Yom Kippur Headache

“Yom Kippur” by Maurycy Gottlieb

I always get a ferocious migraine when, as an observant Jew, I fast five times a year. The Yom Kippur fast is easily the most difficult because we spend all day in shul davening, praying. At some point, the migraine gets so bad that I can no longer concentrate on my prayers. I just work at managing the pain which involves:

1. Donning sunglasses to shield my eyes from the glare of light; light that feels remarkably like red hot pokers sunk deeply into the base of my neck. On the plus side I look like a totally cool Hollywood dude in my shades.

2. Moving my neck—slowly—back and forth, from side to side, in an attempt to loosen up the spinal muscles which are seizing up like pistons that have not been oiled in a decade.

3. Fighting the rising nausea by working very hard not to think about food. This almost always fails miserably. Hence, the nausea gets far worse.

4. Realizing what a complete pussy I am because if I were a prisoner in, say, Auschwitz, what would I do about my migraines? I mean, the Nazi guards wouldn’t exactly feel my pain and my local kapo would probably just send me to the ‘showers’ because my kvetching was just so annoying. I happen to know an amazing survivor here in Los Angeles who was on a death march when he was 14-years old and carried, get this, his older and heavier and taller brother on his back for over 70 miles. No food. No water. No bathroom breaks. Nazi guards shooting and bayoneting Jews left and right. And when this great man tells me about surviving the death march, schlepping his older and heavier and taller brother in the broiling heat for over 70 miles—I drive four blocks for dinner at Pico Kosher Deli—and I ask him how he did it, he just shrugs and says: “I did it, what’s there to talk about?” So really, I guess what I’m saying is: good thing I’m a happy-go-lucky Hollywood screenwriter w/migraines and not a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz w/migraines.

5. When the pain reaches Def-Con Level 1—Def-Con 5 is standard peace time alert; Level 1 is: bye-bye to civilizations as we know it. America was on Def-Con 3 at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and again at 9-11—I start wondering if I’m being punished by G-d with these migraines because I’m like the worst person on planet earth.

6. Seriously.

7. I think about other stuff—weird stuff—that comes into my throbbing skull like steel rain, but these thoughts, fever dreams, hallucinations, what-have-you, are far too insane to report in any detail for fear of losing my reader’s patience and respect.


There might be relief in sight. Naturally, from Jewish doctors in Israel.

Based on the verse in the Book of Leviticus that “You shall afflict your souls,” many people believe that Yom Kippur is a day of suffering. But the rabbis disagree, saying you’re not meant to suffer, but rather to ignore the physical and focus on the spiritual.

If you get a headache, they argue, you can’t adequately concentrate on your sins and repentance.

Thus headaches on the the Day of Atonement are unnecessary, says Dr. Zev (Jeremy) Wimpfheimer, a senior physician in the emergency medicine department of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Wimpfheimer is testing a drug which, taken in pill form before the fast, will hopefully prevent those fasting from developing a headache. He wants about 200 people to try it before the onset of the 25-hour fast Wednesday evening.

To read the complete article, please click here.



And this important announcement from Jonathan Feldstein, a fine man I met while spending Shabbat in Efrat during my Nefesh B’Nefesh visit.

Please join the American Friends of Magen David Adom at a blood drive in on Sunday October 19 from 9:00 AM to 1:00PM at the Inbal Hotel, 3 Jabotinsky St., Jerusalem.

We urge all those who will be in Israel this holiday season, or at any other time, or if you know others who will be there, to participate. This is a season marked by increased demand and decreased supply of blood, and every pint of blood can save up to three lives.

Moreover, someone will be the 1000th donor for the year, the first time more than 1000 tourists have donated blood in a year in Israel through AFMDA.

For information on who is eligible to participate, please contact Jonathan Feldstein at israeloffice@afmda.org, or visit www.afmda.org.

There is no more meaningful way to do something hands-on to benefit all Israelis.

Please forward this to others and to share with tourists who will be in the country.

All the best,

Jonathan Feldstein

Israel Representative

American Friends of Magen David Adom




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  1. Sue
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    This is a very useful article. At this time of year, we all need the “practical” to help us through the spiritual. Here is another great article on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur which can help all of us.

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  2. Posted October 8, 2008 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Apropos your story of the Holocaust survivor. My mother was interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia. My mother-in-law was part of the Kinder Transport that traipsed through Europe in 1938 (with her parents dying later in Auschwitz). When they were trading stories, my husband asked, “How did you do it? You were just teenagers?” And they said virtually the same thing your friend did: “Because we had to.”
    I hope your headache is less vicious than you expect and that your recovery is swift.

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  3. Posted October 8, 2008 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    I’m deeply grateful for your support, advice, and tips. Maybe this Yom Kippur will be less excruciating.
    I wish you all a meaningful fast, and a G’mar Chatima Tova.

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  4. starlady7
    Posted October 7, 2008 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    The Mitzvah on Yom Kippur is to fast. Being in shul all day is great, but less important than fasting. So if you can only complete the fast if you lie down in a darkened and air-conditioned room, that’s how you fulfill the mitzvah of fasting. (Quote from our old Rabbi, not made up by me). G’mar Hatima Tova to all.

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  5. kishke
    Posted October 7, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Why don’t you take a break in middle of the day, say, by chazoras hashatz of mussaf, and go lie down for a few hours in a dark room with a cool wet rag on your forehead? Wouldn’t that help?

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  6. mal
    Posted October 7, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I drink loads of water before the fast.

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  7. Posted October 7, 2008 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m assuming this is not a caffiene withdrawal headache, because, surely, Robert, you would wean yourself off caffiene weeks before a fast in order to avoid the kind of anguish you describe. Right, Robert?
    I occasionally get migraines like that, unrelated to fasting (Thank G-d). The only thing that gets me through them is to lay in my bed and sob and moan and have everyone in the house pity poor me.
    And when it finally ends, I feel like a million bucks.
    Hope its easier for you this year. Gmar tov.

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  8. exdemexlob
    Posted October 7, 2008 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    ” … Yes, they believed that depriving Jews of their bagels, coffee, and babka would help us concentrate on what’s REALLY important on Yom Kippur.
    Our sages were clearly great men, giants of Torah and virtue … ”
    Yes. They Were.
    but ‘they’ didn’t decide that,
    it’s Biblical.
    the underlying idea of all fasts,
    is that by observing them, it teaches us,
    that the desires and needs of the body are not in control,
    ‘we’ are,
    at least over a certain time, we can hold out over those needs
    and so,
    we should take to heart that we can also hold out over any desires that can harm anyone else, and are contrary to G-D’s Will,
    and we should reflect on asking forgiveness when we were tricked into putting personal indulgences of the body first, instead of what was right and proper
    may we all have a meaningful Yom Kippur, and a tolerable fast …

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  9. Posted October 7, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I have often wondered about the benefits/advantages of feeling as if Yom Kippur is a day to be endured as opposed to observed/celebrated.
    There have been a couple of years where I thought that someone had done me the favor of sliding a stake through my left eye.
    Not really conducive to introspection beyond “this really $W&^%Y%#EY% hurts!”

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  10. Yehuda
    Posted October 7, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I use smelling salts.

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  11. Posted October 7, 2008 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Now the Rabbis teach us that Jews fast on Yom Kippur to make sure we focus not on our personal comfort, but on repetance and forgiveness, etc.
    Yes, they believed that depriving Jews of their bagels, coffee, and babka would help us concentrate on what’s REALLY important on Yom Kippur.
    Our sages were clearly great men, giants of Torah and virtue.
    … it’s a pity they didn’t seem to actually know any Jewish people.

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  12. Posted October 7, 2008 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    If your migraine is so debilitating as you say, is there any way to get a heter, not necessarily against fasting, but allowing you to take some kind of drug or even an herbal remedy to help minimize your anguish?
    So let’s say you have this tremendous migraine, what relieves it at the end of the fast, or does it even carry on beyond the 24 hours?

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  13. Posted October 7, 2008 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    My parents said that ditching the caffeine three days before a fast worked for them (back when they were young enough and well enough to fast). I think the operating premise is that it’s better to get the caffeine-withdrawal headache the day *before* the fast, rather than while fasting, so that one can, at least, avoid the double-whammy.
    G’mar chatimah tovah, and I sincerely hope that your fast is easier than usual.

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  14. Posted October 7, 2008 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Wishing you a trying, but not excruciating, fast.

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  15. Jewboy
    Posted October 7, 2008 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I hope it’s better for you this year. I never bought into the argument some people make that Yom Kippur is easier than Tisha B’Av because being in shul all day distracts one from the thoughts that he’s fasting. I’m sorry, being in shul all day while fasting is no walk in the park. At least on Tisha B’Av I can sleep in the afternoon.

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  16. Posted October 7, 2008 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    If your headache is from caffeine withdrawal, use caffeine suppositories. They really make them.
    If it’s just a general principals headache, then you should contact the local kollel and ask someone for the pills they make in Toronto or Montreal– a time release pill that has been very effective. It’s distributed sub rosa, so don’t come on like someone from the FDA.
    If it’s a migraine, go home at the first signs, go to sleep, and don’t worry about the rest of davenning.

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