It’s common after fasting for a holiday like Yom Kippur to make a comment like, “All this food is so bad!” or look at the cookies on someone else’s plate and remark, “You earned them.”
“It’s just reflex; we don’t even notice that we’re doing it. It’s easy to sit down after a day of fasting and make a lot of comments about the quantities we’re eating now,” says Heather Paul, Springboard Fellowship Manager for Hillel International.
But Paul, who’s spent years working with college students, says we have to take the judgments out of our language surrounding food. This sets up an unhealthy relationship with food for all of us — and for people who are in recovery from an eating disorder or struggling with tensions around food, it can be especially detrimental.
“So many of our holidays are about food,” Paul says. “That doesn’t mean that food is bad — I love traditional foods at holidays — but when it’s made to be all about that, it detracts from the other aspects that are more meaningful and makes it hard for someone with a distorted idea about food.”
Instead of defaulting to chatting about the meal — just as people will default to chatting about the weather — focus on other conversation topics. “You can talk about something besides the fast,” Paul says. “You can ask someone: How did that liturgy sit with you, or what did you think about the sermon, or what’s something you’re trying to change moving forward into the year?”
Remember that not everyone will (or can) fast for a holiday — and the fear of falling back into detrimental patterns of restricting or bingeing is one very legitimate reason to abstain. Historically, there’s plenty of precedent for not fasting on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk is said to have been lenient with allowing sick people to eat. When asked about this, he replied, “Not that I am lenient when it comes to Yom Kippur, but I am strict when it comes to saving a life.”
It’s understandable to want to celebrate a holiday in its traditional way, and it’s normal to feel disappointment if you decide that it’s not a good idea for you. While only you and your care provider can assess what the health consequences of fasting might be if you’re in recovery, don’t underestimate the effect that restricting food can have. “One of the things that can be really tricky is the motivation can get very cloudy,” says Laura Kramer, a licensed mental health therapist in private practice in Seattle. “We can tell ourselves we’re going to fast because it’s meaningful to us, but it’s very possible that’s the eating disorder in a thin disguise.”
So what can you do instead? Kramer recommends talking to a trusted rabbi as well as a medical professional “to see how you can observe the holiday and still respect your medical and psychological wellness.”
Fortunately, a meaningful Yom Kippur — with your well-being intact — is very attainable, especially with a support system and heightened mindfulness of what self-care means for you.