The Ethical Dimension of Fasting

In Yeshayahu Chapter 58, which forms the main part of the Haftarah of Yom Kippur Morning, the navi contrasts the type of fast that God desires with the type of fast that He despises:

ישעיהו פרק נח

ג) למה צמנו ולא ראית ענינו נפשנו ולא תדע הן ביום צמכם תמצאו חפץ וכל עצביכם תנגשו: (ד) הן לריב ומצה תצומו ולהכות באגרף רשע לא תצומו כיום להשמיע במרום קולכם: (ה) הכזה יהיה צום אבחרהו יום ענות אדם נפשו הלכף כאגמן ראשו ושק ואפר יציע הלזה תקרא צום ויום רצון לידוד: (ו) הלוא זה צום אבחרהו פתח חרצבות רשע התר אגדות מוטה ושלח רצוצים חפשים וכל מוטה תנתקו: (ז) הלוא פרס לרעב לחמך ועניים מרודים תביא בית כי תראה ערם וכסיתו ומבשרך לא תתעלם: (ח) אז יבקע כשחר אורך וארכתך מהרה תצמח והלך לפניך צדקך כבוד ידוד יאספך: (ט) אז תקרא וידוד יענה תשוע ויאמר הנני אם תסיר מתוכך מוטה שלח אצבע ודבר און:

5 Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? 7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? 8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward. 9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD will answer; thou shalt cry, and He will say: 'Here I am.' If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedness;

The contrast seems to be a refrain of the classic prophetic message that observance and worship are meaningless if the worshipper oppresses his fellow human being. This recurs throughout the Latter Prophets, quite literally from the first chapter in Yeshayahu until the last (actually, second to last) chapter in Malachi.

I was bothered, though, by the following question. Verse 6 begins by saying ‘This is the fast I desire’, and then goes on, for the next 2 verses, to beautifully describe a man’s duty to his fellow. There’s a progression from ‘sur me-ra’ in verse 6, where the prophet enjoins his audience to stop oppressing their fellows, to ‘aseh tov’ in verse 7, where the audience is encouraged to actively provide food, shelter, and clothing (in that order) to the needy. This description seems to have nothing to do with fasting, though.

There are two basic reasons given for why we fast: expiation and sobriety. Expiation means that my bodily suffering serves at retribution for bodily sin. I experience a little bit of pain or a little bit of death, and that cleanses me from the stigma of transgression. The pre-Yom Kippur ‘Tefilah Zakah’ prayer is an excellent example of this idea within the Jewish tradition. Line after line, the prayer expresses the hope that each element of suffering purges a corresponding area of sin: not wearing leather shoes atones for when my feet ran to do evil, not eating atones for forbidden foods I consumed, and so forth. The traditional ‘BeHa”B’ fasts are in this vein as well.

Sobriety means that I return to spirit by denying the body. By removing the distractions of the flesh I am able to turn back to the soul and nourish it with what it requires. This is the classic view of asceticism, that the body actually impedes the soul. One need not take an extreme ascetic view in order to see fasting as a manifestation of this idea; just as easily, fasting might be an attempt to restore balance between body and spirit. It is a temporary measure to create a certain atmosphere for a brief period of time, after which things return to normal. Perhaps the mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur echoes this view that asceticism has value, yet must be tempered.

This chapter seems to be advocating an entirely different dimension to fasting. The problem with the fasting that ‘God has not chosen’ is that I pound my chest with wicked fists. The same hand I beat my breast with is also around the throat of the oppressed. It’s not about the public display of piety, fools. Do you think that’s what God wants?

Rather, when you gather in the town square to call out to God, think of the people who sleep there at night because they have no home. When you feel the pangs of hunger after not eating for a day, think about those for whom this is a regular occurrence. When you don your sackcloth and ashes, remember that there are those who do not have what to wear.

I know that this sounds like a Camp Ramah D’var Torah, but it is precisely what the Navi is saying. This is the fast that God wants: feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and clothe the naked. It means thinking twice before flippantly saying ‘I’m starving’, ‘I’m dying of thirst’, or ‘I have nothing to wear’, because there are people who are really starving, really dying of thirst, and really have nothing to wear.

I thought of this explanation on the bus in Jerusalem this morning, but now realize that it had been percolating for a few days. Each year, Magen David Adom organizes massive blood drives before Tishrei and before Pesach, in anticipation that supplies will begin to run low during the holidays. As I was giving blood last week, I though of the line in ‘Tefilah Zakah’ – ‘may the lessening of my blood and fat atone for all of my sins, iniquities, and transgressions.’ Indeed, there is an ethical dimension to fasting.

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