Tag Archives: Fasting

Understanding the 5 Afflictions of Yom Kippur

Tonight we begin to observe Yom Kippur and take upon ourselves five afflictions, as taught in the Mishnah: abstaining from eating and drinking, bathing, anointing with oils, wearing shoes, and sexual intimacy (Yoma 8:1). Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (c. 1445-1515) comments, as the Sages explain, that these prohibitions are derived from the five times that the Torah speaks of afflicting one’s soul on Yom Kippur. The number five is most significant when it comes to Yom Kippur. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) comments on Leviticus 16:14 that the five services performed in the Temple on Yom Kippur parallel the five prayer services that we recite on Yom Kippur (Arvit, Shacharit, Mussaf, Minchah, Neilah), as well as the five times that the Kohen Gadol would immerse in the mikveh, and the five souls of a person which are purified on this day. (For an explanation of these five souls, see A Mystical Map of Your Soul.)

Another important set of five refers to the levels of sin. Jewish texts describe transgressions in five levels of severity. The lowest are those of a tinok sh’nishnah, literally a “captured baby”, meaning a person who was raised completely secular and is unaware of what is sinful. Though such a person’s sins still affect their soul, they are not held liable since they are ignorant and don’t know any better. It is a question whether anyone is still a genuine tinok sh’nishbah in our day and age, when a person is only a click away from so much Torah and learning, and can instantaneously answer just about any question whenever they so wish. Today, being ignorant is a choice.

Above that, the lowest level of true sin is called chet (חטא), which is defined as an unintentional sin. It is a total accident that a person had no desire to commit. Above that are two related terms ‘avon (עון) and ‘averah (עברה), which are often used interchangeably, but are indeed different. ‘Averah literally means “pass by”, and refers to a passing urge of sinfulness, as the Talmud states that a person doesn’t sin unless a spirit of foolishness overcomes him (Sotah 3a). These are sins that are usually done behind closed doors, those that a person commits out of an emotional weakness or lust. Meanwhile, ‘avon is a more general term, not necessarily for an emotional reason, and could be a very calculated sin, bringing a person some kind of personal benefit. (An example might be a carefully-planned theft.) Finally, the highest and most damaging sin is pesha (פשע), also referred to as mardut, “rebellion”, an intentional sin that brings the person no real benefit whatsoever, and is done only out of spite or rebelliousness.

The five afflictions and the five prayers of Yom Kippur serve to purify our souls from these five levels of sin, which we are all guilty of. In some cases, we are like a tinok sh’nishbah, as we were completely unaware that what we did was a sin. In other cases, we sin by accident, while elsewhere we are unable to keep our lusts in check. Occasionally, we might even act spitefully. And even if on an individual level we are not guilty, one of our fellows might be, and on Yom Kippur we atone collectively, for “all of Israel are guarantors for each other” (Shevuot 39a).

Why are those the five afflictions in particular, and how do they bring about our atonement?

Separation & Self-Sacrifice

The first question to ask is why are the afflictions of Yom Kippur passive and not active; in other words, why do we simply abstain from things instead of punishing ourselves? For example, in Christianity and Islam there is (or used to be) an established practice of painful self-flagellation and other “mortifications of the flesh”. This is most horribly visible in the Ashura procession, where some Shiite Muslims smash their backs and bodies with swords or sharp chains and bleed profusely. How do we know (other than our basic human consciousness) that God does not want us to do this?

The Talmud (Yoma 74b) brings proof from the Torah itself. Leviticus 16:29 says: “…in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and shall do no manner of work…” The Sages point out that while God commanded us to afflict our souls, He also said right after not to actively do anything (וכל מלאכה לא תעשו), meaning that we shouldn’t afflict ourselves by physical harmful actions. We only need to abstain from certain pleasures and comforts.

The first and simplest to understand is fasting. As we say in our prayers, by fasting we are “thinning” our blood and “burning” our fat, which is symbolic of the blood and fat offered up with the sacrifices in the Temple. Therefore, we should envision ourselves as the sacrifices on the altar, brought about to bring atonement. This affliction corresponds to the lowest level of soul, nefesh, as stated explicitly by the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) in his comments on Yoma 8:1. The nefesh is the most animalistic soul (and animals have nefesh, too), and is dependant upon eating and drinking. Abstaining from food and drink thus afflicts the nefesh, and serves to purify it.

