Yom Kippur, with its required fast, is one of my least favorite holidays. During my first pregnancy, I was really nervous about Yom Kippur. I was afraid that if I didn’t get it right – fasting and praying – my baby would be somehow affected by my lack of observance. Call it superstition or Jewish guilt; I was rehearsing for my upcoming role as Jewish mother. At the time, I was the Program Director for Hillel at CU Boulder and saw myself as a role model for the students. It wouldn’t look appropriate for me to eat lunch while overseeing Yom Kippur services. My first thought was that I would be exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur. I had assumed that since pregnant women need to eat at regular intervals, Jewish law wouldn’t be so oppressive as to require them to fast. According to Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, a reference book for Conservative Judaism, “A pregnant woman who wants to eat even though she understands the importance of fasting on Yom Kippur should be allowed to eat until the desire is stilled.” Yes, I knew it was important to fast on Yom Kippur, but if I felt like I needed food, I could eat.
I mentioned this opinion to the Chabad rabbi on campus, and he said the prohibition against eating and drinking on Yom Kippur is Torah mandated and therefore the strictest of any fast during the year. The chabad.org website, an Orthodox source, stresses the importance of fasting while pregnant; “it is preferable to stay home, in bed, if need be, and to fast, rather than to break one’s fast, in order to have the strength to go to synagogue.” Considering it was my job to provide Yom Kippur services to students, staying “home, in bed,” was not an option. However, the penalty for violating the prohibition applies only if a certain shiur (quantity) of food and drink is consumed.
The rabbi’s wife explained to me the details of what it means to limit yourself to a certain shiur. The shiur for drinking is half a mouthful. Technically, a person should measure before the fast by filling the mouth and cheeks with liquid, emptying it into a measuring cup and halving that amount. For eating, the measurement is 30cc or a bite of food about the size of an olive every 4 to 9 minutes, depending on which rabbi you ask.
I ended up packing myself a lunch bag that I kept in a room behind where services were taking place. Whenever I started to feel hungry, I would sneak away to the room and VERY SLOWLY eat bites of food and take little sips of water until I felt strong enough to return to services. When it was time to break the fast, I had eaten, over the course of the entire day, a cheese sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, and a small bag of edamame. Even though I did eat, I put so much intention into the process that it actually added something to the spirituality of the day for me. I don’t specifically remember anything from the prayer services, but I do have a clear memory of sitting alone in that quiet, private room eating tiny bites of food every few minutes until I felt sated. I was consciously feeding my baby instead of solely focusing on my own needs.
My second pregnancy was perfectly timed for not having to fast. My son was born on his due date, which was the day before Yom Kippur. According to the Klein book, and every Jewish source I found online, “a woman who has just given birth is considered to be as one dangerously ill for the first three days and is not allowed to fast.” There is rarely any black and white answer in Jewish law, but I had luckily given birth exactly during the 3 days when a woman is not even permitted to attempt fasting. Two close friends, realizing that I would be needing food on a day when my husband would be fasting, brought over full meals for me to eat during the day on Yom Kippur. I ate whenever I was hungry—which is all the time when you’ve just given birth—and I felt no guilt whatsoever.
This year is the first time in almost a decade that I am out of excuses when it comes to avoiding the fast on Yom Kippur. I have a third grader, a kindergartener, and a toddler who is no longer breastfeeding. They will want to eat all day, and I will not even drink water. I plan to make them lunches and organize snacks the day before Yom Kippur to minimize the amount of time I need to spend around food on a day when I will be fasting.
Despite my anxiety about fasting, I feel a bit more prepared to deal with deprivation now than I did before I had kids. There are so many times when I don’t have a choice about what I have to do. No one wants to change dirty diapers or cook and wash dishes all day, but that is part of life with young kids. I don’t get to go out to a movie whenever I want, or even go to the bathroom alone most of the time, so not eating or drinking for a day doesn’t seem as oppressive any more. Before I had kids, I didn’t appreciate all the time and freedom I had. Maybe that is part of the reason that Judaism puts so much emphasis on having children and raising a family. We don’t really appreciate our time and freedom until there are constraints put on it. When I was pregnant or nursing, the focus of Yom Kippur was always how to get through the day and keep my physical body nourished. Perhaps this new stage of life will allow me to start focusing on the spirituality of the holiday.
Karli loves reading books, eating popcorn, working out at the gym, spending time with friends and traveling. She is active in the Boulder Jewish community where she lives with her husband and three children.