As the sun sets Wednesday, Jewish Chicagoans will begin observing the holiday of Yom Kippur, a day for somber reflection that typically includes a 25-hour fast.
Yom Kippur, which means “day of atonement,” is one meant for reflection and prayer, where Jews repent for their sins, against both God and other people, said Samuel Biber, a rabbi at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob in Skokie. One aspect of the day is to refrain from eating and drinking from sundown one day through sundown the next.
“Since we’re not worrying about earthly things, like eating and satisfying our physical selves, we spend the time contemplating our spirituality,” Biber said. “It brings you to a state of doing Teshuva, which is the Hebrew word for repentance.”
But as Jews in the Chicagoland area prepare for what many say is the holiest day of the year, it’s possible to fast both healthfully and safely.
Leading up to sundown, make sure the final meal has both protein and fiber, said Gretchen Peyton, a registered dietitian with the Center for Partnership Medicine at Northwestern Memorial. Stick to whole grains and lean meat and stay well-hydrated with water.
“The meals should contain as little sodium as possible. Don’t add any extra table salt,” Peyton said, adding that people should avoid caffeine since it tends to make you thirstier the next day. “Skip the coffee after dinner tonight.”
Traditional choices work as well, said Baruch Epstein, a rabbi at Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois in Chicago. He suggests eating kasha at the last meal, which is a type of boiled buckwheat that digests slowly in the stomach. Epstein also tells people to steer clear of spicy foods and nuts that can make them thirsty the next day.
“Since we’re going to be doing all the praying, we don’t want the dry mouth,” Epstein said.
Yet some people shouldn’t try to fast at all. Peyton said anyone with diabetes or who is pregnant, nursing or undergoing active cancer treatment should still eat.
Both Biber and Epstein agree that there are medical exceptions to the fast. Their advice is to check with your doctor, especially about prescription medications, and then work with the rabbi to find the best solution.
Biber said, “99.99 percent of the time, the rabbi agrees with the doctor. If the doctor really feels strongly that the person should not fast, then the rabbi will agree. It’s pretty cut-and-dried.”
And proceed with caution anytime medical problems come up during the fast, even if you don’t have a pre-existing condition.
“Anytime you feel nauseous, dizziness, vomiting, it’s time to abort the fast and eat something,” Peyton said.
But even if you have to break the fast, be sure to keep the spirit of the day in mind, Biber said.
“If you sit down and have a fancy schmancy dinner, it really defeats the purpose,” he said.