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Fasting on Yom Kippur is more than just not eating. There are five prohibitions for the Yom Kippur fast, which is a 25-hour fast:
1. eating and drinking
2. having sexual relations
4. wearing leather shoes
5. applying cosmetics
In some Jewish neighborhoods, you may see people wearing sneakers with their dress clothes on the street, as part of the fast.
Children under 13 are not supposed to fast. People are not supposed to fast if it will harm their health. Most Jews believe that pregnant women and nursing mothers should not fast for this reason, though some Jewish women do fast when they are pregnant or nursing because there is disagreement about whether it is inherently harmful. Non-Jews are not obligated to fast in Jewish law, but if you are in an interfaith couple or are otherwise connected to the Jewish community, it's a good way to connect with the holiday spiritually. It is fine to come to synagogue even if you are not fasting.
The official reason to fast on Yom Kippur given in Leviticus 23 is to practice self-denial or self-affliction. Fasting on Yom Kippur can function either to help with the process of repentance, or provide a counter-irritant that distracts the person praying from how bad she feels about the sins she's trying to overcome. Some people find that fasting amplifies their response to the liturgy, especially to the memorial service in the afternoon. If you have a tendency to bury your feelings with food, fasting may put you in a position to feel things more intensely. Some take the opportunity to reflect on the plight of others who are hungry, and to recommit to helping feed them. The three practices of the High Holidays are repentance (teshuvah), prayer (tefillah) and charity (tzedakah.) Fasting can help focus attention on all three.
In a culture that puts as much weight on eating as Judaism does, fasting creates a lot of excitement. Hence, many Jewish families have folk traditions about what to eat before and after the fast. Many families eat a meat meal before the fast and a dairy one afterward, or have ideas about eating a lot or only a little beforehand. Joyous break-the-fast meals with friends and relatives are a strong Jewish cultural tradition.
Return to Guide to the High Holidays for Interfaith Families Table of Contents