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Grasping for Holiness
Yom Kippur and Seudah HaMafseket
Whether it’s figuring out how to wean off caffeine or what foods to eat on Yom Kippur to mark the day as distinct, conversations around fasting are a large part of many of days in the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When I first fasted after my bat mitzvah, I felt like it distracted me from the essence of the holiday. How was I supposed to do teshuvah with a rumbling stomach? (Ok, I still wonder about this sometimes….) For other friends, I know they questioned their authenticity as a Jew when they had to come to terms with not being able to fast. (Note: Not fasting for medical reasons is very Jewish!)
Though fasting is a ritual practice intended to help us connect with the spiritual core of the holiday, it sometimes has an adverse effect. Fasting can cause stress, either for those who cannot fast for medical reasons but want to, or for those who fast but have a hard time focusing on the themes of the day on an empty stomach. I’ve come to see how paying attention to the ways we physically nourish our bodies–whether before or before and during Yom Kippur–is intimately connected with spiritual sustenance.
In response to the question of whether or not one can fast on the day before Yom Kippur, the Sefat Emet, a Hasidic rabbi from late 19th century Poland, speaks to the importance of the pre- (and post-) fast meals.
והענין הוא כי יום הכפורים הוא מעין עולם הבא שאין בו אכילה ושתיה והוא באמת יום שמחה מאוד לבני ישראל אך שאין יכולין להתדבק בשמחה זאת כראוי בעודנו בעולם הזה וצריכין להתדבק בהארת היום כפור לפניו ולאחריו בתוספות מחול על הקודש ובשמחת התשיעי יכולין להתדבק בהארת יום כפור אחר כך.
Yom Kippur is considered a taste of Olam Ha’ba, (the World to Come) where there is no eating or drinking. Therefore, it is a day of true joy for B’nei Yisrael, even though we, as creatures of this world, are not quite able to grasp that joy. We need to take hold of the light of Yom Kippur both before and after the day itself, adding on from the mundane to the holy. Rejoicing on the ninth day, the day before Yom Kippur, allows us afterward to attach ourselves to the light of Yom Kippur.
Fasting on Yom Kippur allows us to rehearse for our deaths, to act as though we are no longer mortal, but in truth, we are, and we therefore cannot cling to joy in its fullest sense on Yom Kippur. Though Yom Kippur is a joyful day in the eyes of many Hasidim, the Sefat Emet acknowledges our human limitations and offers the meals bookending Yom Kippur as a way to usher in greater joy to this holy day. In our limited embodied nature, we can best connect to this other holy state through the spiritual preparations that ritual meals pre- and post- fast afford.
The meals before and after Yom Kippur provide the opportunity to orient ourselves both to the intervening day and to our bodies. Whether we fast or not, the meal’s reminder of our mortality can invite us to access deepened spirituality through embodiment, rather than an escape from the corporeal.
I often find myself worried about the timing and how much food I can consume during Seuda HaMafseket, the pre-fast meal. This year, I plan on noticing how the food tastes in my mouth, and honoring my body with each bite. While the specifics of this might be different for each of us depending on how we relate to food and to our bodies, I wonder what it might feel like to embrace Seuda HaMafseket as a moment in ritual time meant to help us bring holiness into the coming day, whatever that looks and feels like for us.
“The body is where life happens,” writes therapist Hillary L. McBride, “both the beautiful and the painful, our individuality and our relationships, the now and the past–but many of us have forgotten ourselves as bodies. We did so in order to survive the pain or be compliant, but in the process we left behind so much of the beautiful.”
Our bodies, our earthly homes have accumulated pain, trauma, guilt, and so much more. Yet it is through, not around, these earthly homes that we can come closest to getting a glimpse of our heavenly homes. Perhaps Seudah HaMafseket can be a moment to acknowledge all that our bodies do for us and to move into a time of fasting or intentional eating with self-compassion. May we come to experience our diverse bodies as sacred vessels.
To find resources for those not fasting, visit amitzvahtoeat.org . To learn more about how we can care for communities’ spiritual and physical needs during Yom Kippur and year round, visit covidresilience.org .
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