During discussions of Yom Kippur several years ago, an argument was presented that nowhere does the Scripture indicate that fasting is a requirement of Yom Kippur. This struck me as an odd thing, even dangerous. I had not even heard such a thing before. I didn’t know that there was any debate over this issue among observant Jews. I knew that some Reformed Jews would casually work and not fast on Yom Kippur, but was not aware that there were other groups in the Jewish community that did not believe that fasting was a requirement of Yom Kippur.
Certainly the idea of fasting on Yom Kippur is an age old “tradition” among the more observant of both Jews and some Gentiles. There are even some “Christian” groups that fast on this day. Some groups fast on a regular basis, either for health or spiritual benefit, multiple times a year – even weekly.
The instructions in question for Yom Kippur are in the following texts:
Leviticus Chapter 16:
29And it shall be a statute for ever unto you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and shall do no manner of work, the home-born, or the stranger that sojourneth among you.
30For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before YHWH.
31It is a sabbath of solemn rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; it is a statute for ever.
32And the priest, who shall be anointed and who shall be consecrated to be priest in his father's stead, shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen garments, even the holy garments.
33And he shall make atonement for the most holy place, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar; and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.
34And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make atonement for the children of Israel because of all their sins once in the year.' And he did as the YHWH commanded Moses.
Leviticus Chapter 23:
27Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD.
28And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.
29For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people.
30And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any manner of work in that same day, that soul will I destroy from among his people.
31Ye shall do no manner of work; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
32It shall be unto you a sabbath of solemn rest, and ye shall afflict your souls; in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall ye keep your sabbath.
Numbers Chapter 29:
7And on the tenth day of this seventh month ye shall have a holy convocation; and ye shall afflict your souls; ye shall do no manner of work;
8but ye shall present a burnt-offering unto the LORD for a sweet savour: one young bullock, one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year; they shall be unto you without blemish;
9and their meal-offering, fine flour mingled with oil, three tenth parts for the bullock, two tenth parts for the one ram,
10a several tenth part for every lamb of the seven lambs; 11one he-goat for a sin-offering; beside the sin-offering of atonement, and the continual burnt-offering, and the meal-offering thereof, and their drink-offerings.
So we see that five times in these verses we are told to “Afflict your souls”. Also, we see that to not “afflict our souls” bears the punishment of being “Cut off from His people.” This is a pretty serious thing. We often find the term being “cut off from a people” as a euphemism for dying or being executed. It would then seem to be very important to know what afflicting one’s soul is. What is the soul mentioned here? Is it your spirit or your physical life? Here the Hebrew word is נֶפֶשׁ nephesh. This is the 'life in the blood' that all living creatures have, it is your physical life. You'll notice that if it is not afflicted, it is taken, which also helps us understand that it is the life of a person. The logic behind this understanding of Nephesh is based on the 12th Rule of Ishmael in hermeneutics.
What does it mean to afflict our soul? Is that fasting? Does scripture support this idea? Is it just tradition?
Isaiah Chapter 58:
1Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a horn, and declare unto My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways; as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of Me righteous ordinances, they delight to draw near unto God.
3'Wherefore have we fasted, and Thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and Thou takest no knowledge?'-- Behold, in the day of your fast ye pursue your business, and exact all your labours.
4Behold, ye fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness; ye fast not this day so as to make your voice to be heard on high.
5Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
6Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
7Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
In Isaiah, we see that fasting is compared to affliction ones soul. We see this group fasting on a day they were instructed to do so, yet they were doing their daily business in violation of the command to cease from labor. These people were not fasting to be noticed or grab the attention of Elohim. These people were doing daily business, and sitting openly in ashes and with their heads hung low. They were seeking the attention of those around them saying, “Look at me see how pious I am, I am fasting today”. They were not praying to Elohim nor seeking mercy and forgiveness for the people. I believe this is specifically the House of Jacob being chastised, ie. Ephraim and Menasha and those tribes of the northern kingdom who were dispersed.
