Day Two: Should I Fast For Yom Kippur?
Dr. Myron Yaster is the reason I started fasting, though he doesn’t know it. Yaster has been observing the fast since his bar mitzvah 41 years ago. He attends a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, the same one where his three … Read More
Dr. Myron Yaster is the reason I started fasting, though he doesn’t know it. Yaster has been observing the fast since his bar mitzvah 41 years ago. He attends a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, the same one where his three children were all bar mitzvah’ed. Since the eldest of those three children happens to be my boyfriend, the guy I followed to synagogue three years ago, it seemed especially appropriate to get medical advice from him. I wanted to speak with an M.D. because when you separate fasting from a religious or political context, it comes down to a simple question of metabolic health. As a mostly non-observant Jew, I have a hard time accepting religious practices that compel you to inflict pain or even stress on your body. What I wanted to learn from Yaster was exactly how much stress our bodies undergo during this religious rite. Additionally, I wanted to know if there was any kind of documented physical transformation I could expect as a result of not eating. Yaster assured me that a 24-hour fast is fine for anyone with a normal metabolism. The physical effect of fasting on the body is sort of like being on a high-protein or low-carb diet where your body is tricked into using fat as a primary fuel. Although you might feel a little lightheaded or cranky by the 22nd hour, a one-day fast has almost no effect at all on your health or ability to function.
At sundown on Yom Kippur I generally head straight for the lox plate and bagel basket to stuff myself with as much fish and bread as I can grab. Yaster explained that while this is a common urge, liquid is really the first thing you should have after the fast (wine doesn’t count). I’ve never seen someone bring Gatorade to Yom Kippur dinner, but it’s an ideal way to break the fast, since it contains a severe infusion of salt, water, sugar, and glucose—the things you need to maintain a well-functioning metabolism. Though he put all fears of masochistic worship to rest, I came away from our conversation feeling somewhat let down. It is true that I don’t want to harm my body just because the Torah says so, but part of me was expecting—hoping—for the fast to be more of a physiological undertaking. If your body hardly registers 24 hours without food, any real physical change is unlikely. It seems that achieving an inward-focused death-like state, as Rabbi Greenberg suggested, requires a lot more than the hungry, sleepy stupor I tend to fall into by the holiday’s end. In spite of my own misgivings with religion, I didn’t want my fast to be the equivalent of a crash protein diet. In a culture that rewards abstinence, where Atkins is a household name, it is impossible not to associate fasting, no matter how holy, with the desire to be thin. As someone with a fairly normal attitude towards her body for an American woman—not pleased but not moved to change—I know I will have to confront the fast-as-diet before deciding if I want to observe. Tomorrow I will talk to a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, particularly among Jewish women. Next page: Yom Kippur as a time to eat more, not less