Growing up I was always fascinated by Yom Kippur. How could my father go 24 hours without food? I couldn’t imagine skipping a meal, much less a whole day’s worth of eating. I was a big fan of eating in those days. Why would we do such a thing? To be forgiven of our sins, I was told. Not such a bad deal I guess. Do what you want during the year and then fast for a day and all will be well.
As I grew older I saw no evidence of God’s existence so I didn’t bother to start fasting. In fact, previous to receiving Yeshua, the only Yom Kippur on which I actually fasted was in 1983, a month before I came to faith. I was searching at this point, realizing that I didn’t know where I was going when I died or even if there was a God. But I wanted to know. So on the evening of September 16th, 1983, I decided to fast along with the rest of the Jewish world.
Not long after sundown on the 17th I ate…and boy did I eat! However, no matter how full I became physically that evening, I was still empty on the inside. I did not find God during the fast. (to read the full story of my salvation, click here)
Fasting Cannot Remove Sin
After coming to faith I came to realize that fasting cannot remove sin. It was never intended to remove sin. It is called the Day of Atonement, not the Day of Fasting.
Fasting has become the major component or focal point of Yom Kippur, but when the Day of Atonement was given to Moses it was not. The sacrifice was. In Leviticus 16 Aaron is given detailed instructions for Yom Kippur, and while that chapter mentions fasting, it is clear that the focus is on two goats.
One goat would be sacrificed, while the priest would lay his hands on the other goat, imparting Israel’s sin to the goat. The goat would then be released into the desert.
Fasting cannot and did not atone for sin. The passage could not be clearer:
“…because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you.” (Lev. 16:30)
“The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement.” (Lev. 16:32)
You cannot atone for your own sins, “atonement will be made for you.” The priest would intercede for the people and the goat would receive the judgment that Israel deserved. But Jewish children all over the world are taught wrongly, as I was, that you can atone for your own sins through fasting. This is because the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. With the destruction of the Temple came the end of sacrifices. No more priests; no more goats. (The goats were happy!) The emphasis was then moved from blood sacrifice to fasting—not by divine edict of command, but the reasoning of religious leaders.
To be fair, I don’t know many rabbis that teach that you can sin with reckless abandon and simply fast on Yom Kippur, but the way to forgiveness in virtually all Jewish circles is not by relying on a innocent substitute, but on that which you can do: fasting, good deeds, repentance, giving and prayer. All good things, but good deeds cannot erase bad ones anymore than not murdering someone can’t erase one’s guilt for murdering someone else (or stealing, lying, etc.)
There was purpose in the fast, just not to atone for sin. The corporate national fast was meant to be a gesture of humility and the correct posture in which you ask for mercy. Here is an example. When I was a young man I was arrested for shoplifting in a J.C. Penney’s. While everything was handled out of court and I was able to do community service, I can imagine if my case went to trial. How would I dress when I presented myself before the judge? A t-shirt and ripped jeans, with a cigarette behind my ear? Or would I go out and buy a suit and tie, and present myself in a way that showed I understood the seriousness of the situation? Obviously, the latter. It would not guarantee leniency, but it would certainly heighten my chances.
In this same way, fasting was not purposed to atone for sin, but was the proper attire, if you will, to present your offering before the Lord. It expressed to God an acknowledgment of sin and a brokenness over it, but was not intended to deal with it. Only the shedding of blood can atone for sin.
For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. (Lev. 17:11)
Should We Fast?
The Bible says that Yom Kippur “is to be lasting ordinance for the generations to come.” (Lev. 23:31). And yet, as believers in the New Covenant we know that Yeshua fulfilled Yom Kippur in that He was the once-for-all-time sacrifice for sin (Heb. 9:26-28). So how should Jewish believers deal with Yom Kippur?
In the same way that the Yom Kippur fast was the proper posture of humility to present the offering, so too is it the proper act of humility to commemorate Yeshua’s work of salvation. We should fast as a way of saying thank you to Yeshua for taking our sin. It is not a work to earn something, even as before Yeshua, the fast was not intended that way, but rather an expression of thanksgiving and gratefulness.
For example, imagine that you saved my life. I was walking across the street and a car was about to hit me. I was seconds away from death, as I didn’t see it coming. At the last millisecond you pushed me out of the way only to have the car hit you instead. You die in my place. How would I act towards your memory for the rest of my life? Would I not visit your grave regularly leaving flowers? Would a day go by in which I didn’t consider your sacrifice? Would I not do everything to make sure your family is provided for? If I were truly grateful, yes, I would do all those things and more.
In the same way, we must remember Yeshua’s sacrifice. Fasting is one of many ways that we can express thanksgiving. It is a way of remembering that He took our bullet. It recognizes that we are weak humans and there was nothing we could have done to save ourselves. This is why Yeshua was so disgusted by those who would use fasting as a means of impressing others with their spirituality. Fasting was meant for the exact opposite—as a means of humbling ourselves before God.
Furthermore, it can be a time of intercession for unbelieving Israel. It was people like Anna (Luke 2) that fasted and interceded for the Messiah to come, and He came. She was able to read the writings of the prophets and pray. We, also, know that the scriptures promise a great awakening for Israel (Hosea 3:5, Zech. 12:10, Rom. 11:26). Fasting on Yom Kippur and praying for Israel can be a powerful tool to see that awakening realized.
In closing, may you have a Tzom Kal, an Easy Fast, and may the presence of Yeshua be close to you.