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TCS Question - Why do we fast on Yom Kippur

As a congregant I remember sitting in Yom Kippur services and spending significant parts of the day wondering how long it would be until I was able to eat again. At some point I realized that as a 25 hour fast, every 15 minutes of Yom Kippur was equal to 1% of the time I would spend not eating. As you may be gathering, growing up one of the major focuses of my Yom Kippur observance was the emptiness of my stomach.

For me, the lack of food on Yom Kippur sometimes served as a distraction from the real business of the day, rather than a way of elevating my spirit and soul, which led me to wonder, why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

The commandment to observe the day of Yom Kippur comes from the Torah (it is one of five festivals which originate in the Torah alongside Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). The Torah states: ‘And Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a Day of Atonement; it shall be a holy gathering to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to Adonai’ (Leviticus 23:26-27). The seventh month is the month of Tishrei, and the Day of Atonement is Yom Kippur.

As you can see from this verse, it does not actually say that Yom Kippur is to be a fast day; instead it says that Yom Kippur is to be a day when ‘you shall afflict your souls’. The question for the Rabbis was how we should afflict our souls? And in answer to this they suggested five things from which we should abstain. We are told not to bathe ourselves, not to anoint ourselves (using oils and perfumes), not to wear leather, not to have sexual relations, and to abstain from eating and drinking.

The fasting on Yom Kippur is one element of the way in which we are supposed to afflict our souls on the festival. On this one day of the year we ignore our physical needs and pleasures. This also explains why you will see your clergy wearing shoes that would not often be worn on the bimah, to avoid leather.

While this is the primary reason given for the fast on Yom Kippur, on this one day of the year we become like the angels, and the fasting (along with the other abstentions) may be seen as another expression of this. Angels have no physical needs, and instead their focus is on their spirituality and their service of God. And on this one day of the year we put aside our physical needs to focus on our service of God and our actions over the year that has ended.

Our emulation of the angels is not restricted just to the avoidance of food and drink. On Yom Kippur there is a tradition of wearing white, like the angels; and it is also the one day of the year when we recite the second line of the Sh’ma out loud. One of the beliefs surrounding this line (baruch shem kavod malchuto leolam vaed) is that Moses heard the angels reciting it and brought it back for the people. During the year we recite it in an undertone so that the angels will not know that we have taken their line of prayer; but on Yom Kippur when we are like the angels we proudly recite this line out loud. 

About Rabbi Danny

Rabbi Danny
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