Navigating Fasting with an Eating Disorder

By: Aaron Shaykevich Allison Warren  |  September 21, 2023

By Allison Warren, Social Media Manager and Aaron Shaykevich, Editor-in-Chief

In August of this past summer, Atara (Hermann) Lasky bravely shared her fight against her eating disorder on the Meaningful People Podcast. In the interview, Lasky shared how, now in her recovery, she observes the Jewish fast days, including Yom Kippur, in a way that’s healthy for her. Lasky explained to audiences that, “Yom Kippur is hard because the spiritual side of [her] wants to be there all day,” but it would be unhealthy for her to fast as “biologically starving yourself reminds you what starving yourself feels like and goes into that whole cycle.”  Lasky specifically reiterated, “you don’t want to remind yourself what starving feels like.” With her proud father beside her, Dr. Hermann added that, “you aren’t breaking your fast, this is how you keep the fast day.”

Unfortunately, there are many Jews, both men and women, adolescents and adults, who live with eating disorders (EDs). An estimated 9% of people in the U.S. will have an ED sometime in their life. For Jews in particular, the idea of fasting may be triggering. Fasting can genuinely hurt the mental and physical health of Jews with or recovering from EDs. 

As Yom Kippur is soon approaching, we would like to remind the YU community that fast days, Yom Kippur included, are not meant to have one sacrifice their physical and mental health. In Parshat Acharei Mot we read the famous words, “you shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live; I am the Lord” (Vayikra 18:5). From this pasuk it is learned that while there is a command to fast, the command to take care of one’s health supersedes it, as HasShem’s commandments are not meant to cause us harm. Rav Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series, writes that one has a mitzvah to eat even if not currently in grave danger, but rather out of concern that by fasting they will weaken their ability to fight off an illness. It is crucial that people with EDs and those in recovery realize that if fasting may be triggering, it may be best for them not to fast, and even a mitzvah for them to eat. According to the Mishnah Yoma, a person who has the advice of a medical professional to not fast should be allowed to eat. (Mishnah Yoma 8:5). While every person has unique circumstances and different rebbeim may hold differently, it is important for those with EDs or those recovering to focus on their health, which includes speaking with, and getting permission from, the appropriate rabbinical authorities regarding what to do in their situation.

An article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency highlights the difficulty for people with ED’s to properly engage with Yom Kippur. They share a quote from Esti Jacobs, co-founder of Ayelet Hashachar, who shares that unfortunately for some people with instruction from a Rabbi to not eat on Yom Kippur, many still struggle to find meaning on Yom Kippur. It is important to realize and remind those in our communities that a key aspect of Yom Kippur is about self improvement, and that includes caring for your mental and physical wellbeing. Jorana Moses, an Orthodox Jewish social worker, stresses that fasting can be harmful for those with EDs. She emphasizes that Yom Kippur can be meaningful, regardless of if you are fasting. Everyone should explore ways they can make the holiday feel spiritual for themselves.

Remember, eating and drinking are only a couple of the actions Jews are required to abstain from on Yom Kippur. We must also abstain from wearing leather shoes, physical intimacy, and anointing ourselves with oils. As we state throughout the Yom Kippur services numerous times, “Teshuva, Tefillah, and Tzedakkah will remove the evil decree.” As one seeks opportunities to increase their level of spirituality throughout the day, tapping into these avenues may be meaningful choices. 

We would like to remind those struggling that help is always available. If you are in a crisis and need help immediately, call 911. You can also call Amudim at 646-517-0222. Amudim is a Jewish non profit that aims to help those in crisis. Text HOME to 741741 to speak to a trained counselor from the crisis text line.