Although the Jewish year is filled with an abundance of wonderful holidays, several times a year—six, to be precise—we fast. Four of the fast days commemorate events that led to the downfall and destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There are two major fast days which all people are commanded to uphold, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, while the other four are of lesser importance.1

The Fast of Gedaliah, on the 3rd of Tishrei, marks the tragic assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, governor of the first Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land. After his death, Jewish autonomy came to an end.

Yom Kippur, the 10th of Tishrei, is the holiest day of the year, on which the Jewish people reflect and ask forgiveness for the sins of the previous year.

The 10th of Tevet marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, which ultimately ended in the destruction of the Temple.

The Fast of Esther, the 13th of Adar, is the day before Purim, and commemorates the three days that Esther fasted before approaching King Achashverosh and begging him to spare the Jewish people from Haman’s evil decrees.

The 17th of Tammuz is the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, another major event leading to the destruction of the First Temple.

The fast of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, is a day of mourning for the First and Second Temples, both which were destroyed on this day (the first by the Babylonians in 423 BCE, the second by the Romans in 70 CE). It is also appropriate to consider on this day the many other tragedies that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages.

Although some people find fasting quite arduous, there are some pointers that can help ease the fast-related hunger pangs.

A week before . . .

  • Taper off on coffee or other caffeinated beverages about a week before the fast. Sudden deprivation on the day of Yom Kippur may produce caffine withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches. Cutting back on coffee, or drinking decaf, may ease potential withdrawal. It is also advisable to cut back on cigarettes, refined sugars, or any other food you eat with compulsion.

  • In the preceding days, try to vary your meal schedule. If you normally eat at the same time every day, your body clock will automatically prepare to digest as lunch time approaches . . . By varying your meal schedule, you may find that it eases the hunger you might normally experience at mealtimes.

The day before . . .

  • Hydrate! Most of the unpleasantness associated with a fast does not come from lack of food, but rather from lack of fluid. The solution is to drink as much water as possible before the fast. Although you may feel you’re about to float off, it will be worth it by the time the fast is well underway. Beware of beer or other alcoholic beverages; they will only dehydrate you. Water or diluted orange juices are the safest options.

  • Don’t over-stuff yourself before the fast. Many people seem to think that eating a lot the day before will compensate for not eating on the fast day. This will actually make you hungrier. Have you ever noticed how much hungrier you are the morning after a large meal . . . ?2 Eat a proper meal that emphasizes carbohydrates, some protein, and foods high in oils and fats, since they delay the emptying of the stomach, thus prolonging the effects of your pre-fast meal. Consuming carbohydrates (e.g., potatoes, pasta) will be very effective, as they bond with water that your body will make use of during the fast.

  • Avoid salty or spicy foods. Salt causes a person to feel thirsty despite having a “normal” amount of water, because extra water is required to absorb the extra salt. For this reason, you should refrain from processed foods containing lots of salt, such as pickles or cold cuts. Most tomato sauces, canned fish and smoked fish should also be avoided.

  • Salads and other high-fiber foods that are so important in one’s normal diet should be de-emphasized for the pre-fast meal, since they travel quickly through the digestive system. Fruit, despite its high fiber content, is worthwhile, since it carries a lot of water in a “time-release” form.

The day of . . .

  • Avoid wearing clothing that will make you perspire, as this will cause your body to lose water.

  • Try [and it is difficult!] not to talk or think about the food you’ll eat after the fast, as this will cause your body to begin preparing itself for a meal.

  • Take an afternoon nap between prayer services. This will pass some time, and some people also experience a feeling of fullness after a short nap.

  • Some people find that sniffing spices helps ease the hunger.

Post-fast . . .

Now comes the easy part, which most of us will have little trouble with! However, there are a few pointers to keep in mind so as not to shock your body back into eating mode.

  • Be sure not to eat food too quickly at the post-fast meal. Begin the break-fast meal with a drink of milk or juice; this puts sugar into the bloodstream and occupies space in the stomach, discouraging you from eating too rapidly.

  • Begin with eating a simple food, such as a piece of honey cake or crackers. It is advisable to wait some time before sitting down for a full meal, in order to give your body a chance to begin digesting foods again. I imagine most people are willing to run the risk of a stomachache by eating without delay, but it is still a good idea to keep in mind, even if you postpone your meal by only a few minutes.

  • Drink lots of water, and avoid salty foods, since you will still be a little dehydrated and need to replace your fluids.

  • Many people vote for a dairy meal (e.g., cream cheese and bagels), as it is lighter on the system.

  • Avoid gorging yourself. The body protects itself from starvation when you are fasting by slowing down the rate at which it burns food. Therefore, the calories you consume right after a fast will stay with you a lot longer than those acquired on a normal basis.

Wishing you an easy fast!