Monday, September 21, 2020
Third Day of Tishrei 5781
The Fast of Gedaliah
Today is the Fast of Gedaliah. It is a minor fast day, observed only from dawn to dusk, mostly by Orthodox Jews. The fast is to lament the assassination of Gedaliah, a righteous Jewish leader who was appointed governor of Judah by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar after he conquered the land of Israel. Gedaliah was murdered by fellow Jews who resented his collaboration with the Babylonians. As a result of his assassination, the Jews lost all autonomy in the land of Israel. Some Jews today see the story of Gedaliah as a warning against extremism.
Yom Kippur is one of only two full-day fasts in Jewish tradition. (The other is Tisha B’Av, which recalls the destruction of the First and Second Temples). On Yom Kippur, from sunset until after sunset on the next day, we abstain from eating, drinking, bathing and anointing (wearing perfume or makeup), wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations. This is in response to the verse from Torah that says, “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial…for on this day, atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins. You shall be clean before Adonai” (Leviticus 16:29-30).
People sometimes ask why they should fast on Yom Kippur, since fasting makes it harder to focus on remembering our sins and asking for forgiveness. There certainly are people who are exempt from fasting: anyone under the age thirteen (some say girls under twelve) and anyone who is sick or whose health would be imperiled by fasting.
For the rest of us, though, fasting is not a distraction, it is intended to be part of the process of Yom Kippur. We ignore our physical needs on Yom Kippur to confront our mortality. The idea is that, in order to truly feel renewed by t’shuvah, we need to be willing to let our old self die a little. By fasting, we experience a small foretaste of our own deaths so we can be reborn.
Here’s another way to understand it. Yom Kippur is intended to wear us down. We start Yom Kippur by speaking words of repentance. But do we really believe them? By fasting on Yom Kippur, we push ourselves to the brink until we realize that our very lives are at stake. We fast to help ourselves feel down to our bones that without repentance we are on a path to spiritual death. We fast to convince ourselves to change.
Practice for this day:
Decide how you wish to fast on Yom Kippur. Write down your plan now so you remain committed to your choice on Yom Kippur.