- And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial [teannu et nafshoteichem ]; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Adonai . It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial [ve-innitem et nafshoteichem ]; it is a law for all time. (Leviticus 16:29–31, from the traditional reading for Yom Kippur)
- I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—by loving Adonai your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that Adonai your God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to them. (Deuteronomy 30:19–20)
The origins of Yom Kippur go back to antiquity when it was, like temple purifications of other ancient Near-Eastern communities, a day of cleansing the sanctuaries of the Temple through elaborate rituals. In fact, the Yom Kippur ritual mentioned in Leviticus 16 deals with a “rite of riddance,” giving the priests instruction on how to purge the Innermost Shrine in order to remove all the ritual impurities. But practices such as these are no longer relevant to Jewish worship today. This is one of the reasons why, in the Torah service for the Day of Atonement, Reform Jewish leaders substituted passages from Deuteronomy 29–30 that address the existential question of personal responsibility rather than priestly rituals from Leviticus 16:1–34.
According to the Pentateuch, on Yom Kippur, both Israelites and resident aliens are expected to do two things in order to achieve the expiation of their sins: abstain from doing any kind of work and “afflict themselves.” If they fail to do either, the punishment is karet, (Leviticus 23:29–30), which according to the ancient Rabbis meant “chastisement from heaven.” We know more or less how to abstain from work, but what does it mean “to afflict oneself”?
During the late biblical period, “afflicting oneself” was understood as “fasting,” based on the parallelism between “fasting” and “affliction” in Isaiah 58:3 (cf. v. 5): “Why, when we fasted [tzamnu], did You not see? When we starved our bodies [inninu], did You pay no heed?” Similarly, the prophet Ezra states that he “proclaimed a fast [tzom] there by the Ahava River to afflict ourselves [lehitannot] before our God” (Ezra 8:21). Later on, the Rabbis too (see Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 16:29; Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Sh’vitat Asor, 1:4) interpreted the injunction as “fasting” and elaborated that “food and drink, and the other pleasures of the sense of touch arouse the physical self to be drawn to desire and sin; and they can interrupt the form of the spirit of wisdom from seeking after the truth, which is the service of God and His good and sweet moral lessons” (Sefer HaChinuch, translated by C. Wengrov [Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1992], pp. 328–29, on Leviticus, part 2, no. 313).
Yet, even in the biblical period, many people felt that interpreting “affliction” as “fasting” was rather limited, and they tried to broaden the scope of the translation. Isaiah, for example, not satisfied with just bodily fasting, asked that it be coupled with social concerns: “To unlock the fetters of wickedness . . . to share your bread with the hungry . . . when you see the naked, to clothe him” (Isaiah 58:6–7). In Daniel, the verb lehitannot (practicing abstinence) means both “fasting” and “not anointing” (see Daniel 10:3, 10:12). And in Psalm 35:13, inneti vatzom nafshi, “I afflicted myself with fasting,” we learn that “fasting” was only one way to express regret. Later on, in Mishnah Yoma 8:1, we are told that on Yom Kippur “self-denial” covers abstaining not only from eating and drinking, but also from bathing, anointing, wearing sandals, and sexual intercourse (Targum Yonatan on Leviticus 16:23–27). However, we are also told that children, pregnant women, and the infirm should not fast (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 82a–83a).
From the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon we learn that the Hebrew root ayin-nun-heh, from which we derive the English translation of “self-denial,” can mean: (1) to answer, (2) to be occupied, (3) to be afflicted, but also (4) to sing (such as in Exodus 32:18, “It is the sound of song [annot] that I hear”). It is based on this last understanding that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin renders our verse, “You shall enable your souls to sing.” (See his article online at www.ou.org/torah/riskin/yomkippur58.htm.)
On Yom Kippur, when we are deeply involved in prayer and self-evaluation, I believe our fasting should be accompanied by genuine repentance, as indicated by the prophet Joel when he says, “Turn back to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting, weeping, and lamenting. Rend your hearts, rather than your garments” (Joel 2:12–14), and with real concern for our fellow human beings, as suggested by Isaiah 58:6–7. In order to attain remission of our sins, in addition to fasting (if we can), we need to look inward and confront our very selves with intense soul-searching and spiritual cleansing that is honest and at times painful—a clearing of our conscience that is as difficult as any other act of self-denial. This, I believe, is the existential meaning of “self-affliction.” On Yom Kippur, only after we give an honest account of our past deeds, make peace with others and ourselves, ask for forgiveness and grant pardon to others, can we hope to be worthy of being “sealed” in the Book of Life for another year.
By the Way
- If one fasts for his sins, and goes again and does the same things, who will listen to his prayer? And what has he gained by humbling himself? (Ben Sira 34:31)
- Regarding Yom Kippur, Philo of Alexandria said that the day is called “the Sabbaths of Sabbaths” for various reasons, the first one being this: “Because of the self-restraint which it entails; always and everywhere indeed he [Moses] exhorted them [the Israelites] to show this is all the affairs of life, in controlling the tongue and the belly and the organs below the belly. . . .” (The Special Laws, II, 193–203; quoted in P. Goodman, The Yom Kippur Anthology [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1971], p. 16)
- Perhaps the best reason for fasting is that it teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world’s hunger problem. We can even feel sorry for the millions of people who go to bed without food each night. But not until we really know some discomfort ourselves can we appreciate similar deprivation in others. Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. (Rabbi Allen S. Maller, “Fasting Is for the Poor,” The Orchard, Fall 1993, p. 21)
- How do you prepare for the awesome day of Yom Kippur?
- How meaningful is the discipline of fasting for you?
- How difficult is it to engage in self-evaluation and analysis?
- Can you think of another way in which “abstention” becomes salutary on Yom Kippur?
Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, Massachusetts, and is a faculty member of the Department of Theology at Boston College.