One of the best-known features of Yom Kippur — sometimes the only thing people know about this day — is the fact that we are forbidden to eat and drink. What is the meaning and purpose of these prohibitions on Yom Kippur?
An anthropologist visiting a synagogue on Yom Kippur might think that since no one is eating or drinking for an entire 24-hour period, the congregants are all suffering terribly. He would probably conclude that the purpose of the fast is solely to induce suffering for the sake of atonement. These observations would completely miss the mark. It is true that on Yom Kippur there is an obligation to refrain from eating, drinking, washing for pleasure, using lotions or engaging in intimacy. A person observing these prohibitions it not necessarily suffering, however. When I was a child I used to be an avid reader. I would become so engrossed in a book that I would not hear my mother calling me for supper and would be unaware of any hunger or thirst. (In Divine retribution, I now call my own children when they are reading and they too are unable to hear me.) As soon as I had finished the book, however, I would be ravenously hungry and thirsty because my mind was no longer focused on reading.
A similar phenomenon occurs for many people on Yom Kippur. They are focused on their prayers and repentance, on repairing, renewing and improving their relationship with God. When they are engrossed in the spiritual components of the day, they do not experience the sensations of hunger and thirst, just as a reader might not realize that he is hungry or thirsty until he finishes the book.
If the purpose of fasting is not physical suffering, what is it intended to achieve? The simplest explanation seems to be that fasting is a way of ignoring our physical needs and focusing entirely on our spiritual side. This is in marked contrast to how we often act during the rest of the year, when we tend to our physical needs, often neglecting (and sometimes even damaging) our spiritual selves. Recognizing that we have frequently indulged in such behavior, fasting impresses upon us that enjoying the physical world is a privilege we may not deserve. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
Yom Kippur also teaches us that in consequence of our sins, we have, from the standpoint of strict justice, no further right to continue our existence and the gratification of our senses. We… therefore show ourselves on Yom Kippur for what we really are: spiritually poor. And in order to express this fact, on this day we… avoid any gratification of the senses…. For… by gratifying his senses on Yom Kippur, a Jew would be taken to indicate that he thinks he need render no account of his life and that he owes his existence to no one. Theoretically speaking, only a Jew who is perfect and has never sinned — and therefore has not jeopardized his right to life — would not need Yom Kippur. But then, where is there such a righteous person?
Another aspect of fasting is the removal of distractions and temptations in order to focus the individual on the essence of life and the service of God. In addition, fasting contributes to a feeling of humility, appropriate to one who is begging for forgiveness and is in the process of being judged. As the Sefer Hachinuch writes:
One of the kindnesses of God toward His creatures was to set one day a year to atone for sin through repentance… And therefore we were commanded to fast on this day, because food, drink and other pleasures of the senses, arouse the material [side of man] to follow his desires and can lead to sin. And they will overpower the pure soul whose desire is only to search for truth, which is the service of God, His ethics and His goodness that are the sweetest pleasures for one of wisdom…
In addition, it is not appropriate that on the day that he comes for judgment before his Creator, that he should stand with a soul full of its own importance and somewhat confused by eating, drinking and thoughts of physical pleasures…
Fasting can certainly be difficult, but it remains a primary obligation of the day, even if one does not think of or achieve any of the goals or ideals that we have just discussed. Still, it is important to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the fast is, in fact, teshuvah, repentance.