Coffee and the Jewish Year

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, is traditionally a time of reflection, increased spiritual practice, and general preparation for the upcoming high holidays. Some of the practices include visiting the graves of those who are dear, consideration of one’s actions over the last year and reflecting on what you’d like to improve on for the coming year. To these, I have added another practice.

Every year, as Elul rolls around, I begin to make noises about cutting down my caffeine consumption. This is not out of some abstract sense that “it would be better for me,” nor as an ascetic practice of self-denial. Rather, it is very concrete preparation for Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a fast day…no food, no liquids…no caffeine. Skipping my morning coffee, when I am accustomed to it on a daily basis, is not pleasant. It is not spiritual. In fact, it results in a raging headache long about noon…which continues to worsen all day. Thus, hitting Yom Kippur without preparation can be a quite unpleasant experience.

There may be those who find the suffering from caffeine withdrawl heightens their sense of Yom Kippur, makes it a more spiritual experience. I find it hard to imagine, but there may be such. I, certainly, am not someone who concentrates better on atonement with a crashing headache. Therefore, I take steps to avoid the headache.

This brings me back to Elul, the month before the high holidays, as a time to begin to make change. I cut down my coffee intake…starting slowly. I begin to by cutting back to only 1 cup. At least most of the time. Unless it’s a really hard day. . .

And I try to start taking that cup a little later in the day. . . unless I really need to get something done earlier in the morning.

By the week before Rosh Hashanah, I hope to be down to mainly tea, or decaf coffee (it’s the week before Rosh Hashanah, and I’m not there yet). That week, I try to really cut myself back to almost no caffeine.

Fortunately, the idea of not having finished your repentance and preparation for the high holy days by the time Rosh Hashanah arrives was not unfamiliar to the ancient rabbis. So they decreed that the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the 10 Days of Repentance…a more intense time of introspection and reflection than even the month of Elul. A last chance to prepare for Yom Kippur.

Likewise, I am able to finish weaning myself from caffeine during those 10 days. This year, like most years, I will be doing the bulk of the cutting back of caffeine during this period of time. Which leads to an additional spiritual practice…not taking out my mood and tiredness as I quickly reduce my caffeine consumption on those around me (for the long tradition of this being an issue, see Isaiah: “Is this that fast that I desire?” (Isaiah 58:5).

And so, this year, like most, I am slowly reducing my caffeine, and watching the high holidays come closer, and realize, that like most of us, I am unprepared in body and soul. But the holidays come, and I will be where I will be when they arrive.

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