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Like many other Jewish holy days, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has undergone major transformation. From being a Temple-based institutional festival, it has, in our time, become one that centers on the individual's search for renewal and personal transformation through prayer, repentance, introspection, and hope for a better future.

In the Hebrew calendar, the origins of the Day of Atonement go back to antiquity when it was, much like its counterparts elsewhere in the ancient Near East, a day of cleansing the Temple through elaborate rituals. In fact, the Yom Kippur ritual mentioned in Leviticus 16 deals primarily with a "rite of riddance," giving the priests instruction on how to purge the Innermost Shrine in order to remove all the ritual impurities.

According to the cultic instructions of the Torah, on the Day of Atonement, both Israelites and resident aliens were expected to do two things in order to achieve the expiation of their sins: to abstain from doing any kind of work and to "afflict themselves." [1] If they failed to do these, the punishment was "karet" ("extirpation") (Lev. 23:29-30), whose meaning is unclear and which, according to many ancient rabbis, implied chastisement from heaven, perhaps in the form of premature death. [2] We more or less,understand what it means to abstain from work, but what is covered by the biblical command, ve-innitem et nafshotehem: "you shall afflict yourselves"?

As the Italians say, "tradutore, traditore." All translations are interpretations. Even though most older Bible translations render "ve-innitem" as "you shall afflict your souls" (King James Version, the Jewish Publication Society's version of 1917), there is a great diversity among modern translators, from the general—"You shall practice self-denial" (Tanakh; cf. New Revised Standard Version); "ye humble yourselves"(Young's Literal Translation), "you shall mortify yourselves" (New American Bible, New English Bible), "You are to keep yourselves from pleasure" (Bible in Basic English)—to the most specific, "You must fast" (Jerusalem Bible). The question I wish to raise here is whether or not "fasting" alone is sufficient to achieve reconciliation with the divine and reach peace of mind with ourselves in the modern world. In proposing an answer, I will consider various components of the Hebrew expression.

"Your souls"
In Biblical Hebrew "nefesh" primarily refers to "throat" [3] (cf. Akk. napishtu; Ug. npst) and, by extension, to "a person." [4] Many laws in the Torah start with " nefesh ki", meaning, "If a person..." [5] Therefore, in our case, "nafshotekhem" should be translated simply as "yourselves," and not "your souls." The concept that the "soul" can be separated from the "body" is primarily Greek, not biblical.

"You shall afflict"
Even though in the earlier biblical times "afflicting oneself" was a general term for "self-denial," during the late biblical period, it was clearly understood as "fasting," based on the parallelism between "fasting" and "affliction" in Isa 58: 3 (cf. v. 5). [6] Similarly, we are told that Ezra had "proclaimed a fast [tzom] there by the Ahava River to afflict ourselves [le-hitannot] before our God" (8:21). Later on, the rabbis too [7] interpreted the injunction as "fasting" and elaborated: "Food and drink, and the other pleasures of the sense of touch, arouse the physical self to be drawn after desire and sin; and they can interrupt the form of the spirit of wisdom from seeking after the truth, which is the service of God and His good and sweet moral lessons." [8]

Yet, even in the biblical period, many found the understanding of "affliction" as "fasting" rather limited and tried to broaden its scope. In the exilic period, Second Isaiah, not satisfied with bodily fasting alone, asked that it be coupled with social concerns, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and letting the oppressed go free. [9] In later periods, as in Daniel, the verb lehitannot ("practicing abstinence") meant both "fasting" and "not anointing" (10:3, 12). Even from Ps. 35:13, "I afflicted myself with fasting" [inneti batzom nafshi], we can learn that "fasting" was only one way of expressing regret.

In the early rabbinic period, the Mishna [10] specified that on Yom Kippur "self-denial" covered not only eating and drinking, but also bathing, anointing, wearing sandals, and sexual intercourse. The Talmud argued (Yoma 74b) that "affliction" simply meant "abstention," and not torture. Based on Deut. 8:3, [11] it added that this was to be done primarily through hunger. However, it stressed that children, pregnant women, and those who are ill should not fast (Yoma 82a-3a).

