It’s that time of year again.

Not the leaves changing colors. Not the season of gift-giving and card writing. And no, not the craze of pumpkin-spiced everything.

It’s Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. More specifically, it’s time to fast. Sacred for some. A burden to others. And a once-a-year nod to your Jewish roots for many.

Whatever the sentiment, Yom Kippur sheds light on the many differences and adaptations of Jewish high holiness, a revelation I call the modernization of the Yom Kippur fast.

As with many elements of the Jewish tradition, the Yom Kippur fast has ridden the wave of 21st-century American Jewry. It’s been explored by reformist, progressive and non-denominational thought, and challenged by generational ideals of self-identification and spirituality. While some stick to the original doctrine, others have incorporated sips of water, a handful of grapes or brushing their teeth into their Yom Kippur rulebook.

Health reasons aside, abstaining from fasting altogether is not only more common now, but also more frequently sought out. In this practice, the prevailing focus is on prayer, repentance and self-reflection, all core principles of Yom Kippur that are arguably fogged by hunger pains and break-fast countdowns.

The definition of “fast” in a modern sense has now loosened and become almost synonymous with cleanse, clean-eating and detox, all of which don’t necessarily add weight to either side of the Jewish food pendulum—one being complete deprivation, the other indulgence. Ironically, both often take place on the tenth of Tishrei just a few hours apart.

So as the modernization of the Yom Kippur fast sits at the center of these two conflicting Jewish “mitzvahs,” there’s no denying that the traditional Jewish definition of fast—“self-denial for self-improvement”—can chime through, even as modern fasters balance their desire for health and wellness with historic values.

In any form of this definition, we deprive ourselves for physical, emotional and spiritual improvement:

  • With a juice cleanse, we eliminate dairy, wheat, gluten and fermented foods to rid our body of toxins.
  • For Whole30, we cut out sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, soy and dairy to reduce inflammation.
  • On the paleo diet, we avoid any type of processed food for overall health improvement.
  • Beyond food, social media and technology cleanses are growing in popularity for mental wellbeing.

While it may be difficult to compare the methods of deprivation and renewal our Jewish patri/matriarchs practiced with those of Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop-ers of today (indeed, a quick visit to the goop website finds a whole section devoted to Detox, quite unlike the fasting we’re used to), the underlying principle bridges the practices of our past with the trends of our present. The Yom Kippur fast is not only an opportunity to strengthen that connection, but symbolizes the progressive and ever-evolving nature of Jewish food traditions.

Whichever definition of fast you choose to adopt this year and beyond, may it be meaningful and fulfill your emotional, spiritual and physical needs.

Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash