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Should I fast on Yom Kippur? What does the Bible say?

One of the most consequential events in world history for the Jewish people was the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Without a temple, it would be impossible to make the daily, much less the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) sacrifices. Leviticus 16 shares in detail the multiple sacrifices that would take place on this day. Without a temple, however, the mandated sacrifice ceased.

As Messianic Jews, we believe this was a response to the Messiah’s once-for-all all-time and all-sin (Heb. 9:12, 26) sacrifice 40 years earlier. In fact, we have a video that explains that according to the Talmud—the primary text for orthodox Judaism and the leading source for establishing Jewish religious law and theology—God rejected the last 40 Yom Kippur sacrifices. The Talmud missed the fact that 30 CE was the very year that Yeshua died and rose from the dead. In other words, since the death of Yeshua, God has never received another Yom Kippur sacrifice!

A rabbi named Yochanan ben Zakkai escaped Jerusalem. He knew the zealots would be crushed and was very concerned about the future of the Jewish religion. Ben Zakkai sought a meeting with General Vespasian and told him that he had had a dream that he would soon be the Roman emperor or Caesar. As they were speaking, according to the Talmud (Gitten 56a), word came that Emperor Nero had died, and Vespasian was chosen to replace him. Vespasian was so impressed with the rabbi that he asked him if he had a request. He petitioned the general to allow him to resettle in Yavne in southern Israel. There, he could continue to study Torah.

Fasting replaces the Sacrifice

In Yavne, he recreated Judaism into a religion that could survive without a temple. Using the verse, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:1), he created a bloodless Judaism. Fasting became the central component of the Yom Kippur observance. If you read Leviticus 16, the word goat is mentioned 14 times, while fasting is only mentioned twice. This should trouble every Torah-observant Jew. Instead of trying to figure out how to continue without a temple, it would have been proper to ask God why the temple was allowed to be destroyed. Yeshua prophesied that this would happen because we “did not know the time of [our] visitation.”

What does the Bible really say about the Yom Kippur fast?

The Bible doesn’t actually tell us to fast on Yom Kippur. Now that is going to come as quite a shock because if you grew up Jewish, the Yom Kippur fast is possibly the most significant event of the year. But let’s take a look at the texts.

Leviticus 23:27 says to “afflict your souls.” וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם)). We see the same phrase in Leviticus 16:29, 31, and in Number 29:7. And we know that by the time of Yeshua, this idea of afflicting yourself included fasting, as Paul refers to the Yom Kippur fast in Acts 27. In other words, the people of Israel understood this idea of “afflicting your souls” to include fasting.

What is the Hebrew word for fast? It is צום tzōm, and it appears 21 times in the Hebrew bible. It always means to abstain from food. The famous Isaiah 58 fast that God desires is a tzōm. Esther’s fast is a tzōm. It is the most logical word to use when speaking about someone going a season of time without eating. The translators of the Hebrew New Testament chose this word to describe Yeshua’s fast in the wilderness.

However, in speaking of the Yom Kippur fast, this is the only place in the Bible that uses a different word: anah ענה.

How can I anah?

The word anah is in the Hebrew bible 79 times, and other than in reference to Yom Kippur, it never means to fast. In most cases, it means to afflict or to mistreat. Let's take one example. The very first time this word is used is in Genesis 15:13. Abraham is told his ancestors would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years. It says the Egyptians will anah[1] the Israelites for 400 years. Most translations say inflict. Of course, it would be absurd to think that the Egyptians were going to fast against Israel for 400 years.

So why isn't the word for fasting, tzōm, used in connection to the Day of Atonement? It is because fasting is too weak of a word for what God required. God was not asking the Israelites to merely abstain from food. He was expecting something deeper, something that would come from anguish, from an understanding that they had to sinned against a holy God.

