A popular joke: Most Jewish holidays can be subsumed under the pithy phrase: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” For a nation obsessed with food, what’s with all the fasting?

While there are 5 main fast days on the Jewish calendar, only Yom Kippur is of Biblical origin, with the Jewish people commanded to “afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:29). While some Jewish scholars have opined that fasting makes one more like the angels, it seems certain to all that fasting on Yom Kippur, is primarily a tool of repentance. And this sets the tone for all the other fast days.

But the 10th of Tevet,17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av are observed as fast days in mourning and remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temples–how is that atonement? Judaism recognizes that different days have different “karma.” The day of Yom Kippur is holy in and of itself. We merely piggy-back the theme of repentance on the holiness of the day. So too, Tisha b’Av, the 9th day of Av, is not a good day for the Jews. It wasn’t only the date of the destruction of both Temples, but a number of other calamities as well. On such an inauspicious day, Jews go to great lengths to demonstrate a desire to mend their ways.

Even the historic fasts, such as the Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther’s request that all of the Jews of Persia/Medea fast for her as she approaches King Achashverosh, are focused on t’shuva, repentance. Only when the Jews did t’shuva did God nullify Haman’s evil plan.

One connection between fasting and t’shuva is that it encourages people to focus on their spiritual self rather than their physical self, and thus to give their soul an opportunity to strengthen its connection with the Divine.

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