Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
The Torah commands us to “afflict or humble our souls” on this solemn holy day. Traditionally, this has been understood to mean that we deny our flesh of food and perhaps even water. We should have deep heartfelt confession and repentance on account of our sins. This inward penitence and pleading before YHWH is outwardly manifested in fasting and mourning. A picture of this type of fasting is detailed in Joel 2. It details how a contrite heart is manifested through fasting. This study will begin with the most commonly referenced verses about Yom HaKippurim followed by other mentions of afflicting or humbling oneself and fasting.
Lev. 16:29 “This 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. 23:27-32 “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. (28) “You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. (29) “If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. (30) “As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. (31) “You shall do no work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. (32) “It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.” (NASB)
For those that desire to please YHWH by meeting with Him at His appointed times (moedim), it becomes increasingly important to discover what He expects of us when these days arrive. What does YHWH require on the Day of Atonements? The Word clearly mentions ceasing from work and humbling or afflicting one’s soul/nephesh. A physical offering of fire cannot be presented because there is no functioning Temple or Levitical Priesthood. Thus, HOW does one “humble” or “afflict” their soul? Where does modern Judaism get their traditional practice of fasting from this phrase? Is it biblical or even required to “fast” on Yom Kippur?
How Scripture Defines Humbling or Afflicting One’s Soul
Zech. 7:5-6 Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? (KJV)
The above verses mention a fast in the seventh month or the month of Tishri. Yom HaKippurim falls on the tenth of the seventh month. Both Christian and Jewish commentators regard this fast as a reference to Yom Kippur.
Acts 27:9 Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them… (KJV)
Commentators agree that Luke was referring to the Fast of Yom Kippur in the above verse. The Syriac version of this text actually reads, “the fast of the Jews”. It is also well documented that this was about the time of the autumnal equinox, when the Mediterranean Sea was particularly tempestuous. To sail after this feast was proverbially dangerous among the ancient Jews. Therefore, based on these last two references, there seems to be a precedent for fasting on Yom HaKippurim in the seventh mont. Is fasting the way in which the soul is humbled or afflicted? David says as much in Psalm 35.
Ps. 35:13 But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, And my prayer kept returning to my bosom.
The Hebrew word for “humbled” in the above verse is anah (Strong’s H6031). Anah has the idea of eyeing or taking heed to something by abasing oneself. It is easy to see how the English words affliction or humility are drawn from the Hebrew anah. In David’s case, he subjects his “soul” or “nephesh” by fasting. A person’s nephesh is not their spirit-man (neshamah); it is the animal-like nature that we share with all beasts. It is the necessary part of us that drives us to eat, sleep, procreate, and expand our territory. This nature must be ruled by our God breathed neshamah. David denies his flesh food and perhaps even water, which subjugates his nephesh (soul) to his spirit. King Ahab humbled himself in a similar fashion as David.
1Ki 21:27-29 It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently. (28) Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, (29) “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son’s days.”
King Ahab afflicted himself (by fasting and sincere repentance) which resulted in YHWH postponing judgment. What an awesome display of God’s mercy! Fasting, if coupled with a contrite heart, no doubt avails much. In the book of Ezra, there is another instance where fasting brings about a favorable answer from YHWH.
Ezra 8:21-23 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions. (22) For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him.” (23) So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty.
One of the most well-known fasts comes from the Book of Esther. She and the Jews of the region received a favorable answer from YHWH through fasting. The entire nation was spared from the evil decrees and influence of Haman. A quick concordance search on the word “fast” reveals numerous such instances.
On Yom HaKippurim, the Book of Jonah is traditionally read. In it, a Gentile nation fasts and comes to repentance on account of the words of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. But Jonah doesn’t really care about the nation of Nineveh. He doesn’t want YHWH to have mercy on these people and laments when he realizes that the nation will be spared. Interestingly, despite Jonah’s wicked heart, he is the only successful prophet in the Tanakh. Sadly, Jonah misses the point. YHWH is a God of Mercy and His mercy extends unto all His Creation. Yes, YHWH cares even for those we deem unworthy or unacceptable.
Fasting, however, is not some sort of magic formula. Fasting with a hard or bitter heart will not move our Elohim. Fasting must be coupled with real faith and a repentant heart. In the Book of Isaiah, YHWH is clear as to the purpose of fasting.
Is. 58:5-10 “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’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? (6) “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? (7) “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (8) “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. (9) “Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, (10) And if you give yourself to the hungry And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday.
Also consider Joel chapter 2. The setting of the following passage is the fall feasts (moedim)! If you have time, please read this chapter in its entirety.
Joel 2:12-18 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; (13) And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness And relenting of evil. (14) Who knows whether He will not turn and relent And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a drink offering For the LORD your God? (15) Blow a trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, (16) Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom come out of his room And the bride out of her bridal chamber. (17) Let the priests, the LORD’S ministers, Weep between the porch and the altar, And let them say, “Spare Your people, O LORD, And do not make Your inheritance a reproach, A byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?'” (18) Then the LORD will be zealous for His land And will have pity on His people.
The implication is that our contrite heart (an inward work) is greater than the rending of our garments (an outward symbol of an inner work). My prayer is that our fasting on Yom HaKippurim is coupled with sincerity, contrition, and mourning. May all the bonds of wickedness and any evil yoke be broken off from the people of Adonai.
** Obviously, we must use common sense and discretion when fasting. If you are pregnant, nursing, ill, or unhealthy, use wisdom in how you choose to obey. There are many ways to modify a fast. For example, if you must eat or drink in order to nurse or take medication, consider a fast similar to what Daniel did. (Daniel 1)
 Sacrifices and offerings can ONLY be made in Jerusalem at the Temple Mount by a Levitical Priest according to Torah. To do so without meeting these requirements is sin.
 For a more detailed analysis of the nephesh, read Dr. Hollisa Alewine’s work: The Scarlet Harlot and the Crimson Thread (2012), especially Lesson Eight: Man or Beast.