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David Lambert





Yom Kippur and the Nature of Fasting





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David Lambert





Yom Kippur and the Nature of Fasting








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Yom Kippur and the Nature of Fasting

Jewish tradition places a strong emphasis on the importance of repentance on Yom Kippur. It finds its way into Yom Kippur through a post biblical association between fasting and repentance. But what does fasting signify in the Bible and what did it mean originally in the context of Leviticus 16?


Yom Kippur and the Nature of Fasting

Day of Atonement. Isidor Kaufmann (1853–1921)

The Day of Atonement as a Day of Repentance

Within the Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is closely associated with repentance. Indeed, according to Maimonides, the שעיר המשתלח (“scapegoat”) only atones for sin if you repent.[1]Maimonides adds (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Repentance” 1:3):

בזמן הזה שאין בית המקדש קיים ואין לנו מזבח כפרה אין שם אלא תשובה,
In our times, when the Temple no longer stands and we lack an altar for atonement, only repentance remains.

The “Day of Atonement” has all but become a “Day of Repentance.”

This state of affairs, however, stands in sharp contrast to the apparent evidence of Leviticus 16,[2] the biblical source for Yom Ha-kippurim, which speaks of a priestly purification of the sanctuary[3] but fails to reveal any explicit concern for the people’s repentance.[4] How did repentance come to find its way into the Day of Atonement? Or, to put the question differently, what is the interpretive framework in which it makes sense to render the description of Yom Kippur in Lev 16 in this manner?

Mourning on account of Sin: The Mishnah and the Book of Jubilees

An association between Yom Kippur and repentance can be found already in the Mishnah.

The Mishnah states (Yoma 8:8):

מיתה ויום הכפורים מכפרין עם התשובה.
Death and the Day of Atonement atone with repentance.

The Mishnah itself offers us no clues as to how we know that repentance must accompany the Day of Atonement, but it closely resembles a yet earlier text, the Book of Jubilees, that proves to be a bit more revealing.

Jubilees, a second century B.C.E Jewish sectarian work, is the earliest existing text to connect Yom Kippur with repentance (5:17)[5]: “It has been written and ordained that he will have mercy on all who turn from their errors once each year.”

Most significantly for our purposes, Jubilees elsewhere reveals the conceptual link between repentance (“turning from their errors”) and Yom Kippur, when it describes Yom Kippur as a day of “mourning on account of sin” (34:19).[6] Fasting and other forms of self-affliction, of the sort commanded in Lev 16:29: “you shall afflict yourselves” [7](נפשתיכם את תענו), were mourning practices in the world of ancient Israel. They were used, for instance, as part of mourning the dead.[8] On that basis, Jubilees (and, apparently, the Mishnah as well) concluded that fasting on Yom Kippur is an act of repentance. The people’s mourning on Yom Kippur is, specifically, “mourning on account of sin.”

Shifting Emphasis from Temple to Personal

This subtle interpretive move actually entails quite a paradigm shift. It shifts attention away from the high priest’s rituals of purification to the drama of repentance unfolding among the people, a move suitable, perhaps, to both a sectarian group at odds with the Temple in Jerusalem and the post-Temple reality of rabbinic Judaism.

It also represents a striking interpretation of fasting, one in keeping with the newfound importance attributed to repentance starting in the late Second Temple period, as a form of self-monitoring for the righteous and, for converts, adoption of a new religious identity.[9]What matters in the performance of fasting is not the physical state of deprivation that it constitutes but rather the inner feelings of remorse that it seeks to express, feelings that are otherwise, it must be noted, not represented by the text.

What is the Crux of a Biblical Fast Day?

Mirroring Tragedy

All of this raises the question: what is the nature of fasting in the Bible? A particularly well-developed account of fasting in the Bible can be found at the very beginning of the book of Joel,[10] a prophetic, most likely, postexilic text. The work is unusual in that, rather than the usual prophecies, it begins with a call for a fast day. This call includes a rich and evocative description of the destruction wrought by a plague of locusts (1:4), perhaps symbolizing an enemy army (1:6), that has invaded the land destroying that year’s crops. As a consequence of the destruction, even the sacrificial offerings have ceased from the Temple (1:9).

