Fasting may seem like a cruel test to see if we can deny our bodies food. Yet, at the heart of this practice is a desire to shift our attention away from the body’s immediate needs and to focus on more spiritual concerns. The logic goes something like this: When we fast, we are faced with admitting our frailty. In that weakened state, we examine the parts of ourselves that are fragile and strengthen them with meditations and supplications. Fasting together as a community, we examine our failings and resolve to strengthen one another in the weeks to come.
Ha’lo zeh tzom evchareihu
This is the fast I choose
When Rabbi Sheishet was fasting, he added these words to his daily prayers:
Master of the worlds:
We have learned that long ago,
in the days when the Temple still stood,
when people offered sacrifices as their atonement,
they offered only the fat and the blood.
that was sufficient to atone for them.
And now, when the Temple no longer stands,
I am fasting,
and, as a result, parts of me will be diminished.
May it be Your will:
To regard those parts of me that are diminished
as if I had offered them up before You upon an altar,
and may You show me favor.
(Adapted from Babylonian The rabbinic compendium of lore and legend composed between 200 and 500 CE. Study of the Talmud is the focus of rabbinic scholarship. The Talmud has two versions, the main Babylonian version (Bavli) and the smaller Jerusalem version (Yerushalmi). It is written in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic.: Brakhot 17a)
As you fast, move slower than usual, staying focused on the purpose of your fast.
(As you begin your fast)
Potei’ach et yadekhah, u’masbia l’khol chai ratzon.
Open Your hand and fulfill each creature’s needs.
Why, when we fasted, did you not see?…this is My chosen fast: to loosen all the bonds that bind people unfairly, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and turn toward those in need. Then a cleansing light shall break forth like the dawn…then you shall call and the Lord will answer.
(Adapted from Isaiah 58)
And they fast on this day to approach a resemblance of the angels, inasmuch as the fast is consummated by humbling themselves, lowering their heads, standing, bending their knees, and singing hymns of praise. Then all the physical powers abandon their natural functions and engage in spiritual functions, as though having no animal nature.
(Judah HaLevi, The Kuzari 3:5, as quoted in S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe)
Penitence is inspired by the yearning of all existence to be better, purer, more vigorous and on a higher plane than it is. Within this yearning is a hidden life-force for overcoming every factor that limits and weakens existence. The particular penitence of the individual and certainly of the group draws its strength from this source of life, which is always active with never-ending vigor.
(Abraham is the first patriarch and the father of the Jewish people. He is the husband of Sarah and the father of Isaac and Ishmael. God's covenant - that we will be a great people and inherit the land of Israel - begins with Abraham and is marked by his circumcision, the first in Jewish history. His Hebrew name is Avraham. Abraham and Sarah's much-longed-for son and the second Jewish patriarch. Isaac is nearly sacrificed by his father at God's command (Genesis 22). He is married to Rebecca and is the father of Esau and Jacob. His Hebrew name is Yitzchak. Kook, The Lights of Penitence)
Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices: Clal’s Guide to Everyday & Holiday Rituals & Blessings, edited by Rabbi Irwin Kula and Vanessa L. Ochs, Ph.D., Jewish Lights, 2001.