Food Experts Agree: There's Wisdom in Grandma's Yom Kippur Break-fast Tradition

Nutritionists and cookbook authors alike say there’s wisdom in communal customs for easing back into eating.

Doram Gaunt

There's nothing like knowing you can't eat to make a person want to eat. For many Jews, Yom Kippur means a 25-hour fast bracketed by two meals – the pre-fast seudat mafseket and the meal to break the fast. But just because you've managed to make it through those 25 hours without eating doesn't mean you should scarf down a greasy shawarma the minute you're allowed. If you do, your stomach may not be very thankful afterward.

True, breaking the fast the wrong way is unlikely to land you in the hospital, but it may leave you feeling unwell. While Magen David Adom treats an average of 2,000 people every Yom Kippur, including many who feel unwell due to fasting, rescue service spokesman Zaki Heller says he cannot recall any cases of people calling in the paramedics because they broke the fast with the wrong food.

Lucy Schaeffer

The director of the nutrition and diet service department at Petah Tikva’s Rabin Medical Center, Sigal Frishman, agrees. She says that while you're unlikely to do real damage to your digestive system by overloading it immediately after a fast, you might regret it afterward.

During a fast the digestive system is relatively inactive. “If we then put in lots of things that are difficult to digest, there's no way the digestive system can cope. That will give you a stomachache,” she says.

When it comes to breaking the fast there’s something to be said for conventional wisdom, according to Frishman.

“There's nothing like the wisdom of the crowd, and the grandmothers,” she says. Folkways are the result of trial and error, and they are very logical from a physiological perspective, she notes.

So, what does grandma say? Many Jewish ethnic traditions call for breaking the fast with a beverage, followed by a bit of carbohydrates and then a light meal. Magen David Adom and Frishman concur.

Gil Marks, author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” notes that while different Jewish communities have different traditions when it comes to ending the Yom Kippur fast, there are several common themes.

“The common denominator in break-the-fast foods is that they can be prepared in advance and do not deteriorate in quality from being stored for a day. Many of these dishes are included either for their purported restorative powers or symbolic significance,” says Marks.

Many communities end the fast with a sweet drink, notes Marks. For Greek and Turkish Jews, that could mean lemonade or a melon-seed concoction known as pepitada or soubiya; for Iraqi Jews it might be sweetened almond milk. Other Sephardi communities have flavored coffee, he notes.

As for food, Ashkenazi Jews often have a dairy meal, with foods such as bagels, noodle kugel and egg salad, says Marks, while Greek and Turkish Jews may have bread dipped in olive oil and lemon juice, as well as poached fish, cucumber salad or cheese. In many communities it is customary to include a sweet bread or pastry in the meal.

Frishman agrees with many of these choices.

“It's correct to eat cake, which contains sugar and flour – simple and complex carbohydrates,” she says. Other good choices are fruit or bread. Then, she suggests taking a break from food while the meal is being prepared.

“I know that in many places it's recommended to eat cooked food. It can be cooked, but it needs to be light, not something that’s hard to digest,” Frishman says. Good protein choices include fish and egg, or chicken that is not overly spiced, served with a starchy side dish.

“Don't weigh yourself down with lots of salad,” she recommends, since the fiber will stimulate digestion.

If you're still awake and hungry a few hours after the meal, she suggests a small snack such as yogurt, fruit or ice cream.

Many personal traditions have developed out of broader cultural practices.

“I will break the fast with my 100-year-old mother this year with herring and cream and a good strong drink,” says Joan Nathan, author of the bestselling “Jewish Holiday Cookbook” and most recently “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.”

Her favorite break-fast dish is harira, a soup traditionally eaten by Moroccans after the fast. “The beauty of this dish is that this hearty soup with lentils, chickpeas and vegetables was borrowed from the Moroccan Ramadan break-the-fast tradition,” she says.

Poopa Dweck, author of “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews,” recommends cheese-filled sambousak pastries, which she says are a traditional food for Syrian Jews ending Yom Kippur.

“It’s a staple and favorite in every Syrian household,” says Dweck. “Many women have these pastries in the freezer not baked in order to have them on hand, hot and freshly baked, for the ‘zwar belle azime’ -- the unexpected guest,” she says.

Leah Koenig, author of “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals from the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen,” suggests giving some traditional break-fast foods a modern twist.

“I actually think the traditional spread of bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish and cucumbers/capers/red onion is a great way to break the fast,” Koenig says. “Adding on to that, I like to include a fresh grain salad or other spreads - hummus, matbucha [a spicy dip made with tomatoes and roasted sweet peppers], curried yogurt dip and pita chips (which are simple to make), and fresh vegetables for dipping. And of course a lot of water and seltzer instead of soda to rehydrate,” she says.

As long as you're drinking fluids and not eating too heavily, the specific foods you choose to break the fast are your choice, says Dr. Aliza Stark, a senior faculty member at the Hebrew University School of Nutritional Sciences.

“Some people come and say do this, do this, do this, and I don't really think that's so critical,” she says.

Two tasty dishes to break the fast

Barley, Apple and Feta Salad

from “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals from the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen”  by Leah Koenig

Serves 4-6

1 cup pearl barley

2 stalks celery, finely chopped

1 green apple (such as Granny Smith), peeled and finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons honey

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Add barley to a large saucepan and cover with water by 3 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium and cook, partially covered, until tender, 30-40 minutes. Drain barley thoroughly and transfer to a large bowl; let cool slightly. Add celery, apple, parsley and feta.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper to taste; drizzle over salad, and toss to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Harira - Moroccan Holiday Vegetable Soup

from “The Foods of Israel Today”  by Joan Nathan

1 cup dried chickpeas

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, diced (about 2 cups)

2 leeks, diced

3 celery stalks, diced

1/2 celery root (about 1/2 pound), peeled and diced

3 medium carrots, peeled and cut in rounds

1 pound beef soup bones (optional)

10 cups water

1 cup lentils

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 whole fresh or preserved lemon

3 large tomatoes

Juice of 1 lemon

1. Soak chickpeas overnight in water to cover. Drain.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot and sauté the onions, leeks, celery stalks, celery root, and carrots. Add the soup bones if you like, stir well, and continue to sauté for a few minutes. 

3. Add the water and drained chickpeas and bring to a boil. Skim off the froth and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes, removing the froth every few minutes.

4. Add the lentils, half the parsley, half the cilantro, the cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer, uncovered for a half hour.

5. Cut the fresh or preserved lemon in half, discard the seeds, and put the halves in the bowl of a food processor. Quarter the tomatoes, remove the seeds, and add to the food processor. Pulse until the lemon is chopped. Add the lemon-tomato mixture to the soup and continue to simmer for a few more minutes or until the lentils are tender.

6. Remove the soup bones (if using) and add the lemon juice and the remaining parsley and cilantro. Adjust the seasonings to taste.