Yom Kippur: An Opportunity for Introspection or an Effort to Change Reality?

What fasting and other rituals prescribed for Yom Hakippurim in the Bible are all about.

People pray during the Tashlich ritual on the eve of Yom Kippur in Ashdod, October 11, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

The biblical Yom Hakippurim, described in Leviticus 16, comprises two seemingly unrelated actions. Primarily, the chapter depicts the High Priest’s work, which reflects the concept that God resides in the Temple and in the midst of Israel, which he blesses. The impurities and sins that mortals create are like matter clinging to the holy artifacts, endangering the Almighty’s presence in Israel. Kippur (“atonement”) means cleansing – and it is conducted year round by means of hata’t (“purification-offerings”) and asham (“reparation-offerings”), but requires an overall, periodic cleaning with powerful detergents.

A small group attains the biblical Yom Hakippurim’s main goal in the Temple. Do all the rest of the Children of Israel share in this effort? Toward the end of the ritual instructions, presented in 30 verses, only three mention another activity for the public to undertake: “And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time” (Leviticus 16:29-31).

Alongside the Temple’s important ceremonies, the public must practice self-denial – by fasting and abstaining from work. Why? How is the priests’ work linked to the public’s fast? The accepted explanation is that the public must “repent.” Fasting, according to this explanation, enables introspection, soul-searching and penitence – our inner, spiritual side – whereas ritual is the outer shell; without penitence, rituals will not work. The academic version of this explanation argues that the verses on the public’s participation in Yom Hakippurim are a later addition to the text, intended to impart to the mechanical ritual a spiritual dimension.

In his book “How Repentance Became Biblical,” David A. Lambert challenges the penitential explanation of fasting. Despite ancient roots in Jewish and Christian thought, he writes, it has no textual basis in the Bible. Lambert proposes a new perspective on biblical fasts, showing that fasting is an act not of introspection but is a means for calling out to – and even a protest against – God.

For example, the prophet Samuel’s mother, Hannah, is distressed because of her barrenness. During her family’s festive visit to the sanctuary at Shiloh, Hannah refuses to partake of the sacrificial offerings her husband presents, and addresses God in prayer: “You will look upon the suffering of your maidservant and will remember me and not forget your maidservant” (1 Samuel 1:11).

Hannah sees herself as an impoverished individual; that is how she presents herself to society and God. Her fasting, claims Lambert, is like a hunger strike – one aimed not inward toward the soul of the person who is fasting, but outward, toward the one capable of relieving the stress: society or the state in the modern context, and God in the biblical context.

Fasting enables distressed individuals to demonstrate their distress before the sovereign through self-affliction. Physical torment manifests the situation of those who fast and the catastrophe that has happened or might happen to them; this manifestation is a way to address the sovereign and also confirms the fasters’ inferiority vis-à-vis, and dependence upon, the sovereign.

Hunger strikes have an optimistic dimension because they assume there is a limit to the ability of society to ignore its citizens’ distress. The biblical fast shows God’s empathy with the weak. Hannah, whose wish is granted, thanks God, who “raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the dunghill” (1 Samuel 2:8). In Psalms we read, “Now you, O God, my lord, act on my behalf as befits your name. Good and faithful as you are, save me, for I am poor and needy. ... My knees give way from fasting” (Psalms 109:21-24). Through fasting, people show that they are “poor and needy,” while pleading for divine deliverance.

Sometimes fasts do not help. The Yom Hakippurim haftarah (although it does not directly discuss that day), from the Book of Isaiah, presents Israel’s bewilderment: “Why, when we fasted, did you not see? When we starved our bodies, did you pay no need?” (Isaiah 58:3). God answers: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable?” (Isa. 58:5). People sometimes explain God’s words as a rejection of our fasting because of our hypocrisy, falseness and insincerity: Our outward gestures of fasting and mourning do not authentically express inner soul-searching. However, a close look at the text reveals this is not the problem.

“Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist!” (Isa. 58:4), the prophet chastises Israel, describing how to fast: “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness to let the oppressed go free. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home?” (Isa. 58:6-7). The reason God rejects the fast is not the lack of the internal process that this act is allegedly supposed to express, but the lack of a real change, which is a prerequisite for acceptance of the fast.

Lambert claims a similar mechanism operates on Yom Hakippurim. The fast is connected to the work inside the Temple: Both seek to ensure God’s continued residence amid Israel. The removal of sin that is effected in the Temple is the heart, and source of the name, of Yom Hakippurim. Israel expresses its dependence on God, pleading for mercy through manifestation of its distress and powerlessness before the Master of the Universe. But this hunger strike can work only if the sins are directly dealt with.

In the priestly theology, removal of sin occurs through ritual. In the Book of Isaiah it occurs through social action, cessation of injustice and mercy toward the needy. Fasting does not lead to the abandonment of sin but is dependent on it, and both of them seek not to generate internal soul-searching but to substantially change reality.