On the tenth day of the seventh month is a Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26).”

According to the Bible, this tenth day of the seventh month, which begins on the evening of the ninth, and lasts until the evening of tenth, shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest on which we should “afflict” ourselves (Leviticus 23:32). This day is considered the most holy day on the ancient Hebrew calendar – a Holy of Holies! But what should we do on this day to set it apart? What does it mean when it says to afflict our souls?

The primary texts that concern this holy day are found in the Torah (Leviticus 16 and Leviticus 23:26-32). Leviticus 16 contains an ancient ceremony performed by Israel’s High Priest. The central theme of the ceremony, and of the day, is “atonement.”

For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before YHVH from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever (Leviticus 16:30-31).

The word “atonement” is a translation of the Hebrew word (כפר), which occurs 14 times in Leviticus 16 alone. The basic meaning of this word is “to cover.” So this is literally a day of covering. What is it that is being covered on this day? The covering associated with Yom Kippur refers to the sins of the people. The ceremonies that brought about this “covering” involved two identical goats: one that was killed, and one that was led away into the wilderness – l’azazel (often translated as the “scapegoat”).

The detailed rituals and sacrifices described in the Torah for Yom Kippur were principally carried out by Aaron, but there remains a point that was then, and is now, to be performed by all – citizens as well as the alien residing with you (Leviticus 16:29 and Leviticus 23:30) – to “afflict” the soul. The Hebrew here is anah (אנה) and means, “to be bowed down, afflicted” according to Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon. Some translations render this word as “deny yourself.” The word occurs twice in Leviticus 16 and three times in Leviticus 23 (Leviticus 16:29, 31; 23:27, 29, 32). This means that this word occurs five times in the two passages that deal with Yom Kippur.

Given this information, a key theme that emerges at this time is “self-denial.” In the Bible, this word is associated with what we would call “fasting.” Examples are found in Ezra 8:21-23 and Psalm 35:11-14.

During this time of year we should be focused on returning to God through repentance. If we are to effect a change in our walk, we must turn to God and His ways with all of our heart and soul. This repentance can include fasting and mourning as we read in several passages, but it is not merely the participation in a fast or in the refraining from certain activities that will put one in right standing with God. The heart has to be right. I would encourage everyone to read Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14. A careful reading of this passage indicates that a true fast involves a focus on the needs of others as well as a denial of self. When we learn to place the needs of others above our own needs, we will begin to walk in the ways of righteousness.

Isaiah 57:14 And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” 15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. 16 For I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry; for the spirit would grow faint before me, and the breath of life that I made. 17 Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry, I struck him; I hid my face and was angry, but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart. 18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners, 19 creating the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says YHVH, “and I will heal him. 20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. 21 There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.” 58:1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to YHVH? 6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of YHVH shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and YHVH will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. 11 And YHVH will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. 12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. 13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of YHVH honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; 14 then you shall take delight in YHVH, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of YHVH has spoken.”

Beginning at sundown, September 27th, 2020, traditional Jews begin their fast for Yom Kippur. In whatever way you commemorate the fast, consider well the true meaning of anah. The ceremonial aspects of the day are not currently practiced, but the heart of the matter is still required. Remember that this is an eternal statute! We can still perform the weightier portion of this day. Deny yourself. Afflict your soul. If we return to YHVH, He will return to us. May your sins be forgiven. May they be cast into the depths of the sea. “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before YHVH from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever (Leviticus 16:30-31).”