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The Meaning of Not Eating

When I started telling people that I’m going to New York City for Yom Kippur, my friends and colleagues declared: “But you won’t be able to eat. What a pity!” Though, with almost a week in New York I will get in plenty of fressing (or intense eating) and food shopping in.

I love food, especially in its ability to bring human and Divine labor together to please, in every way, as well as nourish. This is why I spend my days and often nights, immersed in tasting, procuring, cooking, learning and writing about it.

Still, the Yom Kippur fast is among the most meaningful Jewish rituals that I faithfully observe. From the completion of the simple meal before Kol Nidre until breaking the fast with more elaborate fare after the holiday ends, I just stop. No eating or drinking, farmers’ market stand perusing, recipe formulating, ordering, baking, freezing or menu planning for that matter, either.

The more immersed we are in food culture – ethical, kosher, sustainable, gourmet – the more we may need the Yom Kippur fast. Food and drinking water are the ultimate valuables, as the travails of the Israelites in the wilderness and the worldwide scourge of food insecurity today amply demonstrate. Easy access to abundant supplies can encourage complacency, as well as a sense of entitlement. That’s not really why I fast; though awareness of my thirst and later hunger can act as a reminder of others’ severe plight. It’s not simply a matter commitment to Jewish law or tradition, either.

Yom Kippur is in many ways a day of words, more words than on any other day of the Jewish year. We confess, we plead, we recount the ancient practices of the sacrificial cult. But more than anything else we do on Yom Kippur, fasting with our bodies defines who we are. We can feel disconnected from the words we say and hear, observing as they disappear into the air.

Fasting is different. As long as we’re conscious and not eating or drinking, there’s no escape. We accept that we are Jews, a people with a history and a purpose, whatever that means to us and however it makes us feel. Acceptance is the first step toward return, the purpose of this season.

Each year, it pleasantly surprises me that not only can I leave food and drink alone, but that I embrace and enjoy the full fast on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Rebecca Joseph is founder and owner of 12 Tribes Kosher Foods in San Francisco and creator of The Parve Baker, the original dairy-free baking blog.

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