Fasting on Yom Kippur was the one Jewish practice my family – or, rather, my father and I – followed when I was growing up. I’m not sure why we did it, since we didn’t go to synagogue and probably couldn’t have defined the word ‘atonement.’ We knew that it was somehow essentially Jewish to fast and be very serious on that day, and we were Jews, so off we went being hungry and serious. But unlike Holocaust Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day, we could not have explained why that was necessary.
The reason may have had something to do with Psalm 1. For much of my childhood we were living in Israel, where the population was divided into those who fasted and those who unceremoniously took advantage of the fast to have a good time – children who’d ride their bicycles in the middle of streets empty of cars owned by the fasting majority, adults who would use the day off to have a dinner party. If you were not fasting, you were on the side of the scoffers – perhaps even “sitting in their seat,” as the Psalm has it. That did not feel comfortable. So Dad and I went hungry.
After my baptism, I had decided that it must be wrong for me to mark Yom Kippur. After the Passion and Resurrection, a special Day of Atonement seemed unnecessary and possibly blasphemous. Later, Yom Kippur was explained to me as simply a day on which Jews seek forgiveness of God and of their fellows. In this light it was more or less theologically neutral, and that was a relief – not fasting had felt awkward, as if I were once again among those bicycle-riding scoffers, only now scoffing against my entire people rather than just its religious component.
For the benefit of those who, like me, could stand to hit the (Five) books a little harder, here is how the people of Israel are commanded to keep the Day of Atonement:
“This shall be an ordinance forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls [literally, “fast” – see footnote], and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a resident alien who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you from all your sins before the Lord [which is described in great detail in previous verses, and involves the priest entering the Holy of Holies and sending a scapegoat into the wilderness – heady stuff]. Thus you shall be clean. It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths, a rest for you, and you shall humble your souls [again, see footnote]. It is an ordinance forever.” (Leviticus 16: 29-31).
It is quite clear, not least from the sheer quantity of divinely inspired real estate dedicated to its description, that the sacrifice made by the High Priest is absolutely central to the Day of Atonement. Sure, it is not sufficient to save sinners – the Israelites must also fast, pray, and put aside their work; but they must do it because – “for (ki in Hebrew, which has the same causative sense) on that day the priest shall make atonement for you.”
When the Temple was destroyed and animal sacrifices discontinued, Yom Kippur – along with the many other occasions when sacrifices were called for by the Old Testament – became problematic for Judaism. As far as Jews are concerned, the high priest no longer slaughters a goat on the tenth day of the seventh month because it is impossible. As far as Christians are concerned, the reason the goat-slaughtering is impossible is because a Sacrifice of Atonement has been offered once and for all, and there is no more need for a goat. The Jews go on fasting and praying on that day anyway, for other spiritually salutary purposes – namely, seeking God’s forgiveness – and there seems to be no harm in Christians joining them in some of these purposes: taking stock of our souls, perhaps making an extra trip to the confessional.
Orthodox Christians live out each year according to a detailed liturgical calendar that calls for quite a bit of fasting and feasting, with the meaning of each fast and feast thoroughly preached about in church. One is meant to share a spiritual schedule with the rest of the church, for the benefit of both enhancing communal worship and preventing spiritual pride (for instance, the faithful are actually prohibited from fasting during feasts such as Bright Week after Pascha/Easter, lest anyone think himself holier than his neighbors). Taking out a day to fast on one’s own, without the rest of the Church, feels excessive, and perhaps a little wrong.
I decided to do it anyway this year. As often happens, I found myself surprised by the obvious. Fasting reminded me of the other time of year when I fast all day – Great Friday and even more so Holy Saturday. This period is referred to in the liturgy as the Great Sabbath Rest: the time between the Lord’s crucifixion, which was done in a hurry on Friday so as to be completed before the Sabbath, and His resurrection on the third day. This is the time of the harrowing of hell and His glorification at the right hand of the Father. The Sacrifice of Atonement is made for us by the highest of priests during that time. It is truly the Sabbath of Sabbaths, and a time for prayer and refraining from work. Fasting on Yom Kippur, the Mosaic Sabbath of Sabbaths – which conveniently fell on a Saturday this year – proved for me a reminder of this Great Sabbath, a day of preparation for it.
Like ancient Israel, I spent the day awaiting the Sacrifice of Atonement. Like modern Israel, I knew that the Sacrifice would not be carried out today, and turned my attention inward, instead of toward the Temple. But unlike the latter, I also knew that the Sacrifice has already come to pass, and that it will not be long – only a few months – before I can rejoice in it.
Footnote: The words “humble your souls” are interesting. This New King James Bible translation suggests that the focus is on humility, which is closely linked to resting from work. However, in the original text the words used are anitem et nafshoteichem, which literally means “you shall torture your souls,” and is understood by both my Hebrew commentary and a Hebrew glossary to refer to fasting from food. Complicating things further, anitem means both “to torture” and “to answer, to be called to answer.” Thus the children of Israel shall call their souls to answer for their sins by “torturing” them with asceticism, while refraining from work. “Humbling your souls” is certainly one way to describe that…