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Tisha B’Av and the Jewish Detox Cycle

Judaism gives us the physical and spiritual cleanse system we need

Abigail Treu
July 20, 2018

Several years ago, I discovered the world of the “cleanse.” You know, the yoga-meets-new-age-meets-alternative-medicine thing where you rid your body of “toxins,” re-zero the balance in your gut, and renegotiate poor eating habits through a bootcamp-style eating regimen for an intense but limited period. The cleanse I chose was a 10-day version which began with a few carb-free vegan days and culminated in a grand five-day “juice fast.” While it did make me feel lighter and help with cravings, ultimately the breakfast allotment of juiced turmeric, ginger and garlic was too much. After gagging on it for the third day in a row I called it quits.

Since then, I’ve dabbled. I’ve watched as friends play with various cleanses of their own. Joe and the Juice seems to be popping up on every corner. Where I work, the newest Joe sits kitty-corner from a Juice Press and down the block from a gym with its own fresh juice bar. At least one of these boasts by its checkout counter a set of detox cleanses, custom made just for you to help with your own detox initiative. Vogue devoted an entire article in January to choosing the right cleanse for your lifestyle needs. But none of this has felt compelling, and I’ve come to realize why: because the idea of detoxing our bodies with a cleanse seemed completely separate from the rest of my spiritual practices.

After all, Judaism has its share of holy eating pathways. Kashrut is an invitation to mindful eating. There are blessings to be recited before and after eating and drinking–an invitation to slow down and practice gratitude. There is intentionality in meal planning and choosing between meat or dairy but not both at the same time. There is a vegetarian ideal, tempered by meat made into something special and not too easily obtained. There is even a whole week in the spring during which we are invited to go carb-free, or nearly so.

But cleansing? Not so much. Jewish food is not healthier because of these practices–as anyone who loves the fully kosher Entenmann’s lines, or Oreos, or a good chopped liver appetizer followed by brisket, would agree.

In the Jewish calendar, there are two “major fasts” which go from sundown on one evening through sundown the next day. Yom Kippur asks us to give up food and drink as part of our atoning for wrong behavior and moral decrepitude. Tisha B’Av commemorates not only the destruction of both the first and second Temples, but also a host of other atrocities of Jewish history. On both of these days, food and drink are forbidden for a full 25 hours, along with the other pleasures of the body: bathing, sex, and soothing our skin or senses with creams or perfumes.

Beyond these two most rigorous and famous fasts, however, are several “minor” fasts scattered throughout the year. These have fallen into general disuse outside the most traditionally observant circles. Three of the minor fasts are connected to the Temple; the fourth is known as Taanit Esther, the fast of Esther, and is connected to the Purim story. There is also a fifth fast day which applies only to firstborn sons, and, in egalitarian circles, daughters as well. Falling the day before Passover, it is a riff on the 10th plague of the Passover story in which all of the firstborn males in Egypt died.

It turns out that these minor fasts fall one per season: Tzom Gedaliah in the fall; the 10th of Tevet in the winter; Taanit Esther in the spring; the 17th of Tammuz in the summer. Stepping back to look at these as a whole, what emerges is a cycle. Doing them all means undertaking a mini, sunup to sundown cleanse one day every season of the year. And then on two other days a year, undertaking the full-on 25-hour cleanse. That’s six months a year where we give our bodies a break. (And for the firstborn among us, we are told to add one more day to the mix. I suppose we need extra work.)

So maybe the whole cleanse thing is compelling, after all. Maybe it can be, if we can root it in Jewish time. Which, I now realize, involves just a shift of the prism through which we look at these fast days, to bring them from the brink of irrelevancy to the core of Jewish spiritual practice.

Lest we get hung up on the historical element of each of these days: As an egalitarian rabbi and someone who believes that there are many beautiful and valid ways to live a Jewish life, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem is pretty much my nightmare. I live in deep fear of the folks raising the required livestock in case it should happen tomorrow, and I render metaphorically the messianic “dream” of the Temple being rebuilt. I have long fasted on Tisha B’Av out of sadness for the many tragedies of Jewish history, including the destruction of the Temples which were so dear to our ancestors, and out of solidarity to the strong tradition of fasting that day. But the minor fast days having to do with the Temple had never been something I had taken on as part of my spiritual practice. Part of the reason the three minor fasts relating to the Temple have withered on the sidelines of the Jewish holiday cycle is because those of us with some ambivalence around the Temple aren’t sure how invested we want to be in fasting for that particular theme.

But let’s remember that all Jewish holidays have more than one valence, and that the historical layer can be teased out as separate from more than just these fast days. In ancient times when subsistence farming was at the core of religious faith, celebrating the blessings of planting, reaping and harvest stood at the center of Jewish spiritual gravity. Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are at their root about the cycle of growing food and our dependence on a power larger than us to deliver that food. But that is not the only layer of meaning to those holidays. Passover may be the spring holiday, but it is the telling of the Exodus story that we find most meaningful today. Shavuot is both about the blessing of the season’s first fruits and the giving of the Torah. Sukkot may be about the harvest, but we connect also to the story of God’s protection in the wilderness, too. In other words, most Jewish holidays have multiple layers of meaning. So what if we apply this idea, of more than one “way in” to a Jewish holiday, to the fasts, as well? What if we add another layer to the historical and reframe the Jewish fast days as an embodied spiritual practice, a cycle of Jewish detox days?

In this way Tisha B’Av becomes not “just” a day of mourning, but also a gateway to the whole cycle. Three weeks ago, we had our first summer minor cleanse, of 17 Tammuz. Now, a full 25-hour fast. Seven weeks from now, the day after Rosh Hashanah (with its heavy celebratory meals), the minor cleanse of Tzom Gedaliah. One week later, this 10-week period will be sealed with a final full 25-hour fast. Then every other month through the winter and spring a series of minor cleanses (10 Tevet, Taanit Esther, and for some Taanit Bechorot) until next summer when we begin the cycle again. Carb-free Passover crops up in there, too, and of course the vegetarian 9 days which we are now in as well.

The Jewish detox cycle connects Tisha B’Av this weekend to the other fast days over the stretch of the year, transforming it from a standalone observance into something larger, embodied, and connecting to our spiritual transformation over the course of the year. In this way, untangled from the Temple or history or what you’re doing for Purim, the fast days become strong landing points of the Jewish holiday cycle in and of themselves. The cycle offers an embodied practice with deep roots in Jewish time and tradition, and can be taken on as a cleanse system of their own: the Jewish detox cycle. Not only do I not have to go searching for a cleanse system elsewhere, I can also save some money. Goodbye $8 spinach and wheat-grass shots. Hello to the cleanse, Jewish-style: No products needed, not even water.

Rabbi Abigail Treu is the Director of The Center for Jewish Living and The David H. Sonabend Center for Israel at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan.