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Reflections on eating, or not eating during the High Holidays
The Jewish New Year holidays are a time marked by eating (Rosh
Hashanah), not eating (Tzom Gedaliah, the day after Rosh Hashanah),
big-time not eating (Yom Kippur), and more big-time eating (Sukkot
through Simhat Torah). How should we understand this series of ritual
oppositions connected with food? What is the significance of eating and
not eating, each in relation to and in contrast with the other?
Since all rituals are best understood—at least to begin with—by
considering what makes them different from the ordinary (“Why is this
night different from all other nights?”), to understand the meaning of
eating and not-eating rituals, it is essential to begin by asking how,
what and when people do or do not ordinarily eat. Since eating in the
ancient world was very different from eating in our world, the meaning
of eating or fasting will be very different in our world than it was for
our ancestors in the past.
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Eating was generally far more modest and infrequent for our ancestors
than it is for us. To begin with, food was far harder to come by.
Drought and famine were far more common than they are for us, and they
had greater difficulty adapting to these conditions than we do. Since
all of our ancestors were “locovores”—that is, they all ate what was
available in their immediate environments—when the local environment
failed them, they had to fall back on whatever might have been stored.
When their stores ran out (as they quickly would have, as their storage
capacities were technologically limited) they would have had to fall
back upon alcohol (an excellent way to store calories long-term!) or
hunger. And hunger was a regular part of the experience of common
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This article was reprinted with permission from The Jew & The Carrot.