Well today’s dish for the road is.. nothing. Nowt. Nicht. Nada. The big zero. An empty vacuum. An event horizon. Infinity minus itself. There’s no cronut, hopper, or shakshuka to review. No flavour, aroma, or presentation to report. The ‘score out-of-10’ is not even nought: there is no score out-of-10. For on Wednesday is Yom Kippur, a Jewish fast day, when one reflects on the past year and atones for all the bad stuff.
At this sacred time, devout Jews spend all day in synagogue, earnestly engaging in dutiful prayer, deeply immersed in the solemnity of the occasion. For now is when heaven’s gates momentarily slide open, the theological stars align, and one’s soul is cleansed anew.
My own relationship with Yom Kippur has morphed over the years, and this festival represents more a time of personal reflection than of religious theology. I like to reflect on where I’ve come from, where I’m going to, and the family and friends alongside me on the journey. I try to visit to somewhere scenic – a wood, some gardens, a countryside walk – since I think reflecting on yourself also means reflecting on our being part of the natural world.
My religion is of course not alone in revering fast days. This week alone saw the Hindu fast of Durga Ashtami, whilst I’m always awed by those who fast-athon through Ramadan. Even Lent pitches in with some serious self-sacrificial foodie abstinence ( – well, I’d struggle to manage even one day without chocolate!)
The theological explanation for fasting relates to the sanctity of the day. But when I was a kid – and a budding foodie at that – it was the festival I naturally liked the least, and so always approached Yom Kippur with a sigh of resignation. Something to get through. But nowadays, a festival without food is something I’ve gradually started to appreciate.
Firstly, in a very experiential way, fasting differentiates the day. There’s no denying this day feels different. It forces us to stop and reflect on why it’s different.
Secondly, fasting invariably makes me appreciate the fortune of having been born in a place and time where I don’t have worry about not having enough to eat. My love of food means I’ll always appreciate food, wanting to make the most of ingredients available or revelling in the good cookery of others. But, like nothing else, a fast day focuses the mind on those around the world who are, frankly, starving – the people of Syria, Iraq, and Haiti to name but a few. And the importance of doing what we can to help, whether it be giving to food banks or contributing to charities or being mindful of the ecological impact of our food choices. It’s no coincidence that charity forms an integral part of the Yom Kippur ritual.
Thirdly, by persevering through a mildly aversive experience, it makes us reflect on our relationship with our own bodies. You begin to notice one’s own drives and desires, the sensations of pleasure and pain, those repetitive habits of thought and behaviour, that demand so much of our psychology. Eastern religions see our attachment to these as limiting or even illusory, with reality lying beyond these subjective mind states. At the same time, gently observing one’s internal world, being in the moment, acknowledging the ebb and flow of experience openly and without judgment, may also help us towards understanding and accepting ourselves. (But think I could do with more practice on this!)
For someone who’s practically atheist and who writes an irreverent food-blog, I’ve somehow managed to come out with a religious sermon about the virtues of devotional fasting! Not quite sure how I’ve got here. Perhaps these days a ‘digital fast’ may be more relevant anyway. And it’s not even that I think fasting’s the be-all-and-end-all: everyone has to find their own way, with their own religion, or without. But, just sometimes, you have to step off the road in order to see the road..