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Devarim: A Shabbat Fast

It is forbidden to fast on Shabbat. In fact, if we fast on Shabbat (even with halachic sanction) we must fast on a different day to atone for fasting on Shabbat. This is why the fast of Tisha B’Av — the ninth of Av, is postponed when it falls on Shabbat — as it does this year.

Although we will dine on Shabbat and fast on Sunday one wonders whether any element of the fast can be observed or at least marked on Shabbat — if not in a negative way, perhaps in a positive way? To answer that question, we need to ask what, if anything, is positive about fasting?

To Uncouple
We each have a G-dly soul and a corporeal body. The soul is a piece of G-d and it is complete. It has no faults or shortcomings. It is never weary nor ill. It is incapable of greed, lust, or ego. It is incapable of addiction, brokenness, violence, or emptiness. It is Divine perfection.

The body is an earthly vessel that is susceptible to all types of brokenness. We can all fall prey to our own weaknesses and indulgences. We can be prayed upon by abusers and molesters. We can be hurt by bullies and mockers. We can fall into depressions and obsessions. We can lose our self esteem and with it all hope for the future.

The question is this: if we have a body and a soul, why doesn’t the soul prevail over the body and make us immune to all these ills?

The answer is that the soul needs the body to remain in this world. The soul receives its vitality from the body’s nourishment. The body eats and drinks and this keeps the soul coiled to the body. Otherwise, the soul would shuffle off the mortal coil. We focus all day on feeding and grooming our body. It becomes our primary preoccupation and thus our body gains an edge over our soul. The body becomes dominant over the soul, and we become susceptible to its foibles.

On fast days, we uncouple the soul from the body. The soul isn’t nourished by the body’s food because the body doesn’t eat. Moreover, we don’t spend time shopping, cooking, and preparing our meals, which frees up our headspace. The body is weakened on the fast day, which in turn, strengthens the soul.

In fact, rather than the soul being nourished by the body, on fast days the soul nourishes the body. The soul’s fervent attachment to G-d, yearning for G-d, focus on G-d, and even hunger for G-d, distracts the body from its own hunger and makes us forget about food. The soul’s passion nourishes the body on fast days.

Steadfast
The word fast has many meanings. It can mean quickly as in running fast. It can mean firmly, as in holding fast. And it can mean to abstain as in fasting. While these meanings may or may not be connected linguistically, they are all inherent in the conceptual idea of fasting.

The first meaning of fast—swift: Rather than restraining the soul and slowing it down, on fast days we loosen the soul’s reins and let it rush forward.

The second meaning of fast—steadfast: When we fast, we hold fast to our soul. Rather than holding steadfast to our body through bodily nourishment, we hold fast to the soul and let it dominate us.

This is what makes fasting a spiritual day. A day when we are less preoccupied with our needs and think more about G-d. When the soul expresses itself more effectively than the body. There is no question that the body’s hunger slows us down. It makes us focus on our hunger and robs us of momentum. But it also slows down our uber focus on our bodily pursuits and frees up headspace for the soul.

On Shabbat
It is forbidden to fast on Shabbat. On the contrary, we are obligated to feast. To eat delicious foods and delectable treats. The body is expected to enjoy the holiness of Shabbat through the sumptuous feasts that we enjoy on this day.

Yet, there is an element of fasting on this day. We just said that we eat on Shabbat so that the body can enjoy Shabbat’s holiness. We don’t eat to indulge in culinary delights, we don’t eat to satiate the body’s hunger. We eat to give the body a taste of Shabbat’s holiness. A taste of the soul.

Although we are not hungry after a Shabbat meal, if we do it correctly, the body should feel cheated. We ate a three-course meal, plus appetizers and desert, but we didn’t delight in the food. We delighted in celebrating Shabbat. We didn’t focus on the body. We focused on the holiness of the day. On the soul.

This is a preoccupation with the soul precisely in the space and time that the body expects to claim for itself. Rather than the body gaining dominion over the soul as a result of this delicious repast, the soul gains dominion over the body. This leaves the body unsatisfied and hungering for fulfillment. After a large meal, the body feels deprived. This is a form of fasting—deprival—on Shabbat.

In truth this applies to every Shabbat meal, but it applies especially when a fast day falls on Shabbat, as it does this week. As we ingest each mouthful, we remember that had this not been Shabbat we would be fasting. We eat today only because it is Shabbat. This means that, more than any other Shabbat, our focus is on the holiness of the Mitzvah rather than the consistency, texture, and flavor of the food.

Fasting Without Fasting
If we succeed in fasting without fasting, G-d might just decide that there is no need for us to actually fast. If we can accomplish the purpose of the fast on Shabbat without the actual fast, why fast on Sunday?

G-d can erase the fast of the Ninth of Av by reversing what we are fasting for. He can send Mashiach, our righteous redeemer, who will rebuild the Jewish Temple and gather all the Jewish people to Israel. At that time, the ninth of Av will not be a fast day. Instead, it will be a day of celebration and joy.

May Mashiach come before the end of Shabbat and may we leap from the holiness of Shabbat into the ecstasy of Mashiach. Rather than sit on the floor, we will soar on the clouds. Rather than dim the lights, we will kindle the Menorah—Temple Candelabra. Rather than fasting, we will partake of the sacrificial meat and libations in the sacred courtyard on the Temple Mount in the holy city of Jerusalem.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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