is welcome to participate in fasting.
Judaism doesn’t have many holidays that involve intentionally creating physical discomfort for ourselves in order to create a special state of consciousness, so Yom Kippur stands out for most Jews as a very unique day of the year. People at synagogue services will ask one another how their fast is going, and it’s perfectly OK to say, “I’m not able to fast this year, how is yours going?” If you decide to participate in fasting for the first time, it’s a good idea to get well hydrated in the hour or two before the beginning of Yom Kippur.
The first meal everyone eats after Yom Kippur has ended is often called the “break-the-fast” or “break fast” and sometimes people issue invitations to host friends for this meal. Conventional wisdom about resuming eating and drinking is to take things slow and avoid overdoing it. Some synagogues will lay out a spread of food so that people attending the final services for Yom Kippur are able to eat something and mingle together after. Bagels, spreads, fruit and traditional dishes like kugel (we have some great recipes here) are popular choices for breaking the fast.