Tips for Yom Kippur Fasting

  • Don't make it any more difficult than it has to be
  • Fasting is easier if you prepare your body in advance
  • There are things you can do to ease your fast after it has started

One of the primary and best-known observances of Yom Kippur is fasting. The purpose of fasting is to "afflict your soul," a means of repenting. For some people, fasting is easy; for others, it is more difficult. But there is no particular merit in making this fast any more difficult than it has to be. In fact, a common and traditional greeting on the holiday is, "Have an easy fast." Here are a few tips that have helped me in the past.

I should point out that everybody's body is different, and everybody reacts differently to fasting. These tips may or may not work for you. Above all else, you should listen to your own body and do those things that tend to make you less hungry while avoiding things that tend to make you more hungry.

A Week Before Yom Kippur

You can ease your fast by preparing your body about a week before the fast.

Taper Off Addictive or Habitual Substances
Starting on the day after Rosh Hashanah, taper off of the following:
  • Coffee, tea or other caffeinated beverages
  • Refined sugar and candy, especially chocolate
  • Cigarettes, cigars and pipes
  • Anything else that you eat habitually or compulsively, that you long for when you can't have it
Sudden deprivation of any of the above can cause withdrawal symptoms that will make it harder to fast. If you taper off of these things about a week before the fast, you will find that your withdrawal symptoms are not as severe.
Vary Your Meal Schedule
Keep in mind that for most well-fed Americans, the "hunger" that you feel at meal times is simply a result of your body preparing itself to receive food at the expected time. If you always eat lunch at precisely 12:30 and dinner at precisely 6 PM, your body will start preparing to digest at those times. That is what most Americans think of as "hunger." If you vary your meal schedule, you will find that it eases your feelings of hunger at meal times. Note: A friend of mine doesn't like this tip; he would rather experience intense hunger for half an hour twice a day than mild gnawing for a couple of hours. If that is your preference, then be sure to eat at precisely the same time in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.
Drink Plenty of Water
The need for water is much greater than the need for food, and if you are like most Americans, you don't drink enough water under ordinary circumstances. During the last few days before Yom Kippur, make sure you drink plenty of water, so you do not risk becoming dehydrated during your fast.

The Meal Before

Your last meal before Yom Kippur should be chosen carefully.

Don't Overeat
Some people seem to think that they can "make up for" not eating on Yom Kippur by having a big meal the night before. This is a very bad idea, and actually makes it harder to fast. Have you ever noticed how you feel particularly hungry the morning after a large meal? Eat a normal sized meal.
Eat Foods That Are Easy To Digest
Don't eat anything that will sit in your stomach like a rock, give you heartburn or leave you feeling hungry. The specifics here vary significantly from person to person. Think of foods that don't leave you feeling hungry the morning after. For example, it is commonly said that the problem with Chinese food is, three hours later you're hungry again. If that's true for you, then don't eat Chinese for your last meal!
Get Plenty of Protein and Complex Carbohydrates
These are the foods that will stick with you during the next day and give you the long-term energy you need.

During Yom Kippur

Even after the fast has started, there are things you can do to ease your fast.

Go to Synagogue
Aside from the fact that you're supposed to be there praying and repenting anyway <grin>, this will actually make it easier to fast. Being in a room with people who are also fasting, being away from all of the day-to-day temptations to eat, will make it easier for you to fast.
Don't Talk About Food or Hunger
During Yom Kippur when I was in college, my classmates continually talked about how hungry they were, almost bragging about it, as if it were some kind of badge of honor showing what good Jews they were to suffer this way. Don't fall into this trap! Talking about your hunger will only focus your attention on it and make it harder to fast.
Don't talk about or think about what you are going to eat to after the fast. When you think about food, your body prepares itself to receive that food, and that preparation causes the feeling that most Americans think of as hunger.
You should also avoid being around people who are talking about these things.
Take a Nap in the Afternoon
During the break between services in the afternoon, it is more or less traditional to take a nap (though some sources disapprove of this practice). I highly recommend this, as it does ease the fast. Have you ever noticed that full feeling that you have when you wake up from an afternoon nap?
Sniff Spices
I was introduced to this practice in an Orthodox service a few years ago: during the break between services in the afternoon, we passed around and sniffed from a b'samim box (a container of spices used in the havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbat). I was surprised to find that sniffing these spices (cinnamon and cloves) eased my hunger somewhat. I have also used cardamom, which has a very satisfying scent.

Good luck to you, and Have an Easy Fast!

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