As we are approaching the holiest day of the year in Judaism, the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, I am departing from the regular Torah lesson this week and presenting some thoughts for you to ponder regarding Yom Kippur which begins at sundown on Tuesday, September 22nd. and lasts through sundown on Wednesday, September 23rd.
For many people, the mention of Yom Kippur brings up the issue of fasting as traditionally, people observant of the Lord’s biblical festivals fast from food and drink for a full 25 hours on the Day of Atonement. However, what does the Torah say specifically about this holy day? Is fasting the focus of Yom Kippur?
Lev. 16:29 This [Yom Kippur] shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you.
Lev. 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
Num. 29:7 Then on the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall humble yourselves; you shall not do any work.
Three times in the Torah we are instructed to ‘humble ourselves’ on the day of atonement. The word here is ‘anah’ which means to humble oneself, to mortify one’s soul.
Anah appears 79 times in Tanach (Old Testament) and every time it has the same meaning.
Exodus 10:3 Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve Me.
Deut. 8:16 In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end.
Did you notice that nowhere in any of these verses does the Torah speak of fasting?
We are commanded to humble ourselves before the Almighty with the clear implication that such humility is the foundation for obeying Him. That is the essence of the Day of Atonement. The God of Israel is looking for our obedience.
Now, of course fasting is a form of affliction but here’s the issue. All fasting is affliction but not all affliction is fasting. The prophet Isaiah made that eminently clear:
Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not fnnotice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you follow your own desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing of none’s head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? Isaiah 58:3-5
The prophet continues:
Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Isaiah 58:6-8
Fasting just for the sake of fasting is not what the Torah calls for on Yom Kippur.
By all means, fast according to your ability to do so, but for the purpose of submitting yourself in humility and obedience to the Holy One of Israel; to orient your attitude towards the kind of lifestyle that Isaiah describes;
to conform yourself to the high calling of the Torah: ‘you shall be holy for I am holy.’ Lev. 11:45 and 19:2 Fasting for any other purpose misses the point entirely.
Does the Torah actually describe what is the ‘afflicting of oneself’?
While not one mention is made of food, FOUR times the verses concerning Yom Kippur say this: ‘you shall do no work’ Lev. 16:19, 23:30, 23:31, 23:32. Given that this command is repeated four times, it behooves us to pay close attention. Why does God emphasize so strongly that we not work on Yom Kippur?
Precisely that we be un-distracted in our pursuit of humility before Him on that day; that we recall vividly that HE is our Provider; He is our Sustainer; He is our Life, our Health and our Prosperity. All good things come from Him.
We are so readily prone to take credit for our own achievements and forget to give Him the honor due Him for the blessings we have received. Yom Kippur is the day to humble ourselves in sincerity of heart, render to Him the honor and reverence due Him, repenting of our own pride and giving profound thanks for His incomparable kindness and graciousness towards us.
A final note: the Day of Atonement is an “everlasting commmandment for all generations”.
May this Day of Atonement be an opportunity for all of us to grasp the depth and breadth of His amazing goodness towards us and in doing so embrace a depth of humility greater than we’ve known before.
May each of us be sealed by Him in the Book of Life.