Does God Command a Fast on Yom Kippur?
Updated: Sep 15, 2021
Much debate (midrash) has taken place over the topic of whether or not Yah commands a complete fast on the Appointed Time of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). While every individual is certainly permitted to fast whenever they would like or whenever they feel that God has called them to fast, this lesson is for the purpose of whether or not fasting on Yom Kippur is a command of Yah or if it is another long-standing tradition.
Let me first start by saying that traditions in and of themselves are not bad things. Traditions tie families, communities and people groups together in very significant ways. They make for very close and binding ties. The problem with traditions arise when a tradition is placed above a command of God or when a person makes a tradition equal to a command of God and then they enforce this tradition upon people to the point that if a person does not obey the tradition then they are told, or treated as if, they had sinned.
Before we look to scripture concerning Yom Kippur a little history lesson is important.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, the oral law, Yom Kippur is referred to as Tzoma Rabbah, “the great fast”. (j. Peah 7:4) and in another place it is mentioned as just simply, Tzoma, “fast”. (j. Bava Batra 9:7)
Traditionally Rabbi's have also taught in the oral law that on Yom Kippur, in addition to fasting, one should refrain from bathing, anointing, wearing shoes, and sexual relations (Yad, Shevitat Asor 1:5) These are forbidden by the Oral Torah (law) only and not by command of Yah in the Torah. (Tosafot, Yoma 7b)
One must discern carefully from the Scriptures which are legit commands and which are only traditions.
Was “The Fast” observed on Yom Kippur during the days of Yeshua and His disciples? Of course! In Acts 27:9 we read:
“And when much time was spent, and the voyage was now dangerous, because the Fast was now already gone by, Paul admonished them,”
This verse is clearly speaking about the fast of Yom Kippur. After the seventh month the rainy and cold season sets in and traveling situations would have become dangerous. In the Complete Jewish Bible it uses the words Yom Kippur in the verse instead of “the fast”. Did Yeshua and His disciples fast on Yom Kippur? – probably, I can't say for sure because I wasn’t there, but it would be understandable that they would have kept with the traditions of their community.
So, what do the scriptures actually say about this day? All the scriptures where the Appointed Time of Yom Kippur is mentioned read the same way so I will only list one:
Leviticus 23:27 “Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement: it shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; and ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto Jehovah.” (ASV)
The word “afflict” is the portion that is believed to command a fast. The word used for “afflict” is the Hebrew word “anah” (H6031). However, there is another Hebrew word for fast, tsum (H6684).
The Hebrew word “anah” according to all concordances means “to look down upon, abase oneself, bow down, humble oneself, oppress, mortify”. In no concordance does it mean to fast.
One of the best ways to study the Bible is to look at how the word in question is used in every other instance in the Scriptures. The word “anah” is found in the Old Testament 79 times.
The first occurrence is in Genesis 15:13:
“And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict (anah) them four hundred years; “
I have to ask the question, 'were they going to fast for four hundred years since they were being afflicted (anah)? Absolutely not! Instead we find that the Children of Israel were going to be “humbled” , “bow down or abased” or brought under the authority of the Egyptians. They were going to be their servants.
Here is the next 2 occurrences of the word “anah” in scripture:
Genesis 16:6-9 “But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly (anah) with her, she fled from her face. And he said, Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai. And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself (anah) under her hands.”
This had nothing to do with fasting either. It had to do with Hagar being put under Sarah's authority.
Genesis 34:2 “And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled (anah) her.”
Here again, the word “anah” is translated as defiled in this scripture and denotes an abasing or humbling.
Exodus 10:3 “And Moses and Aaron came in unto Pharaoh, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, How long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself (anah) before me? let my people go, that they may serve me.”
Deuteronomy 8:16; “Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble (anah) thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end;”
Psalms 119:71 “It is good for me that I have been afflicted (anah); that I might learn thy statutes.”
Psalms 119:75; “I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted (anah) me.”
I could go on and on for 79 verses but I encourage each reader to look up the word for themselves. In all 79 verses that this word “anah” is used it is used when referencing a “humbling” or bringing under the authority of someone or something. It is never used for fasting or to encourage or command a fast. In fact, in the scriptures from Psalms listed above, this humbling ourselves is directly tied to following Yah‘s instructions.
One of my favorite teachers was the late Brad Scott of Wildbranch Ministry. Brad was much more of a Hebrew scholar than myself and he had a lesson on the word “afflict” (anah). Like myself, he identified this word with “a humbling” before Yah and a “responding” to someone or something. He also states that this word does not denote that a fast is “commanded” on Yom Kippur. He also speaks about the pictographic meaning of the word itself to bring more clarity.
One last thing to note: it seems that more attention is put on the “fasting” of Yom Kippur than on the “atonement” that took place. The goat of the LORD was sacrificed for sins. As a believer in Messiah Yeshua- my focus is on the fact that HE was the Yom Kippur sacrifice (needing to enter into the holy of holies only once for sins). All the Appointed Times point to the Messiah and His plan of salvation. Fasting does not bring salvation but repentance and acceptance of Yeshua Messiah and His shed blood does. Keep the main thing the main thing during this season and always: Yeshua!
I hope this has broadened someone's understanding and usage of the word or at least encouraged someone to “test” all things against the Word of God.
Again, I am not against fasting on Yom Kippur. I just do not believe that it is commanded by Yah. Instead, what is commanded is that we have a Sabbath day and that we make sure that we have "humbled" ourselves to His commandments and pray for ourselves and our nation to repent and submit to His Torah. This great day is more about a ”fast of the heart” than a fast for the physical body. It is like the difference between physical circumcision versus a circumcision of the heart. Which one of those does He really desire the most? You can physically fast until you died from starvation but that wouldn’t mean your heart was right before the Creator. What He really desires is a repentant, broken, and contrite heart that is obedient to Him and what He demands of His children. This is not only about how we worship Him but also how we treat others.
The emphasis should be on the afflicting of the inward man and not the afflicting of the physical man.
We have all sinned and thus we find Yeshua. We further celebrate because He took our sins and transgressions upon Himself and died for our sins and then entered into the heavenly tabernacle as our High Priest.
Some commentators suggest that the fast mentioned in Isaiah chapter 58 was talking about the fast of Yom Kippur. Irregardless, I urge you to read that chapter and see what kind of fast the LORD desires.
Will I physically fast on Yom Kippur? Yes, most likely! But if I should fail to fast I will not condemn myself as if I had broken a command of my Elohim. Instead, I will try to seriously search the deepest recesses of my inner being, and I will remember and thank my Father in heaven for sending His only son to die for my sins, and for His becoming my High Priest.