The passage directly relates destruction, mourning, and fasting by interweaving references to all three throughout. Thus statements regarding what amounts to the drying up and death of the land (Joel 1:10): “The country is ravaged, the ground mourns [or: has dried up]” (שדד שדה אבלה אדמה), are interspersed with calls for actual communal human mourning (e.g., 1:8),

אֱלִ֕י כִּבְתוּלָ֥ה חֲגֻֽרַת־שַׂ֖ק עַל־בַּ֥עַל נְעוּרֶֽיהָ:
Lament like a maiden girt with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.

The suggestion is that, just as mourning for the dead allows for ritual identification with the deceased, the mourning of the nation in the face of natural disaster mirrors the cessation of the land and its fertility. Not eating, lamenting, and donning sackcloth diminishes the body of the mourners, just as the land itself is decimated. This is supposed to happen automatically, as a natural reaction to loss. But there are still those who remain in ignorance of their true state (1:5): “wake up, you drunkards, and weep…” (…הקיצו שכורים ובכו). The issue at stake does not involve a moral judgment but a concern to ensure an accurate bodily manifestation of their impending loss.

The Petitionary Function

While fasting as an act of mourning is a natural reaction to disaster, it also serves a petitionary function and flows naturally into prayer in this passage and many, many others. Indeed, fasting in the Bible appears most consistently in connection to prayer, not sin.[11]

The passage thus culminates in a call to:

  • Engage in mourning practices (v. 13)
חִגְר֨וּ וְסִפְד֜וּ הַכֹּהֲנִ֗ים הֵילִ֙ילוּ֙ מְשָׁרְתֵ֣י מִזְבֵּ֔חַ בֹּ֚אוּ לִ֣ינוּ בַשַּׂקִּ֔ים מְשָׁרְתֵ֖י אֱלֹהָ֑י
Gird yourselves and lament, O priests, Wail, O ministers of the altar; Come, spend the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God.
  • Proclaim a fast day (v. 14)
קַדְּשׁוּ־צוֹם֙ קִרְא֣וּ עֲצָרָ֔ה
Solemnize a fast, proclaim an assembly
  • Pray (v. 14)
וְזַעֲק֖וּ אֶל־יְ-הֹוָֽה
Cry out to YHWH

All of this is meant to transpire in the vicinity of the temple site (1:14).[12]

How Does Fasting’s Petitionary Function Work?

Fasting embodies need. It generates in the people a state of need that puts them in a prime position to bring their petition before their God.[13] That is why fasting flows so naturally into petition in this passage. Indeed, without fasting, how could the people occupy a position from which to appeal, since—for now—they still have adequate provisions? It is next year’s supply of food that stands in doubt. What is needed is a way of manifesting their future difficulty in their present reality.

In that sense, fasting provides a mechanism for transforming one’s state, for adopting the persona of an afflicted person when affliction is, for whatever reason, not actually present upon the body. That is why fasting can appear in the Bible both in the context of mourning the dead and in the context of prayer. In the case of mourning the dead, it allows members of the deceased social world to diminish themselves in keeping with a loss that, otherwise, would not be reflected physically upon them.

Similarly, petitioners, like Hannah (1 Sam 1:1-19) and David (2 Sam 12:15-23), suffer from a state that is not manifest upon their body, in the case of Hannah a lack of progeny, in the case of David an impending loss of progeny. Furthermore, they both occupy positions of relative privilege. Mourning practices, such as fasting, provide them with a means of entering into a state of bodily diminishment without which petition would be impossible. Hannah can hardly claim to require the intervention of the deity if she were to happily consume the portion of the sacrifice offered to her by her husband. Likewise, David cannot very well remain upon his throne in his royal robes, while claiming that he is in deep distress and needs his petition answered.

Joel and Yom Kippur

In the case of both the fast day in Joel and that of Yom Kippur, the continued viability of sacrificial worship is at stake: one on account of lack of sustenance, the other on account of the impurities that have piled up over the course of the year in the sanctuary. In both cases, the people can be seen as reflecting a dire state through their fasting that, otherwise, would not be evident upon their bodies.

