On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, we fast to free ourselves from our daily needs. This allows us the time we need to concentrate on the tasks at hand on this holy day: t’shuvah (repentance), t’fillah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity). As we refrain from pleasure and deny our bodies nourishment, we hope to draw ourselves closer to God.
During the climax of our worship on Yom Kippur morning, we read the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah, who challenges us to use this fast day as a reminder that if hunger and want still exist in our world, then our fast and our prayers are incomplete. “Is this the fast I seek? A day of self-affliction?...Is not THIS the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
Hunger is something that we still face today on a massive scale, both in North America and throughout the world:
- According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), of the 49.1 million Americans (over 15% of America) living in food insecure households in 2008 (up from 36.2 million in 2007), 32.4 million are adults (14.4% of all adults) and 16.7 million are children (22.5% of all children)
- Over 20 million children receive free or reduced-price lunch each school day. Less than half of them get breakfast and only 10 percent have access to summer feeding sites.
- 40 percent of food is thrown out in the US every year, or about $165 billion worth. All of this uneaten food could feed 25 million Americans.
- Half of all children growing up in the United States will at one point in their childhood be on food assistance (SNAP)
- Hunger is not just a problem that affects the unemployed; nearly 20% of Canadian food bank users report income from current or recent employment
We read in Mishneh Torah that if a stranger comes and says, “I am hungry. Please give me food,” we are not allowed to check first to see if he is honest; we must feed him immediately (Laws of Contributions to the Poor, 6:6). As Jews we feel a strong obligation to make sure that everyone gets enough food.