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Has the after feast become bigger than the fast?

  • BreakingFast
Jewish holidays continue to be associated with food – or the lack thereof. Yom Kippur is certainly no exception, considering that we abstain from all food and drink for 25 hours.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Sep 26, 2019

However, feasting has become just as synonymous with the holy day as fasting, as the breaking of the fast is central to Yom Kippur observance for many.

Indeed, if the amounts of food consumed post-fast are any indication, Yom Kippur has become a day of introspection and excess digestion. The fast-breaking feast has taken root in contemporary Jewish practice, such that the repast comes awfully close to eclipsing the actual fast. It’s a social event and family gathering for many, planned well in advance with menus and guest lists drawn up beforehand.

Gone are the days of a humble glass of coke and a slice of cake. Today, heaps of food and a houseful of hungry guests make for the de rigeur (fashionable) breaking of the fast practice.

In New York, certain kosher outlets have reported that the high holy days are their busiest time of year. One store alone estimates that it sells 2 000 packets of dozen house-baked bagels, and they hand-slice about 6 629kg of smoked fish. Shop owners have reported seeing people start lining up on the pavement outside their shops at 05:30 in the morning the day before Yom Kippur.

According to some, the custom of the breaking of the fast feast only developed in the past 30 years, and seems to have been created to make the holiday more like other Jewish holidays – which tend to be food-oriented.

“There is a sacred power to food that gets layered onto it,” acknowledges Leah Koenig, the author of the Little Book of Jewish Appetizers. “Especially when people aren’t engaging in other parts of the practice. Bagels and lox get elevated to something ritually symbolic.”

Along with babke, cream cheese, and plenty other foods, these dishes bring people together post-fast at tables groaning with variety. The post-fast feast seemingly has no halachic basis, nor is it necessarily a mitzvah (good deed). Still, the fact that we have repented and concluded our fast makes us joyous, and this tends to translate into a meal of some significance after Yom Kippur.

Customs for the first food eaten after the fast differ around the world. Iranian Jews often eat a mixture of shredded apples mixed with rose water called faloodeh seeb, and Syrian and Iraqi Jews enjoy round sesame crackers that look like mini-bagels with sambusak, a savoury turnover. Their Turkish and Greek cousins sip a sweet drink made from melon seeds.

North African Jews prepare butter cookies known as rhuraieba, as well as buns with nuts and raisins mixed with a bit of saffron. In Morocco specifically, marzipan and cookies are usually washed down with a sweet drink before the main feast of a rice, meat, and chickpea soup called harira.

Polish and Russian Jews will have simple tea and cake, while the all-star treat for their German brethren are zimtsterne biscuits, which translate to “cinnamon star”. In Italy, it’s said that an old Roman Jewish recipe for red mullet with raisins and pine nuts continues to prove popular, while the tradition in the Piedmont region is to eat bruscadelle: toasted brioche-style bread that’s soaked in strong red wine and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

Though there is no halachic source for the practice of a lavish post-fast meal, it may have certain historical origins. “In terms of Lithuanian history, the Bundt [the Jewish socialist party] would often have a party after Yom Kippur,” says Rabbi Gabi Bookatz, the rabbi of Waverley Shul. “It was something like a ball. It became quite popular, and it faced antagonism from the religious community.”

These festivities were even known to take place on Yom Kippur itself. Yom Kippur balls, organised initially by anarchists in the mid-1880s, resulted in a range of leftist reactionaries holding massive public festivals of eating, dancing, and performance for the full 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

What began in London migrated to New York and Montreal before moving into smaller communities. Whether a sell-out, 5 000-seater event or a modest gathering held in the communal hall, these feast fests were geared towards thumbing one’s nose at the religious establishment, and creating a secular Jewish identity.

Yom Kippur battles erupted between religious and anti-religious Jews worldwide as a result of these annual provocations. Different groups took up the custom for various reasons, and over time, the custom manifested in less provocative ways, including picnics and the like.

An excerpt from Haynt, one of Warsaw’s daily Yiddish papers, illustrated the consternation in 1927: “A free lunch was organised for those who weren’t able to eat at home because of their parents or wives. The number of takers was so large, the line for tickets stretched all the way to the front gate of the building where a large crowd gathered. Some protested against those eating, others in defence of them. Occasionally, the arguments became so heated, the police had to intervene.

“The struggle for lunch was so great that the screams and yells could be heard all the way down the street. In addition, some of those eating showed off their big appetites in front of the windows, bringing forth much anguish among the religious Jews who were passing by.”

Bookatz suggests that the custom of breaking the fast with a lavish meal might have been the religious response to the controversial custom – a celebratory meal with friends could be had within the boundaries of halacha. Indeed, although not violent, the displays of abundance and copious consumption marked and continue to mark the post-fast meal for many.

All things considered, perhaps the Yom Kippur break-fast acknowledges the power of community. Although it seems directed at widening one’s waist, these gatherings include an element of fellowship and togetherness among family and friends. Almost like Havdallah after Shabbat, the post-fast meal is perhaps a final salute to Yom Kippur performed with style, joyously seeing it out until the next year.

So whether you’re eating risotto or rogellach, be sure to break your fast with the people who matter to you (and who wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you had to adjust your belt).

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