Next is abstaining from washing or bathing, which corresponds to ruach, one’s animating spirit, and the home of their inner drives and inclinations. The reason for this is deeply mystical. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic texts, explains that God formed water out of ruach, which literally means “wind” or “air”. (Perhaps we see an allusion to this in the chemical structure of water, H2O, made up of two gasses, one of which is the vital component in air and essential for our breath.) To purify our ruach, therefore, we stay away from immersing it in water. In the same way that we “disconnect” the nefesh by starving it of its fuel, we “disconnect” ruach from its own source. The same reasoning applies to the next level of soul:

The neshamah is, in many ways, the most important of the five levels of soul. Certainly for the average person, the neshamah plays the biggest role, as we’ve explained in the past. When God creates Adam, the Torah specifically states that it was a neshamah, “nishmat chayim”, that God infused into the first man. And this man, as our Sages teach, was originally both male and female, before God split him into two halves, and commanded the halves to reunite. The Zohar (I, 85b) similarly says that before each soul enters this world, God splits it in half and puts one in a male body and one in a female body. These soulmates must reunite as one. The primary mechanism for this reconnection is sexual intimacy, which quite literally binds the two halves into “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And so, as with the nefesh and ruach, we isolate and purify the neshamah on Yom Kippur by abstaining from sexual intimacy.

The chaya is the fourth level of soul and is associated with one’s aura, or outer glow. The chaya plays an important role in the subtle interaction of different souls. The vast majority of people are completely unaware of it. Fittingly, it corresponds to the prohibition of anointing with various oils, creams, and perfumes. Such cosmetic items are meant to enhance our outer appearance and make our interactions with others more pleasant. Like with all previous souls, we “separate” chaya by abstaining from anointing ourselves in this manner.

It might be surprising that the last and most significant of the afflictions of Yom Kippur is neilat hasandal, wearing leather shoes. This corresponds to the highest level of soul, the yechidah. What exactly is so important about this seemingly simple, and probably easiest, affliction?

Ascending to Higher Worlds

The prohibition of wearing shoes originally meant not wearing shoes at all. One was meant to go entirely barefoot, as the Sages derive from II Samuel 15:30, where we read:

David went up by the ascent of the mount of Olives, and wept as he went up; and he had his head covered, and went barefoot; and all the people that were with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up.

The Talmud (Yoma 77a-78b) goes on to discuss if wearing shabby or torn shoes is permitted. Some of the Sages hold that uncomfortable shoes are permitted. Other discussions relate around the type of shoe, and whether it “locks” around the foot or not (since neilah in “neilat hasandal” literally means “to lock”). We want to avoid “locking” our shoes, in the same way that we do not want God to “lock” the Gates of Heaven to our prayers. Indeed, the final prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neilah (and corresponds to the prohibition of neilat hasandal), at the end of which the Heavenly Gates are sealed.

Ultimately, Jewish tradition settled on avoiding wearing leather shoes specifically, since leather in those days offered the most comfort and protection to the foot, while being the most expensive and luxurious material. There are also mystical reasons for avoiding leather, one of these being that leather comes from animals, and we do not want to be walking on slaughtered animals when we, ourselves, are requesting mercy and forgiveness.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) went into great length about the mystery of feet and shoes (see, for example, Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tetze). He explained that in the same way shoes facilitate our movement in this world, they mystically symbolize our movement through the spiritual worlds. It is the right “shoe” that can allow us to ascend to the upper realms of Creation, through the worlds of Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut, which we’ve discussed in the past. This therefore relates to the highest level of our soul, the yechidah, able to penetrate the highest Heavens. It is quite ironic that we learn about the “highest” soul in the “lowest” part of the body! This is mirrored within the Sefirot, where the lowest Malkhut, “Kingdom” (corresponding to the feet, which fittingly have 26 bones) mirrors the highest Keter, “Crown”. In short—and without getting too mystical—abstaining from leather footwear is once again meant to “separate” the yechidah and allow for its purification.

