If I Can’t Fast, How Can I Observe Yom Kippur?


(Photo credit: Kashif John)

So you can’t fast this Yom Kippur: you are pregnant, a diabetic, you have an eating disorder, you have medications that cannot be taken without food.

Thank you for taking care of your body. That is a mitzvah, did you know? The Hebrew for it is Lishmor HaGuf, “to guard the body.” It is just as important a mitzvah as any other, including the Yom Kippur fast.

So how can you observe the holiday, if you must eat or take water? Here are some ideas:

FASTING IS NOT JUST FROM FOOD Traditionally, we refrain from several things during the 24 hours of Yom Kippur: eating & drinking, sex, anointing, washing, or wearing leather shoes. If your health dictates that you must drink and/or eat, you can still refrain from the other things. It’s just not as cool to complain about them in public.

ATTEND SERVICES The Yom Kippur services are some of the most moving of the entire year. From Kol Nidre in the evening to Neilah the following evening, the services carry us on an arc of spirituality and emotion that must be experienced to be understood. Too few Jews avail themselves of the full experience.

EAT PRECISELY What I mean by “eat precisely” is eat exactly what you are supposed to eat, no more and no less. If your doctor has given you a diet, have you ever stuck strictly to it for an entire 24 hours with no little cheats? If you are supposed to eat 5 vegetables, eat 5 vegetables. If you are supposed to leave refined sugar alone, leave it alone. If you are supposed to eat 3 balanced meals, don’t wimp out with only one or two. Following doctor’s orders exactly is a discipline, too.

USE THE DAY FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION The larger purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine our lives, individually and communally, and to seek out ways to be better Jews and better human beings. You can do this whether you fast or not.

USE THE DAY FOR PRAYER “Prayer” can take a lot of forms. If you are uncomfortable with the words in the machzor (prayer book), you have two choices: (1) you can let them float on by you and say your own prayers or (2) you can struggle with them and think about why they bug you. That’s a form of prayer, too. I wrote an article a while back on options in prayer: New to Jewish Prayer? Ten Tips for Beginners. See if anything there appeals to you.

One other thing: as a kindness to other Jews, eat or drink out of their sight. Slip out to the car for your packed lunch, or go home for meals. Don’t carry a water bottle around if you can possibly avoid it. Rachmanes [mercy] is a mitzvah, too.

10 Responses to If I Can’t Fast, How Can I Observe Yom Kippur?

  1. Dawn Kepler says:

    FABULOUS! I MUST SHARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  2. animalizard says:

    For us Florentines this is the most difficult day of observance- no food or leather! I would call this the most non-Italian of days, when we become ‘visibly’ observant.


    • rabbiadar says:

      No food, no leather – right, it is a very non-Italian holiday! Which Jewish holiday is the favorite in Florence?


      • animalizard says:

        Wow I don’t know… Maybe Rosh Hashannah as it also marks the start of the Tuscan harvesting season…


      • rabbiadar says:

        The Tuscan harvesting season would make Yom Kippur doubly difficult! I am fascinated by the ways that localities and cultures intersect with Jewish tradition. Here in California, the seasons are very similar to those in Israel, but in other parts of the world, the local climate makes its mark on the celebration of the Jewish Year. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!


      • animalizard says:

        I guess you have kosher vineyards too! Little pockets of Jewishness in Tuscany & Cal. Keep writing, I love your blog!


  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on labors of love birth
    center. Regards


  4. […] The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe. […]


  5. […] of these among liberal Jews. However, people¬†with medical¬†problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not […]


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