Yom Kippur and Eating Disorders

September brings a new Jewish year, with a period of reflection, repentance, and communal celebration. It’s the holiest time of year for Jews, and it’s also one that can be challenging if you have or are recovering from an Eating Disorder. Yom Kippur can be particularly confusing. Jews are commanded to ‘afflict’ themselves by fasting, it is meant to help us detach ourselves from our physical needs and focus on the task at hand- repentance, or teshuva in hebrew.

Teshuva doesn’t actually mean repentance, it means returning. Judaism teaches that this means changing the way that we act so that when we reach a situation again, we do not behave in a way that is destructive. For many recovering from eating disorders, fasting is not an affliction; it is a relief from the pressure to eat. Fasting doesn’t provoke thought; it helps shut down thoughts and feelings. Rather than attaching meaning to not eating, eating on Yom Kippur gives it an extra special value as an act of teshuva, because recovery is about returning to a healthy relationship with food.

I spoke to a number of Jewish friends who have suffered with different kinds of Eating Disorders (we’re all agreed on the ‘don’t fast’ issue) and we’ve put together the following tips for coping with the High Holy Days. We hope they’re helpful:

  • Seek out the babies and old ladies! (trust us, there’s sensible advice coming). You’ll be far from the only person not fasting, and many people come to synagogue who also need to eat during the day. There is often a room set aside for these people where you can leave your food and go to eat during the day.
  • Avoid ‘fast’ talk. Our experience suggests that the only thing Jews love more than talking about food, is talking about not having any food. This can be stressful if you aren’t fasting as it can highlight complicated Eating Disorder emotions. Change the subject. If people are fasting, then talking about how hungry they are isn’t going to make things better. Suggested topics: puppies, the new series of X-Factor, how many people are currently asleep in the rabbi’s sermon.
  • Be proactive. If you are going to friends or family for dinner and are anxious about food, call your host or speak to someone in advance so that you can be sure that ­you know what to expect, and that you have someone around you who knows you might be feeling a little more stressed or anxious.
  • Focus on yourself. Remember that the extra-large meals on either end of Yom Kippur are that big because people are fastingfor 25 hours. If you’re not fasting, large meals with lots of rich foods can trigger binges and other kinds of stress responses. Don’t worry about what everyone else is eating, stick to what you know is the healthy amount for you.
  • Seize the moment. The High Holy Days are a time of reflection, self-examination, and commitment to change. This can be hard, and the words in the machzor (prayer book) are designed to make you think. They can be upsetting, and they can also be comforting. After the shofar blast, the liturgy talks about a ‘still small voice’ that is left after such a loud noise. Use this opportunity to listen to your inner voice, underneath Eating Disorder thoughts which can be loud and dominating, what do you want to achieve in the next year?
  • Reclaim the holiday. Just because you’re not fasting, it doesn’t mean missing out on some kind of Jewish ritual. Here’s one a wonderful rabbi friend created a few years ago http://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/when-fasting-not-teshuvah-yom-kippur-eating-disorders. Why don’t you try and create your own?.