Yom Kippur, or the “Day of Atonement”, is considered one of the holiest days of the year to those of us who follow The Way – those of us who are believers in Messiah Yeshua (or Jesus) and who also follow all the doctrines of both the Old and New Testament (for more on The Way, see Acts 24:14).
On this day, the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the congregation. It was the one day of the year where the entire congregation was made pure and spotless. It is a foreshadowing of the work our Messiah would do for us in the Heavenly Tabernacle.
Heb 9:6 And these having been prepared thus, the priests go into the first tabernacle through all, completing the services.
Heb 9:7 But into the second the high priest goes alone once in the year, not without blood, which he offers for himself and the ignorance’s of the people;
Heb 9:8 the Holy Spirit signifying by this that the way of the Holy of Holies has not yet been made manifest, the first tabernacle still having been standing;
Heb 9:9 and it was a symbol, for that time, during which oblation and sacrifices were offered that could not make perfect the conscience of him who offered them:
Heb 9:10 but only in food and drink, and various washings, and fleshly ordinances, until the time of reformation has been imposed.
Heb 9:11 But Messiah having appeared as a High Priest of the coming good things, through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation,
Heb 9:12 nor through the blood of goats and of calves, but through His own blood, He entered once for all into the Holy of Holies, having obtained for us everlasting salvation.
We read about Yom Kippur in Leviticus chapter 23:
Lev 23:26 And YAHWEH spoke to Moses saying,
Lev 23:27 Also, on the tenth of this seventh month shall be a day of atonement; there shall be a holy gathering, and you shall humble and weaken your bodies and shall bring a fire offering to YAHWEH.
Lev 23:28 And you shall do no work in this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to atone for you before YAHWEH your Elohim.
Lev 23:29 For any person who is not humbled in this same day shall be cut off from his people.
Lev 23:30 And any person who does any work in this same day, I shall even cut off that person from the midst of his people.
Lev 23:31 You shall do no work; it is a never ending statute throughout your generations, in all your dwellings.
Lev 23:32 It is a Sabbath of rest to you, and you shall humble your souls in the ninth of the month at evening; from evening until evening you shall keep your Sabbath.
Some versions of the Bible have verse 27 saying “and ye shall afflict your souls”, rather than “and you shall humble and weaken your bodies”. Many scholars believe, as per Jewish tradition, that this meant we were to fast on that day. As such, most people observe Yom Kippur by fasting from food, drink and even marital relations.
But a closer look at the actual Hebrew words may give a slightly different meaning to that phrase. The word translated as “afflict” (or “humble”) is the Hebrew word “`anah”.
The Brown-Driver-Briggs concordance gives this word the meaning of:
“to be occupied, to be busied with, to afflict, to oppress, to humble, to be bowed down, to humble oneself, to be humiliated”
The Strong’s concordance gives this word the meaning of:
“to depress literally or figuratively transitively or intransitively (in various applications)”
The word following “`anah” in verse 27 is translated as “souls” or “bodies”. It is the Hebrew word “nephesh”.
The Brown-Driver-Briggs concordance gives this word the meaning of:
“soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion, living being”
The Strong’s concordance gives this word the meaning of:
“properly a breathing creature that is animal or (abstractly) vitality; used very widely in a literal accommodated or figurative sense (bodily or mental)”
So, it is easy to see how some might say it means to “afflict your body” or “afflict your appetite”. But, it can just as easily mean “humble yourself” or “humble your mind”.
Never the less, many people turn to Isaiah chapter 58 as “proof” that Yom Kippur is about fasting. Let’s look at that passage in detail:
Isa 58:1 Call out with the throat! Do not spare. Lift up your voice like the ram’s horn! And declare to My people their rebellion, and their sins to the house of Jacob.
Isa 58:2 Yet they seek Me day by day, and desire knowledge of My ways. As a nation that has done right, and not forsaking the judgment of their Elohim, they ask Me about judgments of righteousness; they desire to draw near to Elohim.
The people were in the midst of their exile to Babylon. Yet, they were crying out to YHVH asking why this had happened to them, while at the same time continuing to rebel against Him by violating His Torah (His Law).
Isa 58:3 They say, Why have we fasted, and You did not see? We have afflicted our soul, and You did not acknowledge. Behold, on the day of your fast you find pleasure; and you drive all your laborers hard.
Isa 58:4 Look! You fast for strife, and for debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. Do not fast as today, to sound your voice in the high place.
The people were afflicting themselves with fasting, and asking why YHVH did not take notice. YHVH’s answer to them was that they were fasting with the wrong attitude. While they were fasting they were fighting with one another and doing wickedness. He tells the people that their fast would not be heard.
Isa 58:5 Is this like the fast I will choose, a day for a man to afflict his soul? To bow his head down like a bulrush, and he spreads sackcloth and ashes? Will you call to this as a fast and a day of delight to YAHWEH?
In this verse YHVH asks them if the fasting they are doing (afflicting their souls, bowing their heads, and spreading sackcloth and ashes), is the fasting He asked for on this day. Many use this verse to prove that the day YHVH is talking about is Yom Kippur, and, that YHVH has called for a fast on this day. While I have no contention that this may very well be the day of “Yom Kippur” that YHVH is referring to, the main focus of His statement is the “type” of fast the people were doing, not the “day” they were fasting on.
So in context, it is the next verse that gives a better explanation of what sort of “fast” YHVH was looking for.
