“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” — Isaiah 58:6–7
When we think of Jewish fast days, many of us think of sadness. This is not surprising considering that four out of our six communal fast days recall tragic events, such as the siege of Jerusalem during Temple times, the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and of course, the destruction of God’s Holy Temples. These, and other events that took place on these same days, are the darkest days of Jewish history.
However, the most prominent of all Jewish fast days, Yom Kippur, is somber, yet celebratory. On this day we focus on repentance, but we also celebrate God’s mercy and forgiveness. In fact, the Jewish sages taught that Yom Kippur is one of the two most joyful days of the year on the Jewish calendar.
Similarly, the Fast of Esther, which recalls the miracle of the Purim story recorded in the book of Esther, is ultimately a happy day and considered the most joyous holiday. While we acknowledge the terrible decree that hung over the heads of the Jews in Persia thousands of years ago, we know that with prayer, repentance, and fasting, the story ultimately resulted in the salvation and preservation of the Jewish people.
The Point of Fasting
So what is the point of Jewish fast days? Are they about lamenting or celebrating the past?
The answer is neither. Fast days, whether they commemorate good times or bad times, have three main outcomes: To get us to stop our daily routines, consider our actions, and decide on changes that need to be made in our lives.
God doesn’t need us to go a day without food or water. It does not please Him to watch us suffer. In fact, according to Judaism, God will hold us accountable if we do not enjoy all that He has given us, including the food that He created for our enjoyment.
However, God allows us to fast if it will lead to something greater. God does not want us to suffer, but He also doesn’t want us to make poor life decisions, which will lead to even greater suffering. This is why He allows us to deny ourselves food and water so that we might reconsider our ways. When we hold back from our physical needs, we are free to focus on our spiritual needs.
As we go hungry, we become more sensitive to helping others. When we feel weak, we remember that we are completely dependent on God and His provisions in order to survive. When we refrain from physical pleasure, we demonstrate to God that our spiritual pursuits are more important than our material endeavors.
God wants us to fast only if it leads us to act. He only enjoys an empty stomach if it culminates in a full heart.
A Means to an End
In the book of Isaiah God explained to the people: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
This idea is echoed in the Talmud, Judaism’s Oral Tradition, which teaches that a person who takes on a personal fast day, even though it weakens him, is a sinner. If fasting causes us to lessen our service of God, instead of improving our service, we have missed the entire point of fasting altogether.
Our fast days are considered auspicious times – days when we can accomplish great things and rectify past mistakes. Just as festival days carry with them energy for positive change and growth, so do our fast days. These are days of opportunity for us — if only we take advantage of them. If we use our physical hunger as a springboard for our spiritual thirst and truly seek out God, we can transform all fast days into days of joy and celebration.
Since fasting is only a means to an end, the rabbis encourage us to focus on the ultimate goal — and not just on fast days, but on all days. As Daniel says in Daniel 4:27, “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”
On fast days, and on all days, what we give up is less important than what we give forward. Giving charity, giving our hearts, and giving our time to pursue justice and righteousness are the greatest gifts that we can give to God. This is the kind of fast that He desires and which pleases Him the most.