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When it’s a mitzvah to eat on Yom Kippur

Elana Sztokman
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Published: 4 October 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Those who cannot fast, for whatever reason, often feel lonely and ashamed. ELANA SZTOKMAN meets someone who’s trying to wipe away the guilt for those in this situation.

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for most Jews, is not supposed to be about food. During this 25-hour traditional fast day, Jews are expected to stay out of the kitchen and far from the dining room. But for some people, that is impossible. Whether due to medical conditions, disabilities,  eating or food issues, pregnancy and nursing, advanced age, frailty, mental health challenges, traumas around food or the holiday, or other reasons, for some people fasting is not only difficult but dangerous.  

In life-threatening situations, rabbis give permission to eat and even say that it is a mitzvah to eat on Yom Kippur. But people who are eating may not feel that way. The Jewish tradition unequivocally advocates for saving a life before (almost) all else, even if it means breaking the rules and eating on the most sacred fast day,  but people who have to eat on Yom Kippur have described feelings of  shame and guilt.  

Eight years ago, veteran American Jewish educator Sarah Osborne began to have worrying symptoms that would affect her ability to fast – and that caused her quite a bit of angst.  

“Because of the messaging, I was asking myself, ‘Am I sick enough to eat on Yom Kippur? Is what I’m experiencing bad enough?’” Looking for guidance, Osborne spoke to two rabbis who advised her to continue trying to fast, something that she now understands as dangerous. Then, four years ago, Osborne found a rabbi who supported her, saying: “it’s a mitzvah for you to eat.” She found that both a relief and a challenge. 

“Yom Kippur is a communal gathering with a lot of public chatter that revolves around the fast – ‘Don’t forget to hydrate!’ or ‘What are you going to eat before the fast?’” For people who do not fast that can create a whole other layer of exclusion and shame. “Once I stopped fasting, I felt like I was on a separate planet. It was awful.”  

To feel less alone, Osborne began collecting resources and prayers for herself as a non-faster. But she soon realised that wasn’t enough. What she really missed was the sense of community that she lost by not fasting.  

"Once I stopped fasting, I felt like I was on a separate planet. It was awful."

She decided to look for people to eat with on Yom Kippur. “It was hard,” she recalls, “like breaking through a brick wall to tell people I needed to eat on Yom Kippur.” But once she was able to break those barriers, something radical happened.

“I discovered that a lot of people needed to eat on Yom Kippur. Many more than I ever realised. And every one of them was probably sitting alone, just like me.  

“I realised it was not okay that I wasn’t supported. And I wanted to change that – for myself and others.” 

Last December, Osborne founded A Mitzvah to Eat, an initiative aimed to create a supportive community for people who need to need to eat on Yom Kippur, as well as “for people who need to relate to mitzvot differently to protect their lives, protect their health, and reduce their suffering.” 

A Mitzvah to Eat creates prayers, provides resources, starts conversations via social media, and is building a community. The organisation recently released a prayer guide and a letter to rabbis about how to relate to people who are not fasting on Yom Kippur – to be aware of potential for harm, and to make spaces for non-fasters in the community. 

Originally targeting people who need to eat on fast days, “it very quickly became clear that there are many different places where people also needed support,” Osborne says. 

One issue that emerged from her work was that there are people who need to eat chametz [leavened bread] on Passover and may be feeling the same isolation and shame as people who eat on Yom Kippur. 

To wit, the public shaming of people eating chametz on Passover was central in bringing down the Israeli government earlier this year. The Supreme Court had ruled that it was illegal for security guards to check the bags of hospital visitors for chametz.

But when the Health Minister tried to enforce that law, then Knesset Speaker Idit Silman fiercely objected, arguing that Israel was a Jewish state and that even in Holocaust concentration camps people refused to eat chametz on Passover, and therefore everyone in Israel must do the same – even people in hospital, non-Jews, visitors and tourists.

The idea that there are legitimate reasons for practicing Jews to eat chametz on Passover never made it into the public discourse. Silman’s stand led to her quitting the fragile coalition and bringing the rest of the government down with her. So much for a mitzvah to eat. 

There are also people who need to eat chametz on Passover and may be feeling the same isolation and shame as people who eat on Yom Kippur. 

I asked Osborne what forces people to eat chametz on Passover, or any food on Yom Kippur, and she said it was the policy of her organisation to explain the general concept, rather to list specific conditions. “If we said, ‘it's because of this condition or that condition,’ we might inadvertently send a message that only if someone has one of those conditions that that would be a valid reason.”   

Instead, the initiative spreads the general concept via posts on social media and its website

“The concept is that it is a mitzvah to clean our houses of chametz, or fast on Yom Kippur, as long as it won’t harm us,” she says. “That last part – as long as it won’t harm us – is usually left out when people teach about these things.

“What separates us from some of the others doing this kind of work is that we don’t focus on particular conditions,” she explains. “I want everyone's whole self to be seen. People are more than their condition for one thing.” 

Thus far, the initiative has been receiving positive responses.  

“The Judaism I love is the Judaism that treasures life and doesn’t want us to suffer,” Osborne says. “That isn’t the Judaism that we always see, but it is the one I want to uplift.”   

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Illustration: Avi Katz

About the author

Elana Sztokman

Dr Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, and activist. Her latest book is 'When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture'.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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