Isa 58:6 Is this not the fast I have chosen: to open bands of wickedness, to undo thongs of the yoke, and to send out the oppressed ones free; even that you pull off every yoke?
Isa 58:7 Is it not to break your bread to the hungry, that you should bring the wandering poor home? When will you see the naked and cover him, and you will not hide yourself from your flesh?
The fast YHVH seeks is the one that sets those who are under oppression free. It is a fast that helps to feed the hungry. It is a fast that helps to cover those who are naked.
Isa 58:8 Then your light shall break as the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of YAHWEH shall gather you.
Isa 58:9 Then you shall call, and YAHWEH will answer; you shall cry, and He shall say, Here I am. If you put the yoke away from among you, the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of vanity;
Isa 58:10 and if you let out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall be as the noonday.
Isa 58:11 And YAHWEH shall always guide you, and satisfy your soul in dry places, and make strong your bones. And you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
Isa 58:12 And those who come of you shall build the old ruins; you shall rear the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called, The repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to live in.
YHVH is telling them that if they would only do as He asks, then He would heal them and re-gather them back into their land. The exiles could return home if they would only do what YHVH is asking them to do.
Isa 58:13 If you turn your foot away because of the Sabbath, from doing what you please on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, to the holiness of YAHWEH, glorified; and shall glorify Him, to the holiness of not doing your own ways, from finding your own pleasure or speaking your own words;
Isa 58:14 then you shall delight yourself in YAHWEH. And I will cause you to ride on the heights of the earth, and make you eat with the inheritance of your father Jacob. For the mouth of YAHWEH has spoken.
The key here is the phrase “doing what you please on my holy day”. What was it that they were doing that was “pleasure” to them on that day? According to the passages above, they were oppressing others while enjoying their Sabbath, and expecting YHVH to honor them for it. YHVH called them out on it, telling them He would not hear their cries, or honor their fasting, so long as they were oppressing others.
You see, the Law of the Sabbath states this:
Exo 20:8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (set apart);
Exo 20:9 six days you shall labor and do all your work;
Exo 20:10 and the seventh day is a Sabbath to YAHWEH your Elohim; you shall not do any work, you, and your son, and your daughter, your male slave and your slave-girl, and your livestock, and your stranger who is in your gates.
Exo 20:11 For in six days YAHWEH made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all which is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; on account of this YAHWEH blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.
On the Sabbath, not only were they to rest, but they were to allow their slaves to rest as well. In the passages above in Isaiah, the people were guilty of resting on the Sabbath while forcing their slaves to work – they were oppressing those below them.
After reading that, it is a far leap to say that somehow, in those passages, YHVH is commanding everyone to fast on Yom Kippur. Did the people fast on that day? Obviously so. But, did YHVH command it? No – absolutely nowhere in that passage does YHVH command anyone to fast.
And keep in mind, the scriptures are very specific concerning what would happen to those people who do not “`anah nephesh” on that day…
Lev 23:29 For any person who does not “`anah nephesh” in this same day shall be cut off from his people.
Well… what about people with dietary issues such as diabetes or other blood sugar issues? Do they get cut off from the congregation just because they cannot go 24 hours without eating? What about people suffering for some reason or another from dehydration? Do they get cut off from the congregation just because they cannot go 24 hours without a drink of water? Seems kind of harsh, doesn’t it?
Some would argue that “special provisions” are made for those people. But, I would point out that those “special provisions” do not appear anywhere in the scriptures… just as fasting (specifically as a commandment on Yom Kippur) does not appear anywhere in the scriptures, either.
The problem I see in interpreting what exactly “`anah nephesh” means is this – in Leviticus chapter 16 we are given explicit details as to how exactly the events of the day (Yom Kippur) would play out. All the details concerning the duties of the High Priest and the congregation of Israel on Yom Kippur are given in that chapter. Yet, nowhere in that chapter are there any instructions on fasting. Why would YHVH be so specific and direct, to even tell us how many times the blood was to be sprinkled on the mercy seat, or the type of clothing the High Priest was to put on before entering the sanctuary, yet somehow forget to tell us that He expected all of us to fast on that day, or else we would be cut off from the congregation? Seems like a pretty big thing to leave out, doesn’t it?
So then, what does “`anah nephesh” actually mean? Well, I think to figure that out we should look at what this day is actually all about. The entire purpose of this day was to wipe away all the sins from the people. It was a day where everyone is atoned for and considered pure and spotless. It was a day that looked forward to the people Israel (all of us who follow Yeshua) being presented as a pure and spotless bride to our Groom, Yeshua Messiah.
Think about this for a second – the very first time you realized that the work of Yeshua on the cross had paid the penalty for all your sins, how did it make you feel? Did you feel humbled? I know I did! I was broken and humbled, both in spirit and in body, at the thought that everything I had ever done against YHVH was wiped clean by the blood of Yeshua on the cross. I wept and it brought me to my knees just thinking about it.
That, I believe, is what “`anah nephesh” is all about. It is about being humbled before YHVH because our High Priest, Yeshua, has gone into the Heavenly Tabernacle to place His blood upon the Mercy Seat to atone for all our sins. That is the “`anah nephesh” that YHVH is commanding.
If this humility drives you to want to fast for YHVH – then great, do so! Fasting is a great way to discipline your body and help you to focus your thoughts on Him. But, should we be commanding others to fast as well, when the scriptures do not specifically say to do so? Should we be placing burdens (man-made traditions) on the people that are too difficult for some to bear?