(Everything revolves around bread and death.)
— Yiddish proverb
Preparing for – and surviving – the Yom Kippur fast sounds easy enough. But the 25-hour non-eating, non-drinking marathon can take a toll on your body. And the accompanying hunger and thirst can sidetrack you so that you concentrate on your stomach, when what you should be focusing on is your soul.
Today, tips from the experts as you gear up for, endure and recover from the Yom Kippur fast.
BEFORE THE FAST
- Don’t worry about the food. Our bodies are built to handle a 24-hour fast easily, says Israeli dietician Mariana Urbach. “It may feel long to us, but not to our bodies.” Liquids are another matter, though. “We aren’t camels,” so we need to saturate our bodies with liquids several days before the fast to minimize the risk of headaches and dehydration. Vary your meal schedule in the week before the fast. If you are extremely regular about your mealtimes, eating at different times tells your body not to expect to be fed at precisely 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.
- Taper off caffeine in the days preceding the fast. Says Richard J. Israel, “the nausea and headaches many people report while fasting have nothing to do either with food or fluid. They are usually the result of caffeine withdrawal.”
- Make the final meal tasty. Eating before Yom Kippur is a mitzvah equal to the mitzvah of fasting on the day of Yom Kippur. That pre-fast meal doesn’t have to be bland. Spices such as lemon or herbs are fine for fasting, but salt and monosodium glutamate should be reduced as much as possible. You can go with a tried-and-true chicken soup and potatoes menu or consider Sautéed Porcini Chicken and Arugula Salad.
- If you have a medical condition, check with your doctor and rabbi before attempting to fast. That includes what to do about prescription medicine, and if you are pregnant or diabetic. Every case is unique. Don’t base your behaviour on what your friends are doing – or not doing. Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser warns people with eating disorders about the dangers of fasting. “These women do not have to be put at risk. God’s most important commandment to the Jewish people is to respect their bodies.”
DURING THE FAST
- Don’t sweat it. Avoid wearing clothing that will make you perspire, as this will cause your body to lose water. Many people have the custom to smell fragrant spices on Yom Kippur which are said to give strength to the person. An afternoon nap between prayer services will help pass the time. Some people also experience a feeling of fullness after getting some shut-eye.
- Concentrate on spiritual growth not your stomach. “Talking about your hunger will only focus your attention on food and make things more difficult,” writes Rabbi Shraga Simmons. “Fortunately, Yom Kippur provides plenty of opportunity to be involved in the important task of teshuva – spiritual self-improvement. The more you immerse yourself in prayer, the less you’ll think about food.”
- And as your stomach begins to growl, think about the students of the Mir Yeshiva during the Second World War. The yeshiva was able to escape Europe and relocate in Kobe, Japan. However, because of that country’s proximity to the International Date Line, there was doubt exactly when the fast should be observed while living in the Orient. So some members of the yeshiva took it upon themselves to fast for two days!
AFTER THE FAST
- After the sun has set and the final blast of the shofar has been sounded, it is time to break the fast. Begin with several glasses of fluid says Dr. Michael Segal. “These counteract the dehydration and occupy space in the stomach, discouraging you from eating too rapidly.” And go light on the lox! You’re already a bit dehydrated so take care with high salt foods which may make you wake up thirsty.
- Dr. Elliot Berry, head of clinical nutrition at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School opts for a non-carbonated drink and a slice of bread or dry cake an hour before eating a full meal. Once that hour is over, you may want to dig into something a bit more substantial than dry cake. At Joan Nathan’s American Break-the-Fast Buffet, you’ll find recipes for challah, Lick your Fingers Kugel, Whitefish Salad and Cheesecake. The Jews of Greece and Turkey were partial to a bowl of lemony Avgolemono, a creamy egg-and-lemon soup for their break-fast meal.
- But don’t think of the day-long fast as a quick weight loss scheme. As Richard Israel explains, “An average adult will burn 2,000 to 2,500 calories, about two-thirds of a pound, during a twenty-four hour fast. It doesn’t take long at all to put that back on again. A couple of pieces of cheesecake and you will be just about even.”
Have a tzom kal – an easy fast!