The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon points out that the Hebrew root 'nh, from which we derive the English translation of "self-denial," can have four meanings: to answer, to be occupied, to be afflicted, and also to sing. [12] It is based on this last understanding that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin views the Day of Atonement as a day of spiritual joy and renders our verse, "You shall enable your souls to sing." [13]

During the Day of Atonement, when worshippers are deeply involved in prayer and self-evaluation, fasting should be accompanied by genuine teshuvah, which in Hebrew means both "return" and "repentance," [14] and by real concern for our fellow human beings (Isa. 58: 6-7). For even though fasting was (and still is) observed for purposes of penance, mourning, supplication of God, and perhaps even to show empathy for the downtrodden, [15] today many people quickly realize that it is not enough to obtain divine favor and forgiveness. As Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) remarked, "If one fasts for his sins, and goes again and does the same things, who will listen to his prayer? And what has he gained by humbling himself?" (34:26, RSV). Genuine fasting is accompanied by personal contrition and real repentance. This is exactly what the book of Jubilees stressed when it paraphrased our text saying that people must "repent in righteousness" (5:17).

In the early Greek period, Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE) had already taught that the whole person must be involved in the process of self-denial. The Day of Atonement, he said, is called "the Sabbaths of Sabbaths" for various reasons, the first one being this: "Because of the self-restraint which it entails; always and everywhere indeed he [Moses] exhorted them [the Israelites] to show this is all the affairs of life, in controlling the tongue and the belly and the organs below the belly." [16]

I suggest that in order to obtain the remission of sins, the individual—in addition to fasting—needs to look inward and confront his or her very self, doing an intense soul-searching and spiritual cleansing that is honest and at times painful as well as a clearing of conscience that is as difficult as any other act of self-denial. This, I believe, is the existential meaning of "self-affliction." Only after the individual gives an honest account of past deeds, makes peace with others and self, asks for forgiveness and grants pardon to others, and decides to follow better ways, is there hope that he or she will be worthy of being "sealed" in the book of life for another year.

Rifat Sonsino is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA., a faculty member in Boston College's Theology Department, and author of The Many Faces of God: Modern Jewish Theologies (Union for Reform Judaism, in press). The SBL recently reprinted his Motive Clauses in Hebrew Law: Biblical Forms and Near Eastern Parallels. He is also the co-author (along with Daniel B. Syme) of Finding God (NY:UAHC [now URJ] Press, 2002, Revised version) and What Happens After I Die? (NY: UAHC Press [Now URJ Press]1990.


[1] See Lev 16: 29-31; 23:26-32; Numbers 7-11.
[2] On "karet" see the article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 10, 788-789.
[3] See, for example, Ps.105: 18: "an iron collar was put on his neck (nafsho).
[4] For example, Gen 2:7; 49:6; Ex 21:23.
[5] See, among others, Lev 2:1; 5:1; 7:21.
[6] "Why, when we fasted [tzamnu], did You not see? When we starved our bodies [inninu], did You pay no heed?"
[7] See Ibn Ezra on Lev.16:29; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Shevitat Asor, 1:4.
[8] Sefer Ha-Hinnuch, trans. C. Wengrov, (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1992), 328-329, on Leviticus, Part 2, #313.
[9] Isa 58:6-7.
[10] (Yoma 8:1; see also the Sifra on ahare mot, 83-/3; and Targum Jonathan on Lev 16: 23:27)
[11] "He subjected you to the hardship [vayannekha] of hunger" (NJPS).
[12] Such as in Ex 32:18: "It is the sound of song [annot] that I hear").
[13] See his article on line
[14] "Turn back to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting, weeping, and lamenting. Rend your hearts, rather than your garments" (Joel 2:12-14).
[15] See article on "Fasting" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, 773-776.
[16] The Special Laws, II, 193-203; Quoted in P. Goodman, The Yom Kippur Anthology (Philadelphia: JPS, 1971), 16.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the website of the Union for Reform Judaism (Torat Chayim) in September 2004.

Citation: Rifat Sonsino, " "You Shall Afflict Yourselves"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:


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