Rabbi’s Essays

Quick! Fast!

Ask a religious school child what one does on a Jewish holiday, and the answers will be something along the lines of: “On Purim, we wear costumes; on Hanukah, we light candles; on Passover, we go to Seder—and on Yom Kippur, Jews fast. Fasting is the dominant activity (or perhaps, lack of activity) on Yom Kippur. In liturgy and rabbinic literature, the day is often referred to as Tzom Kippur [the Fast of Atonement]. Why fast?

The answer is not immediate or clear. The observance of a Day of Atonement is introduced in the book of Leviticus (first in Chapter 16 as a priestly ritual, and then in Chapter 23 as a general ceremony). We are told that in the annual observance of the tenth day of the seventh month, we should “afflict our souls.” But how does one afflict one’s soul? The Torah does not say. The Yom Kippur ceremony of the Biblical era principally involved the High Priest who would perform an elaborate ritual of sacrifices, symbolically confer the sins of Israel onto the back of a goat to be released into the Judean hills, and pronounce the ineffable Name of God while standing in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. And what did the rest of Israel do? Other than those charged with a responsibility of assisting the High Priest, we do not what they did or could do. Those who were in Jerusalem apparently would only stand and watch. 

The Book of Isaiah, however, does connect afflicting the soul with fasting. The verse (58:3 and again in verse 5) is read as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur. It is from this Haftarah, I believe, we come to have an understanding of the Fast of Atonement. 

The Book of Isaiah, most Bible scholars agree, is a compilation. The first 39 chapters pertain to a prophet who lived in Jerusalem at the time of King Hezekiah. The Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom, but the southern Kingdom and Solomon’s Temple were spared. The main theme of this Isaiah’s preachments was the moral failings of the Israelites and the certainty of divine punishment that would ensue. 

In Chapter 40, a significant change in mood takes place. We have here an “Isaiah” (actually the prophet’s name is never mentioned from Chapter 40 on) who lives in Babylon toward the end of the Jewish exile in that land. His message is not one of warning-the punishment of loss of Temple and exile had already occurred-but rather of comfort. This Isaiah pronounced that God’s anger at Israel had waned, now to be replaced by qualities of mercy, and justice directed at the sins of Israel’s captors. 

The initial verses of our Haftarah bear this theme out. In 57:16ff., the prophet has God say: I will not be angry forever, for My breath grows faint—The sin of their ill-gotten gains angered me—I see their ways, yet I will heal them. Then in verses 20 & 21, we have: The wicked are like the churning sea that cannot be still—There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked. 

Then, uncharacteristically, the tone of the prophet’s address changes dramatically. No longer seeking to comfort, he is attacking once again. The reader imagines that the Babylonian Empire has crumbled, and the Jews are free once more to return to their Land. The response of the people is-naturally-praise of God, and even a formal expiation for their sins that had led them into exile in the first place. What do the Jews do? They engage in a fast. Yet, the prophet claims, God is not pleased. 

The people are confused. Are they not fulfilling their obligations to God by fasting and ritual sacrifice? The prophet has God reply (58:5): “Is this the fast I have chosen? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Eternal”? The answer, obviously, must be No! 

The intuitive rationale behind the prophet’s message is that such fasting is empty ritual. The continuation of the passage seems to bear this contention out: “Is not this the fast I have chosen: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to tear every yoke apart—” Upon further reflection, however, this explanation does not make much sense. How can engaging in fasting be considered ’empty’? (Except, of course, for the state of one’s stomach!) Going for a period of time without food or drink-allowing one to feel pangs of thirst and hunger-displays a level of commitment and awareness that can hardly be called empty! Further, what does it mean to call acts of social justice, as described in verse 6 on, a fast? 

The point to Isaiah’s challenge, and to the Fast of Atonement, is that there are fasts and there are fasts. Throughout the Jewish calendar, for instance, there are a series of fast days: the Fast of Gedaliah, the Fast of Esther, the Fast of the First-born, Tisha b’Av, and others. In each of these occasions the fast required is one of self-sacrifice. It is a way of acknowledging humility and sinfulness before God, precisely for one’s failings that brought dishonour and punishment upon the people Israel. These fasts are afflictions of the body. On Yom Kippur, however, one is supposed to engage in affliction of the soul! 

The Haftarah suggests that on the Day of Atonement, by fasting we are not merely supposed to feel the lack of food in our bellies, but rather a deeper emptiness. We are supposed to feel the gnawing ache of our fundamental loneliness, our absolute aloneness of the self. Human bodies, nourished by food and drink, are after all a part of the material world. Molecules and atoms that connect our bodies in the most fundamental way to the further reaches of the heavens. Our selves-that unquantifiable quality that makes each of us uniquely who we are-has no natural connection. Our souls are alone, unnourished and unnourishable, unless we reach out to other souls. And ultimately we cannot derive nourishment until we connect with those souls most in need of connection: whose lips are parched, whose stomachs are empty, whose bodies are in pain. 

This is the fast that God requires, Isaiah-and the rabbis, and our tradition-claims. It is a real fast, I would argue, not a symbolic or metaphoric one. But through the hunger we must feel in our bellies through day of Yom Kippur, we are commanded-not merely by God or our tradition, I would hope, but also by our very striving to be human-to feel the hunger of those about us. 

I hope that your fast on Yom Kippur is an easy one, and that your souls are refreshed for the challenges and triumphs of the new year to come.