- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2015


Many of the rituals, holidays and traditions in our religions do not actually come from the canonical books themselves. Though many texts have been cited as “indicators” or “support,” they may not in fact be blatant requirements of those religions’ dictums.

Such is the case even regarding how one is to act on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and considered the highest holy day of the entire year.

The notion to “afflict your souls” comes from Leviticus 16:29-31, where it is stated, “you shall afflict yourselves … Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins … and you shall afflict yourselves. It is an eternal statute.”

As a result, Jews today are told to fast for approximately 25 hours and sins will be forgiven. But there are a few misunderstandings and some mistakes of what this actually means.

For example, a person’s atonement only counts for their sins against G-d. That’s why it only says that you are cleansed “before the Lord.” Anything done to another person must be apologized for and the situation rectified.

To put it another way, fasting will not get you off the hook for robbing someone.

But there is a bigger issue. Fasting itself was never mentioned in the ancient texts— just the notion of “afflicting” one’s soul. So where does fasting come from?

The answer: the Talmud.

Depending on what denomination a person is, the Talmud is viewed differently. To some, the Talmud is a compendium of wisdom of sages and rabbis stretching from around 200 CE to 500 CE. To the orthodox, it is the Oral Torah verbally transmitted to Moses on Mt. Sinai and then transmitted orally across the millennia.

However, regardless of who authored this work, the Talmud talks of the sages who afflicted themselves by fasting. However, there is still no mention that everyone or anyone must fast, nor does it mention that this is the only way to afflict one’s soul. Rather, it provides one method in which a group of sages did so just shy of 2,000 years ago.

Fasting can be a good method to afflict oneself since there is nothing like not eating and drinking to force you to realize how fragile life really is. Does this mean that doing so afflicts one’s soul? The sages believed so, but it does not mean that it the only way, nor does it make fasting a commandment.

It is not in the Bible, yet every year, without fail, two things will be said over and over again in connection with Yom Kippur:

1. The nonreligious Jew: “I am a bad Jew because I don’t fast.”

2. The religious Jew: “If you are a healthy adult, you must fast on Yom Kippur.”

Yet despite a clear reading of the text, the first’s guilt usually comes from a lack of textual study, and the second confident assertion has to do with belief that the Talmud is also of divine origin and therefore binding.

There is nothing wrong with fasting, whether it is on Yom Kippur, Lent or Ramadan. In fact, there are studies and discussions of the health and spiritual benefits of doing so. In the case of Yom Kippur, it is apparent that fasting is a legitimate way to afflict oneself as required by the scriptures, but this is not a monopoly, nor the only way to do so. It is only because of tradition that adherents have come to associate fasting as being the exclusive way to do so for Yom Kippur.

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