Yom Kippur is synonymous with fasting. For many people in both Jewish and Messianic communities, Yom Kippur is the only day of the year that they will fast.
Often, even secular Jews who have strayed far from any kind of faith will fast on Yom Kippur. Fasting on Yom Kippur for Jews and Messianic believers can be likened to Americans eating turkey on Thanksgiving. The two go hand in hand. But where does the commandment for fasting on Yom Kippur come from? What does it mean to fast? What is the spiritual reason for fasting?
The Torah Commandment
The commandment to fast on Yom Kippur can be found in a few different places in the Torah. The matter is stated succinctly in Leviticus 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.
This commandment applies to everyone. Traditional interpretation, however, exempts children, pregnant and nursing mothers and the physically ill.
The Hebrew phrase for “you shall humble yourselves” in Leviticus 23:27 is ‘innah nefesh which literally means, “afflict your soul.” How do we know that afflicting one’s soul means abstaining from food and drink? It can be deduced from other texts in the Scriptures that to “afflict one’s soul” involves fasting. For example in Psalm 35:13 David writes, “I humbled my soul with fasting.” We see the same connection again in the book of Isaiah between humbling/afflicting and fasting: “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice” (Isaiah 58:3).This connection between Yom Kippur and fasting is so firmly established that in the book of Acts, Yom Kippur is simply referred to as “the Fast” (Acts 27:9).
A biblical fast always constituted refraining from both eating and drinking. For example, when we see Esther and the people fast they “do not eat or drink for three days, night or day” (Esther 4:16). But “afflicting one’s soul” is more than just fasting. The sages recorded additional practices that constitute fasting on Yom Kippur:
On the Day of Atonement it is forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint oneself, to put on sandals [wearing leather shoes], or to have marital intercourse. (m.Yoma 8:1)
Fasting with a Purpose
As with all biblical festivals, the goal of the holiday is bonding with God. At the end of the day, Yom Kippur should cause us to have drawn closer to the Father and become more at one with him. How does fasting help accomplish this? As we deny ourselves the pleasures of this world and turn off our animal urges, the spiritual yearning and desire that we have for our Creator are increased. Often the material pleasures of this world give us an attitude of complacency. Our flesh conceals our spiritual yearnings and attempts to satisfy them with food and material pleasures.
On Yom Kippur things are different. We are given a full day to rest, not just from our jobs and labors but also from our physical appetites. It is a day to come to grips with our need for God. It is a day that he gives us to commune with him in the most intimate and unrestricted way possible. By fasting, we force ourselves to desire only him.
Yom Kippur is a day of selflessness where we approach the King of kings. It is a day of setting aside our own desires in favor of his. We offer thanks for the atonement he has given us in Messiah Yeshua and pray for strength that in this next year we might be more conformed to him. Fasting helps us accomplish this as we deny ourselves. It teaches us that, truly, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3).