Yom Kippur: Why Fast If the Torah Doesn't Explicitly Say To Fast?


It’s that time of year again, folks! Much like you get your taxes together for the IRS in the spring, you gather your sins together in order to lay them out before the Creator of the Universe every almost-fall. Yom Kippur is a concept that transcends religious ritual and cuts at the core of human existence – it’s your soul’s chance to clear its cache and reboot.

For those not familiar with the idea of the Day of Atonement or as the Torah names it: Yom HaKippurimwhich literally means “day of coverings”, this is a day when the Children of Israel were commanded to make atonement for their sins and to “afflict your souls.”

There have been arguments amongst those who are a little more “sola scriptura” in their more “p’shat” manner of Biblical interpretations as to what this phrase means. Some say “humble yourselves” and the like. The problem with isolating the words of this text mean that the unlearned Torah observant person has no idea how to afflict their souls. Should you whip yourself? Should you listen to Justin Bieber and Kenny G albums all day? What does this mean?
The answer lies in the crazy idea of attempting to understand the Torah as closely as the original recipients did. I know most people would rather it be served up in a Study Bible footnote, but sometimes you really do need to go back in your time machine and listen. How do we do this? The same way you would by trying to learn a new language by watching television from another country – listen to how the locals explain certain concepts.

So, where else is “afflict your souls” used in the Hebrew Bible?

  • “…I afflicted my soul with fasting…” – Psalm 35:15
  • “Wherefore have we fasted and thou seest not? Have we afflicted our soul and thou takest no knowledge?…” – Isaiah 53:11

Also – what the heck is a “soul” in this context?

While many of us think of the life force of the soul being purely spiritual, the Hebrew Bible also uses the term“nefesh” to describe one’s physical life force – your appetite.
  • “…and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.” – Proverb 23:2 – a warning against gluttony.
This command in the Torah to “afflict your souls” was given to a nation – not an individual. We all share a common means of afflicting our souls for a day in a way that won’t kill us – by abstaining from food (because the Jewish people wouldn’t be around if we abstained from air). This fast is meant as a tool for denying ourselves physical pleasures and spiritually purging the residue that sin has left within us. It’s not supposed to be easy or pleasant. It’s supposed to kinda suck – but it’s supposed to be meaningful.
I wish you all a productive fast this Yom Kippur.