3 Tips for Observing Yom Kippur When You Can't Fast


For many people around the world, Yom Kippur is a holy and important day of atonement, forgiveness, and beginning the new year right. One major tradition for Yom Kippur, however, is to fast from sunset on the night it begins to an hour after sunset the following day. For many of us, especially those with chronic illnesses, fasting is not an option. In the past I have had to eat breakfast in order to take my medication, but was able to fast for the rest of the day. This year, however, I cannot fast at all. My recent diagnosis of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) means that I must eat and drink throughout the day. I know many other people are in similar, if not the same, situation – and if they are anything like me, it is a difficult situation to be in.

This has caused a lot of cognitive dissonance for me, as a person who values both Judaism and my health. So what does it mean for those of us who wish to observe Yom Kippur, but cannot do so in the traditional way?

Here are some tips that I have thought of, and that I hope to remember as the holy day approaches:

1. Remember that your health comes first.

Judaism places a strong emphasis on health. If your medical condition requires that you don’t fast in order to take care of your body, it is a mitzvah not to do so because you are valuing your own health. In the past, I have been told by rabbis that it is OK to drink water just to take an Advil for a headache on Yom Kippur. If this is something acceptable, then surely eating and drinking to reduce the likelihood of adverse medical symptoms is also more than OK.

2. Nobody has the right to judge you.

Yom Kippur is all about forgiveness. Anybody judging you for doing Judaism your own way is not focusing
on asking for or granting forgiveness. Moreover, the only one with any right to truly judge you is G-d, and I believe – as do most rabbis – that G-d will not judge you negatively for putting an emphasis on your health.

Valuing your health does not mean Judaism is any less important to you; it just means that you are in a challenging situation which requires more balance and intention than Yom Kippur typically holds. And nobody has the right to judge how you handle this complex and difficult circumstance.

3. There are other ways of observing the holiday.

This holiday season, I am living in the Old City of Jerusalem – the holiest place in the world, and the most amazing place to be for the holidays. I spoke with the “house mom” of our trip, an amazingly sweet and understanding Orthodox woman, and we discussed alternative ways of observing Yom Kippur. Fasting is just one thing we do on the holiday, albeit the most emphasized and well-known one. But it is more than possible to go to services, participate in discussions, and be with family and/or friends, even if you need to take food and water breaks throughout the day. We fast so that we can focus on repentance, but you can repent and discuss without putting your health at risk – in fact, it is the best thing that you can do.

Yom Kippur is not, despite what popular opinion may tell you, a holiday all about fasting. Nor is it a sad day. Yes, it is the Day of Atonement, but it is also a day of reflection upon the past year and thinking about the coming one. This is my first year not fasting at all and though it is difficult for me, my situation has also made me more understanding – and with that, more forgiving. And what is Yom Kippur about if not forgiveness? You can ask for forgiveness and forgive others, you can make personal and spiritual goals, and you can explore your faith without putting your health at risk. In fact, on this day it is the most important thing you can do.

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