Fasting can’t take away sin

Before we go deeper in this study, I want to make something clear: The Yom Kippur fast was never meant to take away sin. The focus of Leviticus 16 is entirely on the goats—the sacrifice. And Leviticus 17 tells us why:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Lev. 17:10)

Only blood can atone for sin. If fasting could get rid of sin, then the entire five books of Moses are an exercise in futility since they focus a lot on blood sacrifice. Yet we see from the first pages of Genesis that God uses blood to cover sin when he provides garments of skin for Adam and Even. “Although the text does not specify that animals were slain to provide these coverings, it is a fair implication and one that likely would be made in the Mosaic community, where animal sacrifice was pervasive.”[2]

Humility, not Works

The fasting for Yom Kippur had another purpose. It was the posture in which the people of Israel approached God. Three times in Leviticus 23, God says, “You are to afflict your souls.” When something is repeated three times in scripture, it is for emphasis. When the angels speak of God, they don't say holy; they say holy, holy, holy! In addition, the passage says three times that the Israelites must not work but rest on this day.

God uses the stronger language, “inflict your souls,” as opposed to merely fasting, to emphasize the attitude that one should have while observing the Day of Atonement. Imagine I broke the law and had to stand before a judge. Most criminals hope for mercy. What if I show up with ripped jeans and a dirty T-shirt, with my hair uncut and messy? Would the judge be inclined to show me mercy? No, because through my appearance, I am showing the court that I am not taking my situation seriously.

However, if I showed up in a new suit with a nice haircut and my head bowed, I would be communicating something else: I respect the court and understand the seriousness of my crime. While all my contrition cannot take away my transgression, it can move the judge's heart in my favor. That is the idea of afflicting your souls on Yom Kippur. It's the blood of the animals that atone for sin, but the attitude in which we bring the sacrifice will determine whether God receives it or not.

Anyone who does not approach God on Yom Kippur with the proper posture of humility will suffer.

For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall not do any work. (Lev. 23:29-31)

This language is quite different from the post-resurrection language. While we should always walk humbly before God (Phil. 2:3-4, James 4:6), because of Yeshua's sacrifice, We can, “with confidence (or boldness) draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). You no longer need to worry if God has accepted the sacrifice. Whereas the high priest would approach God yearly with the blood of a goat, Messiah has “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12).

Should I fast?

Yes! While we no longer fear God's judgment for ourselves, millions of Jewish people do not yet know the Messiah. The church was birthed through the prayers of millions of Jews, like Anna and Simeon, and through the acts of the Jewish apostles. God desires to use the Church to birth an awakening in Israel. He speaks of watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls in Isaiah 62. These watchmen are not to be silent day or night, as they continually remind God of his promises to restore Jerusalem (vv. 6-6).

I can't think of a better day for gentile believers to take their stand on the walls of Jerusalem and fight for Israel in prayer and fasting than on the Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, Jewish people are already seeking God. Many of them will spend all day in the synagogue fasting. What if 1,000,000 believers also prayed and fasted on Yom Kippur? Would it not move the heart of God?

As many of you know, we have organized, in partnership with GOD TV, Tikkun Global, and IHOPKC, a one-hour prayer meeting on September 25th at 10:00 AM Eastern Time. It will be hosted by Mike Bickle, Asher Intrater, and myself. Let's join together and believe God for an awakening in the Promised Land.

[1] Actually it is anu, which is the plural, future form of anah. For those of you who know biblical Hebrew, anu is past tense. However, when you add a vav (like in Gen. 15:13), it becomes v’anu, which is the future tense.

[2] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 255.

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Peter Hartgerink
Peter Hartgerink
Sep 22, 2023

Hi Ron,

As you know, i am not Jewish, but I found this very insightful. I wanted to mention, however, that Psalm 69:10 seems to link the idea of "afflicting your soul" ( weeping, suggesting a humbling or chastening of the soul) with fasting. Praying with you for Israel - praying also for a turning to God in my own nation and family.

Ron Cantor
Ron Cantor
Sep 24, 2023
Replying to

Hi Peter, to be clear, I do think that the Lev. does teach that we fast. But it is more than fasting. Ps. 69 uses different Hebrew, but it does convey the proper fast, where one truly humbles himself. Thanks for pointing it out.


Loved this story of what happened.... Helps me a lot sir, i am now 71, walked Torah as best i know how since 2019 i think. Love Yahuah and His son i call Yahusha [Meaning Yahuah is Salvation. I am no scholar at all, just trying to be obedient and walking where i am and growing into TRUTH! I sought out Yah G-d when i was 8 years old, went the wrong way for years, yet HE was there, and i love Him; love you guys Bear from SE Texas

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Shalom from Israel! I am Ron Cantor and this is my blog. I serve as the President of Shelanu TV.

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