Jewish Faithful Mark Yom Kippur With Solemn Fast

Today marks one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, and host Michel Martin talks about atonement with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. In the taped interview, the Rabbi explains the need for the faithful to fast and pray so that they can find spiritual fulfillment.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for our Faith Matters conversation where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a time when observant Jews fast and seek forgiveness for wrongs against God and man. It starts tonight. To learn more about Yom Kippur, we invited Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads the Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

And I just want to emphasize that I taped an interview with Rabbi Herzfeld yesterday, as he is observing the holiday today. And I asked him about the origins of Yom Kippur and whether holiday is the right way to describe it.

Rabbi SHMUEL HERZFELD (Ohev Sholom National Synagogue): Well, it is a holiday, and actually, in the Jewish tradition in the Talmud it says that Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the Jewish year. Yom means day and Kippur means atonement. So it's a day of atonement, a day of forgiveness. And, you know, kind of the way to think about the day is, you know that commercial, got to get away? Where you've done something that you're so embarrassed about or that you just made the biggest mistake of your life? Well, Yom Kippur is the idea that we get a second chance before God forgives us for the mistakes that we've made. And we all get a second chance in life.

And the origin for it is from the Bible. It talks about in Leviticus in great detail about this service that the high priest was commanded to do in Holy Temple. And that's the origins of this very special day.

MARTIN: I don't want to be flip about the holiday itself, but is - do I have this right, that Yom Kippur mandates a 25-hour fast? Is that accurate?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why 25 hours, as opposed to 24?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, that's, you know, very perceptive to note that. And that's because we want to add a little bit on to the day. There's, you know, we don't want to just be satisfied with the actual limits of the day. Personally, I'm actually very sad when the holiday is over and you see people after fasting rushing to get some food or a little bit because they're hungry. But there's a part of me, obviously, that wants to eat.

That's also sad, because during this 25-hour period, it's almost like we're angels and we're elevated beyond the normal concerns of daily life, you know, where you worry about, what am I going to get for lunch? What am I going to get for dinner, breakfast and it's a very special day for that reason. And when it comes to a close, it's a little sad.

MARTIN: And is everyone expected to fast?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, the Bible tells people to fast, but there's obviously exceptions for people who are sick, people who are too young or - and we encourage people in our synagogue who are sick to have a discussion with me about what they can and what they can't do to make sure that - we want people to live, obviously. It's not even a question that everybody's got to be healthy. So that's the situation.

MARTIN: At what age do children start to observe the fast?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, people are required to fast - boys when they get to the age of 13 and girls when they get to the age of 12. But in my family, I'm proud of my children that they've been fasting from the age of nine. And I don't make them fast, but they see what we're doing and they say, can we go as long as we can? And I say, just try to do the best you can. Whenever you want to eat, it's fine. But they get into and they love it.

MARTIN: Many faiths practice fasting and prayer at various points during the year for different reasons and the fasting takes on different forms. Like, we've just completed Ramadan for this year. What, I wanted to ask you, religiously, is the purpose of fasting?

Rabbi HERZFELD: There's really two main purposes for the fasting, and these -interestingly these purposes work in almost kind of tension and conflict. One purpose is to force us to look within ourselves, to repent, introspection. We think about all the mistakes we made with food and maybe overeating, too much consumption and this is supposed to remind us of certain sins that we've done throughout the year that are sins of not being able to control our temptations, et cetera.

So on the one hand, fasting is supposed to spur us to a greater repentance. You know, towards the end of Yom Kippur, we read the passage from Jonah, which talks about how God saw not their fasting, but that they changed their ways. And this is the purpose of fasting on one level, to force us to change our ways and to repent.

But on the other hand, it goes back to the theme we spoke about a few minutes ago, which is to make us feel like angels. In the Jewish tradition, we don't believe angels eat. So we're kind of going beyond our bodies. And towards the end of Yom Kippur, when we come to that 25-hour mark, there's almost like a high which kicks in - a spiritual high when your body has gone long enough without food and you feel elevated and closer to God.

And at that moment, if you've been working the entire day, because you've been fasting, because you've moved away from the earthly responsibilities, you can have a connection to God, which is very, very difficult to have when you're going around to your normal day.

MARTIN: And what else do people do in observance of the day? Do people generally spend the day in private prayer? Are they expected to spend the day in collective prayer? Do some people go to work and just observe their normal day, but while fasting?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, you know, what people do - everybody does everything. But what are they supposed to do? Now we can talk about what they should be doing is observing the day through communal prayers. This is what the Jewish tradition teaches, that they should be in synagogue and praying. But beyond fasting, there's a whole other slew of things that they should be doing. First and foremost, primarily, they should be having introspection, looking within themselves to try and change, to repent, to try and be better.

This is why there are other things we take upon ourselves. We're not supposed to bathe or shower for this 25-hour period. We're not supposed to wear leather shoes or shoes that give strong support to ourselves, because this is a type of way of both humbling ourselves and also moving beyond the materialism of the daily life. And husbands and wives are supposed to refrain from physical intimacy during this 25-hour period. Again, this is a time where - of great spiritual focus.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask, though, there are a number of - as I said, a number of religious traditions observe fasting in some form or fashion. Christians observe Lent, which is a modified fast. I mean, people go without certain foods. But in recent times, many people have gone without different things, and some people wonder whether that's appropriate or not.

Like, for example, there are many people who say, well, I've given up using swear words for Lent. And some people say, well, I'm going to exercise more or I'm going to give up cigarettes. And some people raise the question: Is this really a spiritual experience, or is this just kind of another aspect of wellness? And if that's the case, is that so bad? I just wanted to ask, is there - particularly within the Jewish tradition, is there that kind of debate over what Yom Kippur should be? Is it really about food and abstaining from physical relations, or other things that should be brought into it? Or is even abstaining from food even really necessary? Is that debate going on?

Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, Michel, you should be writing the sermons for our synagogue, 'cause that's exactly the point. Don't get me wrong. I want to be very clear. One is required by Torah law to fast on the day. But if a person just fasts and goes about the rest of their life without even noticing, they're missing the entire point. The point is to spur us to change the ways we're acting which we're not happy about, to change for the better.

And so there's a long history, and there have been a tradition of encouraging people to take on further ways that will spur them to look within themselves. For example, you know, people are encouraged to limit the types of foods they eat in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.

People are encouraged to maybe do a fast of speaking. Take a few hours of the day without speaking. You know, I would encourage people to take a few hours of the day without writing emails, to think about the sins that we've done through our emails. You know, I see you're nodding, because I've done this so many times. All these sins that I'm saying are sins that I've made mistakes in, and that's why we can share them with people. How many sins do we make by gossiping about other people and hurting them?

And so the purpose of the fasting is to cause us to, like, shake us, shake us out of our routine, shake us and cause us to say, wait. Let me see how I can change the other things that I'm doing in my life where I'm making mistakes, and so that I can be a better person, a better father, a better husband, a better friend - and in that sense, come closer to God.

MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld heads Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rabbi HERZFELD: Thank you.

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