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Fast Food

Advice from rabbis and a nutritionist on what to eat when you won’t be eating

Marc Tracy
September 24, 2009

Some coffee-addicted Orthodox Jews have a particular Yom Kippur ritual: they take caffeine suppositories on the Day of Atonement, a gambit that allows them to refrain from consuming any nourishment while also avoiding caffeine-withdrawal headaches. It’s a way—ignoring, for a moment, the delivery mechanism—of helping ensure the traditional Yom Kippur greeting, of having an easy fast.

But, then, the fast need not be too easy. “Although in Hebrew it is customary to say tzom kal, I don’t think it means, ‘Hope you don’t notice that you’re hungry,’” says Rabbi Daniel Nevins of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “I think we should start saying, ‘Have a meaningful fast,’ which is the point.” To which the caffeine-dependent might retort: “How can I draw meaning from my fast if I can’t think straight?”

Where God commands a fast on the 10th day of the seventh month—which He does at least three times in the Torah—it is always cast as a means toward the end of atonement and purification. “The point of the fast is not the suffering in and of itself,” says Rabbi Howard J. Goldsmith of Temple Emanuel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “The point of the fast is to spur us to action and to help us really reflect.” It’s a mistake, in other words, to fetishize the fast. For one thing, it is not the only prohibition: labor, too, is banned on Yom Kippur, as on Shabbat; and so is sex, despite its being perfectly kosher on a typical Friday night. The fast is best thought of as an instrument to achieve greater things. And so there’s nothing wrong with making your fast as easy as possible, within reason. “You should do whatever you can to go into the fast prepared,” Levin says. “You shouldn’t compel the headache.”

How best to prepare? Nutritionist Faye Berger Mitchell, who has written guidebooks for the American Dietetic Association and who observes the Yom Kippur fast, offers these tips:

• For your pre-fast meal, eat whole grains, like brown rice, and other fiber-rich foods, like steamed broccoli. By taking up more space in your stomach—literally—high-fiber foods make you feel fuller for longer. “These are not your traditional Jewish holiday foods,” Mitchell acknowledges. For dessert, fruit is best.

• Try to reduce the sodium content of this meal, altering recipes if need be: otherwise; you’ll be thirsty, and fasting means no water, too. (A low-sodium meal is also a challenge for those used to downing copious quantities of chicken soup and brisket beforehand.)

• Drink plenty of pre-fast fluids. You need to be hydrated to prepare for 25 hours of no eating or drinking!

• Mitchell suggests that caffeine addicts wean themselves off the stuff a bit during the week before. One trick is to brew mixtures of regular and decaf, increasing the proportion of decaf as you progress.

• On Yom Kippur, take pains to avoid strenuous, calorie-burning exercise. “If you’re walking to synagogue, walk slowly,” Mitchell says.

• When breaking fast, start slowly. Mitchell recommends beginning with a glass of juice. And don’t eat as much as you think you want to, unless you won’t mind the subsequent stomachache.

• Should children fast? “Not a good idea,” Mitchell says. “They need energy, and they just can’t really perform without food, because they’re growing.”

• Pregnant women, diabetics, and others with medical conditions should not fast. “It’s important for people who do have a medical reason not to toughen up and do it anyway,” says Mitchell. “They could actually get sick. It could be dangerous.” (Happily, Jewish law is in agreement on that one.)

The worst hunger pangs hit, for many, once they’re home from services and unable to do much but think of a refrigerator full of smoked fish. How to best handle those tough final hours? “I would encourage people to take a walk and enjoy nature,” Levin says. “There is a sense that you’re supposed to pray in a natural setting, where you can appreciate the world.” Or, as Goldsmith notes, you could just stay longer at shul: “We have a liturgy that has worked for Jews for thousands of years.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.