Jeremiah Chapter 36:
5And Jeremiah commanded Baruch, saying: 'I am detained, I cannot go into the house of the LORD;
6therefore go thou, and read in the roll, which thou hast written from my mouth, the words of the LORD in the ears of the people in the LORD'S house upon a fast-day; and also thou shalt read them in the ears of all Judah that come out of their cities.
7It may be they will present their supplication before the LORD, and will return every one from his evil way; for great is the anger and the fury that the LORD hath pronounced against this people.'
In Jeremiah, we see that at least once a year there is a commanded “fast-day”. This day was a day of repentance and the people of Israel were gathered together at the house of Elohim.
Zechariah Chapter 7:
4Then came the word of the LORD of hosts unto me, saying:
5'Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying: When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and in the seventh month, even these seventy years, did ye at all fast unto Me, even to Me?
Here, we find in Zechariah, that there is a fast in the fifth and seventh month of the year. The tenth day of the seventh month is Yom Kippur. The other Holydays during that month are all days of feasting with food and drink. The day of Yom Kippur is the ONLY day during that time requiring both prayers of repentance and “Afflicting one’s soul”.
In fact, there are four times a year we are instructed to fast, according to Zechariah:
Zechariah Chapter 8:
18And the word of the LORD of hosts came unto me, saying:
19'Thus saith the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons; therefore love ye truth and peace.
We know that one of these, the fast of the seventh month is Yom Kippur. So are we to fast on Yom Kippur? Traditional Halachah says, yes, we are required to except in matters pertaining to life. If our life would come into serious jeopardy by fasting, such as severe diabetes, Epilepsy, blood loss and other ailments which threaten immediate life, then we are excused from the fast.
www.ohr.edu has this to say regarding eating on Yom Kippur:
- Pikuach nefesh - Danger to life (even doubtful) overrides all prohibitions of Yom Kippur.
- Prohibitions: "You shall afflict your soul..."; not suffering; ignoring the physical, focus on spiritual.
- Work - melacha - same as Shabbat
- Eating and drinking
- Washing (except direct cleansing of dirt)
- Anointing - creams, lotions etc.
- Leather or leather covered shoes
- On Yom Kippur we refrain from: Working, eating, drinking, washing, anointing, family relations and wearing leather shoes. Which three of these prohibitions are more severe than the others?
Eating, drinking, working. (Mishna Krisus 1:1)
- In what two ways does the prohibition against eating food on Yom Kippur differ from the prohibition against eating pork the entire year?
- Although any amount is forbidden, eating on Yom Kippur is not punishable by a Sanhedrin until one has eaten food equal in volume to the size of a date. Eating pork, on the other hand, is punishable for eating even an olive-sized piece, which is smaller than a date. (Mishna Berura 612:1)
- Eating on Yom Kippur incurs the punishment of kares - spiritual excision, whereas eating pork does not.
At what age does one become obligated to the command? According to most Halachah, after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah age the young man/woman is obligated to keep the fast. In our home, from the time the child first volunteers to keep the fast or their Bar/Bat Mitzvah – whichever came first. This position in our home is somewhat different than that of the Mishna, which reads: As to children, they do not impose a fast on them on the Day of Atonement. But they educate them a year or two in advance, so that they will be used to doing the religious duties.
- A pregnant woman who smelled food [and grew faint]-- they feed her until her spirits are restored.
- A sick person-- they feed him on the instruction of experts.
If there are no experts available, they feed him on his own instructions, until he says, "Enough."
Yom Kippur is one of the most solemn of all Scriptural Holydays. It is a time of repentance ending the 10 days of Aw, and also ending the 40days of mourning since the 9th of Av. The punishment for not keeping this day is severe. It is in our best interest and the best interest of our people to keep this day in the most pious of fashions. Should we fast on Yom Kippur? By all means, except where life may be lost by doing so.
Netzar ben Yaacov