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Afflict Your Souls

by Tim O'Hearn

And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you. (Lev 16:29)

Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord. (Lev 23:27)

Some have said the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is the only biblically mandated time of fasting, as determined by the phrase, “ye shall afflict your souls.” Actually, the rabbis interpreted this to mean more than fasting. Afflicting yourself included refraining from food and drink, but also included not wearing leather shoes (a sign of luxury) or engaging in marital relations. The word translated “afflict” usually carries with it the meanings: to busy oneself with; and, to humble or oppress. How do these meanings become the concept of fasting?

The idea of fasting as affliction or oppression is not really so far-fetched. The Israelites were told not to afflict widows and orphans. (Ex 22:22) Within the same context it talks about lending to the same people. The idea is that one who afflicts a widow is one who prevents her from obtaining food—enforcing a fast upon her. In Egypt, the Israelites were afflicted with work. (Ex 1:11) They were given excessive amounts of work with little pay and little time to eat. They were forced to fast for much of a day. Affliction, therefore, can carry with it the idea of forgoing luxuries, such as food, drink, and fancy clothes.

Normally such afflictions come from without. We, especially we in America, are not very familiar with self-imposed affliction. We prefer luxury to hardship, overindulgence to hunger. God knew his people. So He designated one day a year to remind Israel that they were dependent entirely upon Him. A day without food or drink, spent in the study of God’s word tends to remind one that the Master of the Universe can take it all away. It was also a reminder that atonement, forgiveness of sins against God, was also a gift, like food and water, that was essential to life. Perhaps that gift is not possible without the humbling, the realization that God gives the other gifts as well.

The verses talk about afflicting the soul, not the body. Normally fasting has a more direct effect on the physical than the spiritual. So what is meant, then, by afflicting the soul? Perhaps that brings us to meaning number one in the definition above. On Yom Kippur, one was to “busy oneself with” his soul. If that meant fasting so that one had more time to study and pray, then it can include fasting. But fasting alone doesn’t help busy oneself with his soul. More important is the study of God’s word, the praying for atonement, the reflecting on one’s past year and repenting where necessary. One rabbi said it this way: “Godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of.” (1 Corinthians 7:10)

We need to consider our sins constantly through the year. It doesn’t hurt, though, to busy ourselves with our souls in earnest at least once a year.

Yom Kippur falls on October 6, 2003.