Yom Kippur (or "The Day of Atonement") is synonymous with fasting. For many people in both Jewish and Messianic communities, Yom Kippur is quite possibly the only day of the year on which they fast. Even secular Jews who are not religious will sometimes fast on Yom Kippur.
The connection of fasting on Yom Kippur for Jews and for those "grafted into" Israel can be likened to Americans eating turkey on Thanksgiving. The two go hand in hand. But, from where does the idea of fasting on Yom Kippur come? And, what exactly does it mean to fast? Or, is there a spiritual reason for fasting?
Yom Kippur in the Torah
The teachings about Yom Kippur are found in three different places in the Torah.1 The matter is stated succinctly in Leviticus 23:27:
On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the Lord.
The commandment to observe Yom Kippur applies to all Jews. Traditional interpretation, however, exempts children, pregnant and/or nursing mothers and the physically ill.
The Hebrew phrase for "you shall humble yourselves" in Leviticus 23:27 is 'innah nefesh, which literally means, "afflict your soul." So, how has it become understood that afflicting one’s soul means abstaining from food and drink? Because it can be deduced from other texts in the Scriptures. For example in Psalm 35:13 David writes, "I humbled my soul with fasting." We see the same connection again in the book of Isaiah between humbling/afflicting and fasting:
"Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?" Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers. And if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday. (Isaiah 58:3, 10)
This connection between Yom Kippur and fasting is so firmly established that even in the book of Acts, Yom Kippur is simply referred to as "the Fast."2
A biblical fast always constitutes refraining from both eating and drinking. For example, when Esther and the people fast they "do not eat or drink for three days, night or day."3
But "afflicting one’s soul" is more than just fasting from food and water. What else might it entail? The sages recorded additional practices that constitute fasting on Yom Kippur:
On the Day of Atonement it is forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals [wearing leather shoes], or to have marital intercourse. (m.Yoma 8:1)
Although at first glance these seem like additional restrictions beyond the Biblical text, yet they may actually have their foundation in Scripture. Some of the practices may even go back to the days of the Master.
Ancient Aramaic paraphrases of the Scriptures (called the Targums) often added their own interpretations of the Biblical text. Here’s how Targum Pseudo-Jonathan renders Leviticus 23:27:
But on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement; a holy convocation shall it be to you, and you shall humble your souls, (abstaining) from food, and from drink, and from the use of the bath, and from anointing, and the use of the bed, and from sandals.
This paraphrase exactly parallels the six rabbinic prohibitions mentioned in the Mishnah. Furthermore, as Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom surveys the idea of afflicting the soul in the Tanakh, he points out a few things:
Indeed that the psalmist must specify 'inniti ba-tsom nafshi, "I afflicted myself with a fast" (Psalm 35:13), means that there are other forms of self affliction, some of which were mandatory for the day. Finally, Daniel’s attempt le hit 'annot ["to afflict himself"] consisted of three weeks of mourning during which he says, "I ate no tasty food, nor did any meat or wine enter my mouth. I did not anoint myself" (Daniel 10:3, 12). Thus his "self denial" consisted of a partial fast; otherwise it resembled the rabbinic definition.4
In Biblical times there must have been an oral list of different prohibitions that constituted afflicting one’s soul. The rabbinic proscriptions constitute such a list. They provide us with an ancient interpretation of what it means to afflict one’s soul.
Refraining from daily comforts such as bathing and wearing leather shoes can be seen as further humbling ourselves before HaShem on this holy day. Abstaining from sexual relations is an obvious measure to avoid ritual impurity. Two of the focuses of Yom Kippur are prayer and ritual purity. Paul indicates in his letter to the Corinthians that it is good to separate from one’s spouse during times of intense prayer.5
Whether believers in Yeshua accept the traditional interpretation of fasting and "afflicting one’s soul" or not, we must treat Yom Kippur as special and set-apart. The Sifra (an ancient commentary on Leviticus) points out that only Yom Kippur is called shabbat shabbaton [literally, "Sabbath of Sabbaths"] and therefore it is a day that is traditionally endowed with special prohibitions.6 On Yom Kippur, we need to be careful not to "condemn himself in what he approves" (Romans 14:22).
The Master on Fasting
Before we discuss the spiritual purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur, it would be good to consider the Master’s words on the subject. Yeshua briefly touches on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. He exhorts us not to make a show of the practice.
Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
The Master may appear to be coming against the rabbinic prohibitions of not bathing and anointing one’s head with oil on Yom Kippur, but this is not the case. The type of fasting Yeshua is discussing here is a private fast that falls outside of the context of Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur everyone is fasting, so there would be no reason to try to appear pious by looking like you're suffering. On Yom Kippur, everyone else is suffering too.
The context for the Master’s criticism is better understood within the arena of private fasts when individuals decide to take fasting upon themselves. In a private fast there would be the temptation to try to get the sympathy and respect of those around you, showing them that you are very religious because you are fasting while others are not.
Therefore, the Master’s words should be understood to mean that when fasting in private, a person should wash and anoint (i.e., groom himself) in order to conceal the fact that he is fasting. This assumes that ordinarily, when fasting with the community, a person would not wash and anoint.
Nevertheless, there is still a principle that we can glean here and apply to Yom Kippur. On that holy day, we would do well to not count the hours until we can eat again or from continually talking about how hungry we are, thereby drawing attention to our personal suffering. This defeats the purpose and makes Yom Kippur into a sort of penance routine where we suffer to atone for our sins. Rather these "afflictions of the soul" should serve a much higher spiritual purpose.
Fasting with a Purpose
As with all Biblical festivals, the goal of the holiday is bonding with HaShem. At the end of the day, Yom Kippur should cause us to have drawn closer to the Father and to have become more at one with Him. How does fasting help accomplish this?
As we deny ourselves the pleasures of this world and turn off our carnal urges, the spiritual yearning and desire that we have for our Creator are increased. Often times the material pleasures of this world give us a false sense of complacency. Our flesh conceals our spiritual yearnings and attempts to satisfy them with food and material pleasures.
On Yom Kippur things are different. We are given a full day to rest, not just from our jobs and labors but also from our physical appetites. It is a day to come to grips with our need for God. It is a day that He gives us to commune with Him in the most intimate and unrestricted way possible. By fasting, we force ourselves to only desire Him.
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi attempts to describe this feeling to a secular king in his treaty Kitab al Khazari:
The fast of this day is such as brings one near to the angels, because it is spent in humility and contrition, standing, kneeling, praising and singing. All his physical faculties are denied their natural requirements, being entirely abandoned to religious service, as if the animal element had disappeared. The fast of a pious man is such that eye, ear, and tongue share in it, that he regards nothing except that which brings him near to God. This also refers to his innermost faculties, such as mind and imagination. To this he adds pious works. (Khazari 3:5)
Yom Kippur is a day of selflessness where we approach the King of Kings. It is a day of setting aside our own desires in favor of His. We offer thanks for the atonement He has given us in Messiah Yeshua and pray for strength that in this next year we might be more conformed to Him. Fasting helps us accomplish this as we deny ourselves. It teaches us truly that,
Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
- Leviticus 16:29-31, Leviticus 23:28-29 and Numbers 29:27.
- Acts 27:9.
- Esther 4:16.
- Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, (New York, NY: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 246-247.
- 1 Corinthians 7:5.
- Sifra on Leviticus 23:22.