When Fasting Is Not Teshuvah: Yom Kippur with Eating Disorders

When fasting would be the opposite of teshuvah

For many in the Jewish community, fasting is an important and difficult spiritual exercise, reminding them of their attachment to the physical, and helping them focus on teshuvah and spiritual growth for 25 hours.

For others, however, fasting presents a different kind of challenge. For individuals who suffer, or are in recovery from, an eating disorder, eating on Yom Kippur is a holy act. Rather than finding “purity” or “spiritual growth” through denying themselves food, the act of eating itself is an act of teshuvah.

This was not something I had considered until I was approached this year by a friend seeking a liturgy that helps her acknowledge the holiness of the act of eating on Yom Kippur, having found little that helped online or in our traditional liturgy. This was developed together with her, in the hope it might also help others. As she said to me, she would like to create something that would “bring a kavannah (intention) to the act of eating on Yom Kippur, framing it in a positive, constructive way but also recognizing the religious and personal challenges of the day.”

The following ritual is based on various symbolic Jewish ideas, but the starting point is a plate of food set aside as an eruv tavshilin. This plate has a holy purpose in being set aside. The plate/box of food we will create for this ritual will also have a holy purpose, but one which will only be fulfilled if the food is eaten.

A plate or lunch box (perhaps one painted specially for this purpose, i.e., a seder plate)
A bottle of water

The plate should be prepared prior to the fast, carefully setting aside that which will nurture your soul and body during the Day of Atonement.

In dedicating the plate the following blessings are recited:

Every person is a question which God addresses to humanity; and every person, from their place, with their own special talents and possibilities, must answer for their own sake  

Adapted from Leo Baeck

Avinu Malkeinu, on this day of atonement, this day of at-one-ment, I answer with all that I am. 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂנִי בְּצַלְמוֹ וְכִּרְצוֹנָה
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam sh’asani betzalmo vekirtzonah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of Time and Space,
Who has made me in His image and according to Her will.*

Traditional blessing for acts done for the preservation of life:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל פִּקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ 
Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh haolam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al pikuakh nefesh.

Blessed are you Eternal, Sovereign of the universe,
Who makes us holy through Your commandments, and Who commands us to preserve life.

 Blessed are You Eternal, who creates each of us whole, and none of us perfect.


Before eating or drinking an item we offer a small thought, or kavanah  כוונה •(intention), and the traditional blessing over that item. Traditionally those who needed to eat on Yom Kippur did so in small amounts, so you may wish to spread the plate through the day, or to eat it as a meal when you are able to.

Tamar •  תמר(Date): The Date palm is a symbol of righteousness (Psalm 92).
I acknowledge that the right path is not always the easiest one and seek that which will nourish me in body and soul, giving me the strength to live righteously in Your world.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam boray peri ha’eytz 

Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the universe, who creates the fruit of the trees

Hummus •  חומוס: The product of the earth calls me to embrace food and hunger as natural, and asks me to allow myself to ‘eat and be satisfied’ (Deuteronomy 8:12).

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה 
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam boray peri ha’adamah 

Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the universe, who creates the fruit of the earth

Mayim • מים  (water): God, the source of life, provides me with mayim chayyim •  ,מים חייםliving water.
May it be a source of hope, refreshing my body, comforting my soul.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהַכֹּל נִהְיֶה בִּדְבָרוֹֹ
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam shehakol ni’hiyeh bidvaro

Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the universe, by whose word all things exist  

Lekhemלחם •  (bread): While bread at tashlich •  תשליךis thrown away as our sins, for me to not eat it would be as a sin. Challah • חלה is an offering to God, and so today my humble offering is to eat this bread in my attempt to return to you, God. 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam hamotzi lekhem min ha’aretz 

Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth food out of the earth  

Combining the bread and the hummus: These bricks and mortar provide my New Year with strong foundations, helping me work towards always building a healthier, happier me, as all Jews do on this day, and acknowledging that for me, spiritual emptiness lies in denying my body the nourishment it needs.

When things are difficult during the day, and/or as a closing blessing:

In my Maker’s hand I lay my soul
Both when I sleep
And when I wake,
And with my soul my body too,
My God is close, I shall not fear. 

בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי
בְּעֵת אִישָׁן וְאָעִירָה
וְעִם רוּחִי גְוִיָּתִי
אֲדֹנָי לִי וְלֹא אִירָא


Beyado afkid rukhi
Be’et ishan ve’a’irah
Ve’im rukhi geviyati,
Adonay li velo ira

*This brakhah originally printed in Lilith Vol. 31: no 4, p. 37, written by Rabbi Elliot Kukla


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2 Responses

  1. I’m close to tears.
    Two past years, I tried to fast and ended up paying it for the following 2-3 months, struggling to eat then.
    I knew my mental health (= EDs) wasn’t compatible with fasting but I wanted to try anyway, I felt like failing my duty.

    I’m reassured reading this, finally understanding I should not eat just because I can’t fast, but actually as a Teshuvah, because of Pikuakh Nefesh, because I should repair my body and my mind.

    Thank you so much!

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