For the week ending 2 February 2008 / 26 Shevat 5768


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: David Rose in Calgary

Dear Rabbi,

I practice Chinese medicine which includes fasting as one of the many methods of healing. I am wondering what the Jewish perspective on fasting is. Thank you.

Dear David,

Judaism posits that spiritual forces are at the root of everything physical. On a cosmic scale, this means that the One Transcendental G-d is simultaneously above and within everything that exists. On a human scale this is paralleled by the presence of the Divine soul above and within the body.

Just as harmony, balance and tranquility in the spiritual realm benefit Creation in general, so too a healthy soul-state benefits the body in particular. Conversely, spiritual imbalance manifests itself in physical disharmony.

It is for this reason that when we bless someone for health we say, “May G-d heal the soul and heal the body”, where health of the soul precedes that of the body not only in terms of importance but also causally/sequentially.

Therefore, insofar as fasting is viewed by Judaism as a venue for re-aligning one’s spiritual orientation and balance, as well as its potential benefit for the body, fasting has always been an important tool in Judaism for spiritual and physical well-being.

When Moses physically and spiritually ascended the experience called Sinai, he emptied his self by fasting 40 days and nights, becoming the conduit through which the Torah flowed from Heaven to earth.

Also, the Torah commands Jews to fast for what amounts to about 26 hours on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. Here, fasting reminds us of our human frailty and dependence on G-d, weans us from an over-emphasis on the physical toward the spiritual, and catalyzes a spiritual reckoning intended to bring us back in line with G-d, our purpose and life. This process culminates with the joyous festivities of Succot in which we celebrate our regained purity in closeness to G-d and His bounty. Other public fast days were instituted throughout the year that are similarly intended to stir return to G-d and ultimately result in the rejoicing of His return to us and to the Holy Temple.

Such spiritual fasting is not limited to public fast days. Historically, individuals also used this tool for spiritual re-alignment. And as far as the physical benefits of fasting, Rambam writes in his code for healthy living that it is desirable that a person fast at least one day of each week.

That all being said, nowadays, un-required fasting is not common and is somewhat discouraged. The reason is that mankind is considered spiritually and physically weaker and more pampered than in days of old. Since fasting is viewed as a tool for growth, if it breaks more than builds, it loses its value. Given our spiritual frailty, excessive or regular fasting usually breaks our spirit and can cause depression. Given our physical softness, doing so can detract from our potential to fully realize our purpose in life.

What is still acceptable nowadays is partial fasting. This can be done not only with eating, but with sleeping, talking and other activities as well. Eating, sleeping or talking less frequently or in smaller quantities is something that no one else has to know about, can increase one’s self control and enhance one’s spiritual orientation without detracting from his normal functioning or routine. In fact, the Chida, one of the great Sephardic rabbis of recent times, wrote that taking smaller portions of food and then leaving some on the plate while still hungry is even more meritorious than a full day of fasting, because while fasting a person can divert his attention entirely from eating, but here he withdraws while steeped in desire.

I’ll conclude with a true story:

There was once a rabbi who for many years fasted during the daytime and ate only sparingly at night. One day, he and his study partner were learning a very complex commentary that they could not understand. Shortly before sunset, he got up, ate a bit, returned and solved the question. Surprised, his partner asked what he did to figure out the problem. He revealed his years-long practice, attributing his inability to crack the case to his fasting, and explained that he broke the fast in order to understand what they were learning. His partner objected that he should have just waited until nightfall. The rabbi exclaimed, “The whole purpose of my personal fast is to serve G-d better. If I can’t comprehend His Torah because of the fasting, even for just a very short while, I’m no longer serving G-d!”

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