It is worth mentioning that when we speak of these parts of the soul as being “isolated” or “separated” or “disconnected” what we mean is that they have to be set apart for their purification to be complete. It is like washing one’s garments: one cannot wash them while they remain attached to the body! And if a garment is especially soiled, one cannot throw it in the machine with all the others; it must be set aside and hand-washed on its own. In the same way, each soul must first be “isolated” before it can be properly and thoroughly “washed”.

A final thought: the Arizal explained that the five afflictions of Yom Kippur correspond to a mystical concept known as the five Gevurot, “strengths” or “stringencies”. Without going into what these five actually are, they are derived from the five special letters of the Hebrew alphabet which have a different form if appearing at the end of the word: מנצפ״ך. The Arizal showed how the gematria of these five letters is 280, which is equal to the angel Sandalfon (סנדלפון). Our Sages stated that Sandalfon is the angel responsible for bringing our prayers up to Heaven (see, for example, Chagigah 13b). It is he who “weaves” our prayers together and (metaphorically, of course) lays these “wreaths” upon God. If we want our Yom Kippur prayers to be successful, we have to look at the meaning of Sandalfon’s name:

First, we must keep in mind that Sandalfon is not the real name of the angel. Our Sages hid the real names of angels behind various Aramaic and Greek words. Besides for the obvious connection between Sandalfon and “sandal”, Sandalfon actually comes from the Greek syn-delphi, literally “brothers coming together”. (In modern Greek, the word for a colleague or co-worker is essentially the same.) What our Sages meant to teach us is that if we want our prayers to be heard in Heaven, we must all unite as the singular family that we are, rectify our relationships, forgive each other, love one another freely, and sing to Hashem together in unison.

Gmar chatima tova!

Tzom Gedaliah and Mystical Secrets of Fasting

Clay Bulla of Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, dated to 586 BCE.

Today is the Fast of Gedaliah, one of the “minor fasts” of the Jewish calendar. This fast commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the governor of Judah, some 2500 years ago. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the majority of Jews into exile, they left a small number of Jewish farmers in their newly-created province of Judah, under the leadership of the righteous Gedaliah. Gedaliah was the grandson of Shaphan, one of the court scribes of Judean royalty who likely played a role in the composition of the Biblical Book of Kings, among others. (Incredibly, Jeremiah 36:10 describes how Shaphan had a son named Gemaryahu, and recently Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh discovered a bulla in Jerusalem inscribed with the words: “belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan”.)

The Books of Jeremiah (ch. 41) and II Kings (ch. 25) describe how a certain Ishmael killed Gedaliah “in the seventh month”, during what appears to be a feast day, which our Sages stated was Rosh Hashanah. The reason for the assassination is not explicitly given. It seems Ishmael believed that if anyone should govern in Israel, it should be him since he was a member of the Judean royal family and a descendant of King David. Ishmael didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Assassinating Gedaliah immediately raised fears that the Babylonians would return to punish the Jews for smiting their appointed governor. The fearful Jewish populace thus fled to Egypt, while Ishmael himself escaped to Ammon.

The tragedy was a great one not only because of the grotesque assassination of a righteous Jew by his fellow (Ishmael also slaughtered a handful of other Jews, as well as innocent pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem.) Perhaps more significantly, the fleeing of the last Jews of Judea meant that the Holy Land was essentially devoid of its people for the first time in nearly a millennium. While Jews from Babylon would later come back to rebuild, they would be faced with new settlers that had since filled the vacuum in Israel: the Samaritans. This people would be a thorn at the side of the Jews for centuries to come. Worst of all, the assassination of Gedaliah is yet another example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and Jewish in-fighting, which seems to always be the root of all Jewish problems.

The Sages instituted a fast to commemorate all of these things. And the fast’s timing is particularly auspicious, as it comes during the Ten Days of Repentance when we should be focusing on kindness, prayer, and atonement. Now is the time to repair relationships and form new bonds, for families and communities to come together. For many, it also something of a “practice run” for the more famous fast that comes just days later: Yom Kippur. This brings up an important question. What exactly does fasting have to do with atonement, spiritual growth, and self-development?