Thus, by fasting, the people are not mourning over sin—repenting—as we find in postbiblical tradition, but identifying with the life or death proceedings occurring within the sanctuary. They must fast to reflect the severity of the day (Lev 16:30),

כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם
Because on this day he [the high priest][14] atones for you, cleansing you from all of your sins.[15]

A failure to fast reflects a refusal to identify with the state of the sanctuary and, by extension, the people, preventing one from tapping into the purifying procedures that are transpiring there. It is, perhaps, for this reason that such a failure leads to a punishment of karet, “excision” from the people, as we find in Lev 23:29.

The Haftarot for Yom Kippur: Petitionary or Penitential Fasts?

The haftarot for Yom Kippur—Isaiah 57:14-58:19 and the book of Jonah—were undoubtedly chosen because they contain extensive depictions of fast days, and they, therefore, also happen to be quite useful for the present discussion. Like Joel, fasting in these passages appears in close connection to prayer (Isa 58:3):

לָ֤מָּה צַּ֙מְנוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א רָאִ֔יתָ
Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
עִנִּ֥ינוּ נַפְשֵׁ֖נוּ וְלֹ֣א תֵדָ֑ע
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?

And, again, in Jonah, the king decrees that people should refrain from eating, don sackcloth, cry out to God, and turn back from their evil ways. (3:8-9)

Fasting and its concomitant rite of donning sackcloth, as in Joel, seem to lead into prayer. However, unlike Joel, but rather like Leviticus 16, the haftarot dwell on instances of fasting when the participants are, indeed, guilty of some wrongdoing. Does that change the nature of fasting in these cases? Is fasting penitential in these instances?

I would suggest that we are dealing not with a change in the definition of fasting in these passages, but an elaboration of the conditions of its efficacy. In other words, fasting still serves to manifest distress as a way of leading up to prayer. However, that doesn’t mean that fasting combined with prayer will be efficacious in all instances. Additional human responses may be necessary, and the addition of these required responses do not necessarily suggest that the meaning of fasting has changed.

The passage in Isaiah (48:3) is particularly articulate on this point. Why has God not heeded their fast?

הֵ֣ן בְּי֤וֹם צֹֽמְכֶם֙ תִּמְצְאוּ־חֵ֔פֶץ וְכָל־עַצְּבֵיכֶ֖ם תִּנְגֹּֽשׂוּ.
Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!

As a way of embodying need, fasting along with petition, cannot very well work when a far more horrific sight of oppression and affliction, one produced by the very petitioners themselves, presents itself to the deity!

If God is to heed the petitioners, they must first provide relief to the downtrodden (58:6):

הֲל֣וֹא זֶה֘ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ֒ פַּתֵּ֙חַ֙ חַרְצֻבּ֣וֹת רֶ֔שַׁע
Is this not the fast (day) I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness…

For fast days to work, an additional component is required: the people must also rectify their wrongs. Thus, the high priest must actually cleanse the sanctuary—the people’s demonstration of need through self-affliction is obviously not enough—and the Ninevites must turn away from their evil ways. No amount of demonstrated need succeeds in the face of a failure to purify the sanctuary, in the case of Yom Kippur, or in the face of continued injustice, in the case of the Ninevites.[16]

Fasting in Historical Context

In the postbiblical understanding of Yom Kippur, the need for rectification—now formulated as “repentance”—folds into and often seems to efface the earlier significance of fasting, the adoption of the persona of the afflicted, those in desperate need. As Maimonides writes, as quoted earlier, “only repentance remains.” Is something lost in the process? I leave it to the reader to decide, but it is clear that in this case an attempt to read the Bible in its historical context yields a whole range of experience focused on the body and its potential for identification and diminishment that is otherwise lost when we focus, as is our tendency, exclusively on interiority and moral rectification.


May 4, 2016


Last Updated

February 6, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. David Lambert is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) where he teaches Hebrew Bible. He received his Ph.D., M.A., and A.B. from Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He is the author of How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture.