An earlier version of this article appeared in the Jewish Advocate (Boston, USA) in 1989. Copyright © 1989 - 2012 Michael M. Segal, MD, PhD. This document may be reproduced freely on a non-profit basis, including electronically, during 2012 as long as the source at www.segal.org/kippur/ is indicated and this copyright notice is included.
Each year on Yom Kippur, Jews wish each other a khatima tova (a good seal in the Book of Life) and tolerable fast. The route to a khatima tova is beyond the scope of this article; the route to an easy fast is simpler to describe. The following are the essentials of human physiology that will help you have a tolerable fast on Yom Kippur:
Most people think the difficulty about fasting is feeling "hungry". However, avoiding thirst is much more important for how you feel. Not only do you avoid the discomfort of thirst but you are also well hydrated and swallow frequently, so your stomach does not feel as empty.
One important way to remain well hydrated is to avoid drinks or foods that cause your body to get rid of water. Such foods and drinks include alcohol, tea, caffeinated coffee and chocolate. Another important rule is to avoid consuming much salt. Salt causes a person to feel thirsty despite having a "normal" amount of water, because extra water is needed for the extra salt. For this reason you should avoid processed foods containing lots of salt such as pickles, cold cuts, or cheese. Most tomato sauces, canned fish and smoked fish have a lot of added salt. Since Kosher meat has a high salt content it may be best to choose a main course such as fresh fish, canned no-salt tuna fish or a de-salted meat such as boiled chicken.
By avoiding these types of foods and drinks in the several hours before a fast, you can avoid either losing water or needing extra water. Other actions that cause the body to lose water, such as perspiring in warm clothing, should also be avoided during the fast.
The pre-fast meal often begins at 5 PM, so a large lunch could prevent you from eating enough immediately before the fast. It is best to have a small lunch, or no lunch at all. A large breakfast early in the day based on cereals, breads and fruits can provide the energy you need during the day, yet these high-fiber foods will be far downstream by the time of the pre-fast meal and will not keep you from eating enough food at the pre-fast meal. A large breakfast is also helpful because it stretches the stomach. After eating breakfast, it is best to consume beverages during the day. This will not fill you up, since liquids are absorbed quickly, and this will ensure that you have absorbed enough fluids during the day to start the pre-fast meal being well hydrated. Be sure to avoid beverages with alcohol or caffeine. You should also drink at least a glass or two of fluids with the pre-fast meal because many foods need extra water to be digested properly.
The pre-fast meal doesn't have be bland. Spices such as lemon or herbs are fine for fasting, but salt and monosodium glutamate should be reduced as much as possible.
These preparations for the fast of Yom Kippur will be different from your normal routine, but they can serve as a concrete reminder of the approaching Day of Atonement.
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