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What Makes A Meaningful Yom Kippur?

I’ve been a Jew for a long time (a really long time).    Every year that I can remember, I have been asked what is a meaningful Yom Kippur fast?

Even when I was a child, my Rabbi (and next-door neighbor) used to ask me this question, as if I knew the answer. 

Years later, I became a synagogue President and Congregants assumed I was an authority on all Jewish topics. 

My congregants demanded that I tell them how to make their Yom Kippur fast “good” and “meaningful.”     I will never understand why anyone asked me for fasting instructions.       I have no special powers or understanding of Jewish law and liturgy, and I am not a Rabbi or scholar.     But, I do listen to what is told to me, and I guess that is an advantage.

You see, on every Yom Kippur morning, since I was born, the Rabbi has read a passage from the Book of Isaiah that tells us how to “fast” and what true repentance looks like.  This text has been heard by literally every Jew, every year, for centuries and is explicit instructions on how to fast and what is expected of all people, regardless of religion. 

I guess the people who ask me how to have a meaningful fast must not be paying attention during the “Book of Isaiah” part of the Yom Kippur morning service.

Or, maybe for some reason they can’t hear the message.

What you need to know…

Background on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement” when Jews are supposed to confess and repent for their sins.   Yom Kippur takes place on the tenth day after Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year. 

Jews fast on Yom Kippur because Leviticus 23:27 states that we are to “practice self-denial” on Yom Kippur and, over the millennia, that has been interpreted to mean no food or drink on Yom Kippur.    For many, not eating or drinking is the definition of true suffering.  For me, it’s only caffeine withdrawal that bothers me.

However, once caffeine withdrawal kicks in, it requires considerable self-discipline to avoid having a hit of “joe” and satisfy my cravings.

Jews believe that exercising self-discipline is the first step in behavior modification, which is needed to be truly repentant for past transgressions and not repeat old mistakes.

The Prophet Isaiah says…  

Neither repentance nor fasting is a “form over substance” activity.

According to the prophet Isaiah, fasting isn’t the point of Yom Kippur, and no matter how much we fast, bow our heads, pray, and suffer, it isn’t what G-d wants.    Instead, according to Isaiah, behavior modification is needed.

And, Isaiah is very specific about what behaviors are unacceptable and what is needed to satisfy our obligations to G_d on Yom Kippur.

The substance of a fast, according to Isaiah.

The Book of Isaiah memorializes G_d’s words:

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock the fetters of wickedness, 

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free…

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin…

And you offer your compassion to the hungry

And satisfy the famished creature-

Then shall your light shine in the darkness, 

And your gloom shall be as the noonday. (bold added for emphasis) 

Isaiah, Chapter 58:6 – 58:10 So, that’s it…and, it’s pretty simple

If we want to be truly repentant for our sins and have participated in a “good” fast, we must

  • free the oppressed;
  • feed the poor;
  • cloth the naked; and 
  • care for our family.

If you would like to discuss this, or any other topic, please call our office at 561-717-2874. 

I wish you (regardless of religion) that you will be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy and healthy New Year.

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