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03.10.2019 19:32    Comments: 0    Categories: Holidays      Tags: torah  holidays  yom  kippur  fasting  

Fasting and Reliance on the Lord

“It is the Day of Atonement…you shall practice self-denial.”[1]

Eating holds a place of importance in Jewish thought.  Food is not only for physical survival,[2] insofar as the Holy One, blessed be He, could have created human beings without the need to eat; it is also for worshipping the Lord.  On the Day of Atonement we are commanded, “afflict your souls on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath” (Lev. 23:32).  The Sages explain that this refers to five ways of self-denial, especially a prohibition against eating and drinking.

The question arises as to the essence of this self-denial on the Day of Atonement, especially since this is the only fast day that the Torah commands us to observe.[3] Specifically, why is the commandment to afflict the soul and not the body, and what is meant by “afflicting the soul”?  Another question arises from the Sages’ interpretation:  “Do we fast on the ninth day?  Why, we fast on the tenth!  But this teaches you that that if one eats and drinks on the ninth day, Scripture accounts it as if one fasted on the ninth and the tenth.”[4] On one hand, the Lord commands us to fast on the tenth, and on the other He commands us to eat on the ninth in order to minimize the feeling of affliction.[5] How is this?

An important principle is that worshipping the Lord requires that we come to feel utter dependence on the Holy One, blessed be He, “like a weaned child with its mother” (Ps. 131:2).  In contrast, thoughts that ascribe our sustainment to other things are considered a denial of the faith, as it says (Deut. 8:12-18):

When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased…beware lest your heart grow haughty…and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”  Remember that it is the Lord your G‑d who gives you the power to get wealth.

Since the Lord gives human beings the means of survival—food, clothing, a roof over one’s head, a family, and the like—these might make a person think it is they that sustain his existence; therefore the Lord gave us commandments and proscriptions, to instill in us the faith that we rely solely on the Lord.

Now I would like to set forth a theory that all the festivals are directed at achieving this objective.  As we know, there is one thing that is forbidden on all holidays and all Sabbaths—a proscription against work that creates something new, since any action by which a human being makes something new gives the person a sense of being a creator, and this is the main thought a person must divest from his or her mind.  Therefore, on every festival and Sabbath creative work is forbidden, so that we internalize the idea that the Holy One, blessed be He, is the sole Creator.  But every festival also serves to teach another lesson, leading human beings to ascribe their sustainment solely to the Holy One, blessed be He; the Day of Atonement has the greatest concentration of such messages.  However, let us begin our review of these didactic elements from the first month of the Jewish year, the month of Nisan.


Man’s main food is bread in its leavened form, and having bread makes us feel that our sustainment is secure.  Therefore for the duration of the Passover festival we are commanded to put aside all leaven, such that it not even be seen our found in our possession.  This idea is also expressed in the verse, “He [the Lord] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (Deut. 8:3).  The Holy One, blessed be He, deprived the people of their usual bread, and this deprivation is defined as a hardship (`inui—same as word used with respect to self-denial on the Day of Atonement), and gave them bread from heaven to make them realize their dependence on the Holy One, blessed be He.[6]


The Feast of Weeks

This is the feast of First Fruits, as it says in Scripture:  “On the day of the first fruits, your Feast of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Num. 28:26).  Here we have another lesson regarding what we eat.  On this festival the Lord commands us to bring first fruits from the seven varieties to the Temple, to teach us that we should not ascribe our existence to the fruits which we have grown on our soil.  Sefer Ha-Hinukh says:  “One of the fundamental ideas of the commandment…is that we know that all the blessings in the world come to us from Him, blessed be He,…for the fruits and all other good things come from Him.”[7]

Rosh Ha-Shanah

After half a year of lessons teaching us not to ascribe things to ourselves, we receive a lesson whose main point is that the Lord is King, and on Him we are utterly dependent.

The Day of Atonement

After taking in the idea that the Lord is King, we come to the Day of Atonement, the day with the greatest number of lessons:

Eating and Drinking:  Thus far we learned not to rely on the bread and fruit that we produce, and on this day we learn not to be dependent on eating and drinking at all.

Washing and anointing:  These two prohibitions are tied to the prohibition against drinking, to teach us how utterly comprehensive that prohibition is, so much so that we are even forbidden anything in the least way connected with drinking.  The Mishnah says of anointing:  “How do we know that anointing is [prohibited just] as drinking on the Day of Atonement?...For it is said: ‘And it came into his inward parts like water, and like oil, in his bones’ (Ps. 109:18).”[8] Of washing it says:  “We have found it now with regard to [abstention from] anointing oneself.  Whence do we know it about [abstention from] washing?...Rather, said Rabbi Ashi:  [That abstention from] washing [is considered an affliction] is evident from the verse itself, for it is written:  ‘Neither did I anoint myself at all’ (Dan. 10:3).”[9] The prohibition against washing is derived from the extra words “at all.”  This signifies that the prohibition against anointing and washing is related to the prohibition against drinking.

Wearing leather footwear:  Clothing gives a person a sense of security, honor, protection against the ravages of nature, and even define a person’s status and function.  Clearly clothing builds self-confidence in various respects.  The most important item of garb is footwear.[10] Therefore we must abstain from wearing shoes and thus sever ourselves from the security given by shoes.

Sexual intercourse:  Family relations are one of the things that give a sense of security.  The strongest family tie is that between husband and wife.[11] Therefore one is asked to put aside this closeness, and devote oneself solely to drawing close to the Lord.

Now we can explain the questions about fasting on the Day of Atonement, raised at the outset of this article.  The essence of `inui, self-denial, is to remove ourselves from things that we are likely to consider the basis of our existence.  Therefore, the self-denial does not have to do with the body, rather with the soul, accustomed as it is to ascribe its security to tangible things; and so, on this day, these things are denied us.  The Lord commands us to eat on the ninth day so that we not suffer bodily affliction, rather so that our abstinence from food strengthen our sense of dependence on the Holy One, blessed be He.

The Feast of Tabernacles

One’s house, which provides protection against the elements, is another thing that gives a person a sense of security.  Therefore, for seven days one must leave one’s secure house and dwell in a temporary hut, which certainly provides no natural protection, and thus one is reinforced in the belief that one’s only protection is in the Lord.

Shemini Atzeret

Just as the New Year, when we stand fast by the Lord, comes after the two festivals of Passover and the Feast of Weeks, so too comes Shemini Atzeret after another two holidays—the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles—and on this holiday the Lord seeks to be with us alone.[12] The Sages appended Simhat Torah to this festival to teach us that our bond with the Holy One, blessed be He, is by virtue of the Torah alone.


Our thesis can also be applied to holidays originating with the Rabbis.  Light is another thing that gives a sense of power and control.  In daylight we feel steady and sure, because light, when the Lord created it, “was good.”  On Hanukkah, when the nights are longer, we kindle lights and again have a sense of stability and security.  The Sages instruct us to kindle lights, but caution us not to make use of their light; rather, “only to see them.”  Thus we practice relying not on the light, but rather on He who said, “Let there be light.”


The last of the holidays is Purim.  Here we have a challenging point.  It is ruled in the Halakhah that on Purim we must get so inebriated that we cannot distinguish between accursed Haman and blessed Mordechai.[13] It is well known that drunkenness is considered extremely reprehensible in Judaism.  Indeed, the first request in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer concerns the Lord giving man sense, knowledge.  So how could the Sages have commanded that we get drunk to the point of losing our senses?  Knowledge, however, can be very powerful, and with it man can accomplish great things.  Thus the Sages commanded that we drink to the point of “not knowing,” so that we put aside knowing and rely solely on the Lord.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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