For most people, Yom Kippur is defined by a fast--the total abstention of food and water for a full day. But what about people who can't?
As someone who is unable to fast for medical reasons, it's been difficult to figure out exactly what to do. I'd gotten so used to the fast as the main thing about the holiday that when my doctor told me not to fast, I felt lost. It felt like a barrier to reaching the true meaning of the holiday.
It was easy to feel isolated, but I'm not alone: pregnant women and nursing mothers, older adults, children, and people with various health problems may be unable to fast. But, in my experience, it's not discussed. Yom Kippur is the fast, and for people who can't do it, I've seen reactions from feeling like a "bad Jew" or a "sinner" to shamefully sneaking around with food and water.
I became determined to find some other way to honor the meaning of the day, even if I can't do it in the most common way. I didn't expect to find a rich liturgical tradition and supportive rabbis from across the denominational spectrum ready to help.
"The fast is one means to the end" of awareness of one's mortality, said Rabbi Reni Dickman, head of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Without the fast, there can be other means, some of which come from the traditional Unetaneh Tokef prayer. In that prayer, there are three factors-- teshuva , tefilah , and tzedakah .
Teshuva (repentance) is sometimes limited to vague apologies right before the holiday starts, but Dickman disagrees with this practice. "Repentance is not a one-day activity, but a lifetime pursuit of being the best version of ourselves," she said, pointing to a section of Isaiah read as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur. In it, a famous passage beginning with "Is this the fast I desire?" expresses God's disdain for simply following a tradition for the sake of tradition, rather than truly engaging in the meaning of the day.
Tefilah (prayer) is also crucial. Rabbanit Leah Sarna of Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel Congregation advises non-fasters to "find a service that's going to suit you, in a denomination that feels right, and put the day into it. Even if you aren't fasting, you would still have a very spiritually enriching day because of all the activities happening in the synagogue."
Tzedakah (righteous giving) can take many forms, including helping a synagogue put the service together; donating to a synagogue-sponsored food drive, which is common around Yom Kippur; or finding your own way to give back. Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann of Mishkan Chicago advised using the day as "a kick in the pants to get more involved in the coming year to make the city more just and equitable. What an incredible change Chicago would see if everyone who went to Yom Kippur services decided to do a little bit of volunteering!"
As for following tradition, she said, "fasting is not the only way to do what the Torah says" for Yom Kippur. When the Torah says Initem et nafshoteichem --afflict your soul--it can also mean not wearing leather or not using lotions and perfumes that hide your natural state. "These other ways to observe Yom Kippur are very traditional and still have meaning."
Even the act of eating can become meaningful--Sarna and newly ordained Rabbi Marianne Novak both referred to an addition to the Birkat HaMazon , the blessing traditionally recited after eating, specifically meant for Yom Kippur.
For Novak, not fasting on Yom Kippur offers unique opportunities. "It allows people to observe some other commandments that they wouldn't be able to do if they weren't required to eat on Yom Kippur," including "improving your relationship with yourself, the community, and God." Focusing too much on the fast, she said, can get in the way of the "spiritual reboot" at the core of the day.
She added, "If the purpose of Yom Kippur is to do what God wants for you, you aren't sinning by eating. You're doing what you're supposed to do."
With a plethora of options, I'm looking forward to a meaningful experience this year--and the opportunity to do a mitzvah described in a supplemental reading in the Reform machzor Mishkan HaNefesh: "I honor the divine gift of my life and the sacred imperative to preserve life. Therefore, I am prepared to fulfill the mitzvah of eating and drinking on this day . "