Frequently Asked Questions for those who need to eat on Yom Kippur
*The answers to these questions are the collaborative opinions of our team, which includes rabbis and educators. We are sharing our opinions for informational purposes only. A Mitzvah to Eat is not intended to replace consultation with a medical professional, nor is it tailored to your specific body, background or interpretation of Jewish law. A Mitzvah to Eat does not assume any responsibility for actions taken by any person as a result of information shared through this platform.
FAQ #1: Why would someone need to eat on Yom Kippur? I thought it was the most serious fast day in the Jewish calendar.
FAQ #2: How do I connect to Yom Kippur if I’m eating?
FAQ #3: I am not able to fast. Every time I talk about needing to eat on Yom Kippur, the conversation always goes directly to shiurim (small, spread out amounts), but shiurim are not sufficient for me! Is it an option to eat more than shiurim? If I do, will I be cut off from my community and endure the biblical punishment of karet?
FAQ #4: If I have a known condition where fasting could cause harm, is it an option to start fasting and then break the fast when I feel sick? Would I break the fast with shiurim (small, spread out amounts) or normal eating?
FAQ #5: If I need to eat/drink in the same amounts as I usually do on Yom Kippur, should I eat different foods than I normally do?
FAQ #6: I really want to help other people find Yom Kippur meaningful, including those who need to eat normal amounts. Should I give advice to others about how to eat, including suggesting that they eat one plain food, such as rice, all day?
FAQ #7: I need to eat on Yom Kippur. How can I use my eating to draw closer to God?
FAQ #8: If I need to eat on Yom Kippur, do I need to eat privately? My synagogue doesn’t have a place to eat. Does this mean I need to stay home for all of Yom Kippur?
1) Yom Kippur is a serious fast day for those who are able to fast without harm. There are many reasons that people might find fasting harmful, however, including those with various physical and mental health conditions, trauma around food and hunger, disabilities, and more. If fasting does cause harm, it is actually a mitzvah to eat.
We understand your curiosity in asking this question, particularly if the concept of needing to eat on Yom Kippur is new to you. We do ask, however, that you reflect before asking those who are eating and/or drinking on Yom Kippur to give explanations for doing so. Most of us don’t normally ask people to share their health conditions with us because we understand that information to be personal and private. We usually let others take the lead on how much they do or do not wish to share with us. Please respect the fact that people who need to eat on Yom Kippur may prefer to keep their reasons private.
2) Even for those who are able to fast without harm, Yom Kippur is so much more than the fast. Yom Kippur is about teshuvah, which is sometimes explained as repentance. We would like to suggest a more expansive meaning of teshuvah, however. We see teshuvah as a process of self-reflection, where a person has an opportunity to draw closer to their true self, and to draw closer to God.
Those who are able to fast can use the fast as part of their process of teshuvah. Those who need to eat can make their eating meaningful by using it to draw closer to God and to their true selves.
3) Typically, discussions start with the assumption that eating on Yom Kippur is a transgression, even in the case of someone with a health condition who can't safely fast. The goal then, is to minimize the transgression or violation by eating and/or drinking less than a shiur at a time, the quantity that invokes the biblical punishment of karet.
We would suggest a more holistic view. We find that this approach, of eating by shiurim, can cause some people who can't safely fast to hesitate to eat enough or even to eat at all. In addition, the approach of indiscriminately advising shiurim regardless of one's health condition and life experiences can actually be dangerous in of itself. We also find that this approach goes against Jewish law found in the Shulchan Aruch, which says to use shiurim only if they are sufficient, and if not to switch to normal eating immediately.
This means that if you already know shiurim are insufficient for you, on Yom Kippur you might choose between shortening the time period between shiurim or eating normally. If you have a current or past history of an eating disorder, disordered eating, trauma around food and hunger, or if having to keep track of the time between shiurim causes you a lot of stress, please take good care and eat normally.
If you need to eat more than shiurim, please know that there is holiness in protecting your health, reducing your suffering or saving your life. There is no transgression in that. You are actually commanded to eat for that purpose. We know that it can be hard to switch from a view of eating normally being transgressive to feeling comfortable with eating as much as you need, and we’re here to support you.
4) This is an option that we wouldn't recommend to anyone with an active eating disorder, a history of eating disorders, disordered eating, trauma around food and hunger, as well as any circumstance where either you or your health professional feel that starting the fast could be harmful.
For those not in any of the above categories who would like to try to fast, we would suggest identifying the symptoms ahead of time that signal danger, and thinking about whether, if you waited for those symptoms, you would be able to recover quickly even with normal eating. If the answer is no, we do not suggest that you begin the fast at all.
Not being health professionals, we really can't make any other suggestions, but please keep in mind that often symptoms that signal danger do not have warning signs, and that the goal of fasting on Yom Kippur is not to cause danger or harm. With that in mind, please err on the side of protecting your body and mind, knowing that we are here to support you.
5) Some who need to eat normal amounts of foods on Yom Kippur will choose to eat in a way that marks the day for them. This is only an option for people who can safely adjust their eating on Yom Kippur, and it is critical that in doing so, they still get what their bodies and minds need.
Others may need to eat in the exact same way as they normally do, or to follow a specific meal plan designed by health professionals. If this is what you need to do on Yom Kippur, we send you our full support.
6) We hear your intentions, and we would like to offer a different perspective. It’s important to be aware that some people may be coming to Yom Kippur with life experiences about which you are not aware. After all, many people prefer to keep their experiences and/or health conditions private.
Not knowing what others need to eat on a normal day, it is actually deeply problematic to give them advice on how to eat on Yom Kippur. If you would like to share how you or others have found meaning, perhaps consider saying something like this, “Some people find it meaningful to only eat plain foods or foods that they don’t enjoy. But I get it that that isn’t the right choice for everyone.”
7) For those who need to eat,a starting place might be a sense that God does not ask us to be harmed or to suffer when doing mitzvot. That we can be who we are with God.
Perhaps you might also find meaning in using our compilation of prayers and rituals, located here. In addition, those who eat full meals add the “ya’aleh v’yavo” section in the third paragraph of birkat hamazon, the blessing after eating a meal containing bread. There is also an addition to al hamichiyah, the blessing after grain products.
8) In some communities, there is either explicit or implicit messaging that those who need to eat on Yom Kippur should do so b’tzina, privately. It’s important to be aware that an emphasis on eating privately can send the message that eating on Yom Kippur is wrong, even for those who can’t safely fast. We find this messaging dangerously inaccurate. We also know that some, but not all, people who are able to fast might find it harder to fast if they see others eating.
Because of this tension, we would suggest eating b’kavod, eating respectfully. Naturally, respect is something that we extend to both ourselves and to others. Respect to both those fasting and those eating would include providing dedicated eating spaces in synagogues. Sometimes clergy members will offer their offices for this purpose if space is tight.
Approaching Yom Kippur from a perspective of respect for both those eating and fasting means that we accept the possibility that those fasting might see someone eating. It is not always practical to move to a separate space. Moreover, in public outdoor spaces, it is not possible to dedicate space for eating.
Those who find the idea of seeing someone eat in public on Yom Kippur a difficult adjustment might consider how in communities where phone use on Shabbat is not part of the typical observance, doctors on call are not usually expected to stay home all day. We understand that they might like to walk to synagogue or go to the park. We understand that they might need to answer their phone while out in public. Notably, we are willing to trust that they are doing so because this is needed. It is time to use this model to similarly support those who need to eat on Yom Kippur.