Yom Kippur is arguably the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the culmination of the ten-day period of High Holy Days that begins on the first day of the seventh month with Rosh Hashanah.

On Rosh Hashanah, God inscribes a person’s fate into the Book of Life, and during the Days of Awe (the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Jews seek forgiveness for past wrongs of the year. Yom Kippur is the seal of this period, and the day itself is referred to as a day of atonement.

Jews spend Yom Kippur as a true Sabbath. There is no work, play, or eating. Jews will not dress up or adorn themselves with makeup. Yom Kippur is a day spent in prayer and contemplation of the sins of the past year. If a person has done wrong against another person or against God, Yom Kippur is the time when they seek forgiveness and demonstrate their sincerity and faith by fasting from sundown on the previous night to sundown on Yom Kippur. Orthodox Jews will not even take water on this day,

For most people who wish to observe this day of atonement and forgiveness, fasting is a minor inconvenience and the only consequence a growling stomach. But what about those with diabetes or other health conditions?

First, consult with your rabbi and inform him of your restrictions.

The Torah commands that a person of the faith must first protect their health, and your rabbi should be able to assure you of this. Jews who have Type 1 diabetes have grown up dealing with the challenges of observing Yom Kippur, but those who have developed Type 2 may not know that eating on Yom Kippur is, in fact, allowed (and required) for some groups of people. Children under nine years of age and women in childbirth (actively birthing or up to three days after birth) are not allowed to fast, and special rules exist for those with medical conditions that require food.

For those who must eat, it is acceptable to consume 1.26 ounces of food or drink every nine minutes. This amount is two-thirds of the measure k’beitzah, a measure in the Talmud. Technically, Orthodox Jews should not consume even this small amount, but an exception is made for those who need it, and they are not punished by Talmudic law. Observers should recite the following prayer each time they eat:

Behold I am prepared to fulfill the mitzvah of eating and drinking on Yom Kippur, as You have written in Your Torah. “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the L-rd.” In the merit of fulfilling this mitzvah, seal me, and all the ill of Your nation Israel, for a complete recovery. May I merit next Yom Kippur to once again fulfill [the mitzvah of] “you shall afflict yourselves [on Yom Kippur].”May this be Your will. Amen.

Hands should be washed thoroughly prior to eating, as at all other times of the year, and there are exceptions to be made if this is not enough food (1.26 ounces is about a shot glass worth of food or drink). A rabbi can advise further if necessary.

If you are healthy enough to follow the above guidelines and still observe Yom Kippur, it is important to make those small bursts of food count. The idea is to pack as much protein and hydration into each serving as possible.

Here are some ideas for what might be the best way to keep Yom Kippur holy if you must eat in small, 1.26 ounce bursts:

  • Alternate food with water
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages that can be dehydrating
  • Don’t consume empty calories—no sugary snacks of any kind
  • Get your fruit in smoothie form with Greek yogurt and sugar-free protein powder
  • Try a serving of crunchy peanut butter on a couple of whole-grain crackers
  • Hummus and celery is another satisfying, protein-filled snack
  • Black bean salad with red onion, vinaigrette, and corn is a complete protein
  • Add leafy greens as they provide a lot of bulk and weigh very little

Similar rules apply to medicines. There are generally three types of medications, and each has its own general rules with regard to Yom Kippur.

  1. Life-sustaining or quality-of-life medication that must be taken daily. These include things like medications for diabetes, cancer, or mental disorders. They should be taken with the smallest amount of water possible. If food is necessary as per the doctor’s written directions, a rabbi should be consulted.
  2. Medicine that can be skipped for a day but it still important to health. These should be taken without water or food. This may include things like birth control or prescription pain medications.
  3. Non-critical medicines. This might be over-the-counter pain medications or cold medicine or supplements. These are not considered food and can be taken without water on Yom Kippur.

The idea of eating these small bites if necessary or figuring out how to take medicine is not about getting over on a religious rule. Yom Kippur is a sacred day when Jews take stock of their actions over the year, including the ways in which they may have hurt other people. The prayer and contemplation of the day ends in an hour-long service in which the doors of the ark are kept open (the place where the Torah is stored), and the congregation remains standing throughout the service as a sign of respect. This is the last hour of the year to atone and ask for forgiveness before the shofar is blown and the doors are shut on the past year (metaphorically). In short, the day is sacred and holy.

But it is also important and written in the Torah that you must safeguard your health. If fasting on Yom Kippur puts you in jeopardy, the best thing to do is to discuss the situation with your rabbi and come up with a solution that is best for you.

This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 3rd and ends at sundown on October 4th. If you are Jewish, how have you managed your chronic pin or other condition on Yom Kippur?

Image by PsJeremy via Flickr

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