It’s a sin: Why Yom Kippur is about more than fasting

By Tamara Schindler on Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It comes 10 days after the start of the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashana – and the days in between are an important time of reflection and even repentance for past transgressions. On the day itself, Jews around the world fast for 25 hours, often spending time in synagogue or contemplating leaving behind old wrongdoing and cleansing our souls and our bodies. It’s one of the most solemn days of the Jewish year, but there is an understated beauty to the way it unites Jewish communities across the world.

As most Jewish festivals have a strong and symbolic connection to food (doughnuts for Chanukah, cheesecake for Shavuot and Matzah crackers for Passover), Yom Kippur stands out as the prominent Jewish festival that is not about food. It’s about doing something difficult; about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, denying the physical to focus on the spiritual, to allow you to connect with and feel closer to God.

I’ve been fasting and attending synagogue on Yom Kippur for as long as I can remember. Not only is it important to me to observe the traditions and principles of this incredibly meaningful holiday, but it is also a chance to take a step back from my everyday stress, complaints, and grumbles, and focus on the things that are important to me, as a Jewish female professional. Traditionally, observers of Yom Kippur abstain from food and drink (even brushing teeth!), do not wash or apply creams (yup, no showering), and avoid wearing leather (as it comes from a living being) and instead wear white (to remind us of the desire to purify our souls). Over the past few years, however, I’ve adopted my own personal tradition.

Each year, I re-read Sarah Knight’s “You Do You”, the straight-talking third book of Knight’s trilogy about how to stand up for who you are, what you want need and deserve. I open the book at a random page and explore the chapter, reading over scribbles I’ve made in the margins over past years and jotting down more thoughts that affect my life. This year, although attending synagogue isn’t completely back to pre-COVID normality (still social distancing and mask-wearing in place), my own tradition will carry on.

I took the liberty of flicking through the pages for some inspiration, and I came across this quote:

“In my humble, unscientific opinion, most people already know who they are and what makes them happy. They may not know exactly how to be that person or get that life, but that’s what I’m here for. And if you don’t know off the top of your head who you are and what you want, I bet that if given the opportunity and absolutely zero outside pressure, you could figure it out.”

In a world of an attention economy, where we spend around 40% of our waking hours glued to a screen, it’s become almost impossible to take time away and focus on who we are and what’s important to us. To me, Yom Kippur allows me that day of reflection; it lets me appreciate what I have, be proud of who I am and what I stand for. To feel part of something bigger than the day-to-day, and to feel closer and more connected to my Jewish heritage. But it also allows me to consider how my life has progressed since last Yom Kippur and spend time considering what changes I want to make in the coming year.

This year, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be united with my community, albeit via masks worn and distances kept. I’ll be missing the ‘normality’ of repeatedly telling my friend next to me how hungry I am or counting down the minutes until I can chug a glass of water. But this year, more than ever, I’m grateful to take time out from the ever-adapting ‘new normal’ – filled with uncertainty, stress, and hesitation – and focus on what I’m thankful for, as I welcome in the new Jewish year.