The evenings are darkening, the football season has begun in earnest, and Yom Kippur approaches. It’s the one day that all practising Jews present themselves at synagogue, wearing canvas shoes and a slight grimace. Many of us view the day with real trepidation: 25 hours without food or drink.
Jews and food, a long-standing and passionate love affair, consummated daily and sanctified each week with a Shabbat dinner. But once a year our poor stomachs, already stretched by the gastronomic exertions of Rosh Hashanah, face a day of barren misery. It doesn’t matter how much we stuff our faces beforehand, come 4pm next Saturday, stomachs across the country will be emptier than Carmelli’s on Kol Nidre.
I dislike being hungry as much as the next person, but in recent years I’ve noticed myself behaving rather strangely at the end of Yom Kippur. The shofar is blown and the fast ends, but there I remain, gossiping with my cousins outside synagogue, waiting patiently for my parents to slowly emerge from the crush. This is all most uncharacteristic. It’s fair to say my religious faith isn’t what it was, and on the rare occasions I still attend shul I’m usually the last in and the first out. Finally last year it dawned on me what was happening — I was deliberately prolonging the fast. I was enjoying myself too much.
Fasting, it turns out, is the spiritual adrenalin shot that makes Yom Kippur special. It was Friedrich Nietszche who said that “the belly is the reason that man does not so easily take himself for a god”. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about Yom Kippur, but his point is central to the experience of the day. It is the workings of food in our stomachs — consuming it, processing it, emptying it — which regularly remind us we are just animals, scrabbling around in the dirt to sustain ourselves. Take the stomach out of the equation for a day and something very strange happens — we can be truly elevated.
We do our best on Yom Kippur to resemble angels, standing for much of it and often dressing in white. During the rest of the year we are led by our bodies into any number of sins and misdemeanours, but for one day we release ourselves from our bodily cage, subjugating our physical selves to our will.
I rarely find praying a particularly meaningful experience, but during Neilah, the closing service of Yom Kippur, it feels special just to be there, standing alongside the (normally) well-fed members of my community, united by hunger and fatigue. A part of me doesn’t want the Ark to close and for it all to end. The sharpness of the afternoon pangs recede, the stomach accepts its fate and the mind is allowed to wander freely to ponder love, eternity and the meaning of life.
Fasting is great then, but in small doses. Unfortunately, others have taken this wonderful mechanism for focusing the mind a little too far. Ascetic monks will go days on end without a morsel passing their lips, and Muslims fast daily for an entire month during Ramadan. Then there’s the 5:2 diet, which allows already slender fashionistas to bore the rest of the world senseless while they subsist entirely on miso soup and skinny lattes. I’m not convinced by any of this, and I’ll also be steering well clear of Tisha B’Av.
Everyone has advice for Yom Kippur — sleep in as long as possible, eat pasta five days before the fast, down a Lucozade just before the fast begins.
Mine is simple; as the service enters its final stretch, go into shul, savour the emptiness inside you and think long and hard about the year which has passed, and the year which lies ahead. You might even see me on your way out — I’ll be the pious one standing outside looking for excuses not to leave.