The Power of Fasting

Offerings on the Altar (Courtesy: Temple Institute)

Aside from its well-documented health benefits, fasting brings a great deal of spiritual benefits, too. In the fast day prayers, we read how fasting is symbolic of sacrificial offerings. In the days of the Temple, people would atone by bringing an offering, shedding its blood, and watching its fat burn on the altar. In Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh (Kavanot haTaanit), Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Arizal’s foremost disciple, explains that the sight of the animal being slaughtered would immediately inspire the person to repent. They would feel both a great deal of regret for their sin, and compassion for the animal, and would recognize that it should have been them slaughtered upon the altar. In lieu of a Temple, we fast to burn our own bodily fat, and “thin” our blood. The Arizal taught that the penitent faster is thus likened to a korban.

Rabbi Vital then reminds us that the food we eat contain spiritual sparks, and even the souls of reincarnated people. While we hope that our blessings and proper intentions when eating frees these sparks and elevates them to Heaven, we are not always successful in this regard—especially when we lose sense of the meal and eat purely for physical reasons. These sparks remain with us, and can even affect our thoughts and emotions. The Arizal explains that a fast day is an opportunity to free those sparks trapped within. We avoid eating anything new, resulting in the body shedding its fat and blood, and just as these things “burn up” physically, the sparks lodged within them “burn up” and ascend as well with the help of our prayers and pure thoughts and intentions. Moreover, the difficulty of fasting breaks apart the kelipot, the spiritual “husks” that trap those holy sparks.

(Interestingly, this passage in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh shows an incredibly detailed and accurate knowledge of the digestive system. Rabbi Vital explains how the stomach and intestines break down the food, absorb it into the bloodstream, where it goes to the liver for further processing, and then to the heart which delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body, particularly the brain, the seat of the neshamah.)

Secrets of Fasting

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”. Note the sefirot of Gevurah and Hod on the left column.

The Arizal mentions how it is good to fast not only on the six established fast days of the Jewish calendar (Gedaliah, Kippur, 10 Tevet, Esther, 17 Tamuz, and 9 Av), but on every Monday and Thursday. This is, in fact, an ancient Jewish custom that is attested to in numerous historical documents. (One of these is the Didache, an early Christian text of the 1st century CE that tells its adherents not to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because that is when the Jews fast!) The Arizal explains that Monday and Thursday, the second and fifth days of the week, correspond to the second and fifth sefirot of Gevurah and Hod. Gevurah and Hod are on the left column of the mystical “Tree of Life”, and the left is associated with judgement and severity. By fasting on these days, one can break any harsh judgments decreed upon them.

The Arizal also taught that one who fasts two days in a row—48 hours straight—is likened to having fasted twenty-seven day fasts, and one who can fast three days straight has fasted the equivalent of forty day fasts. This is important because one of the most powerful fasts in Jewish tradition, which will completely purify the greatest of sins, particularly sexual ones, requires 84 day-fasts. (The number 84 comes from the fact that Jacob was 84 years old when he was first intimate, with Leah, and conceived Reuben.) Usually, this was done by fasting 40 days straight (eating only at night), followed by another 44 days (or vice versa). A person can thus accomplish the same purification by fasting both day and night for a whole week straight, from the end of one Shabbat to the onset of the following Shabbat.

As this would be a personal fast, it may be permissible to consume salt and water, as the Talmud (Berakhot 35b) does not consider these to be “food”, and permits them on personal fasts only. The Arizal actually gives a tip for one who feels thirsty during a fast: they should meditate on the words Ruach Elohim (רוח אלהים). Recall that Genesis begins by telling us that God’s Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, “hovered over the waters”. And so, one who meditates upon this should see his thirst quickly dissipate. Ultimately, the Arizal says that Torah study is the best way to repent and expiate sins, much more so than any fast. So, a person who is not up to the task of intermittent fasting may substitute with diligent Torah study.

Soon enough, there will be no need to fast at all, as the prophet (Zechariah 8:19) states: “So says Hashem, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth days shall be for the house of Judah for gladness, joy, and good times; for love of truth and peace.” With each passing moment, we near the time when all of these fast days—the fourth (ie. the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month), the fifth (9 Av, in the fifth month), the seventh (Tzom Gedaliah), and tenth (10th of Tevet) shall turn into joyous feast days. May we merit to see this day soon.

Gmar Chatima Tova!