In Leviticus chapters 23 and 16 the Torah commands two things explicitly about Yom Kippur: that we do no work and that we “afflict” ourselves. The Hebrew phrase, anitem et nafshoteyhem, and the verbal root of the word for affliction(ayn, nun, yud) are used in all the places that the Torah talks about the proper observance of Yom Kippur. The problem is: It’s not entirely clear what that phrase means. Self-affliction is a core feature of the holiday, but how are we to go about it?
A teaching on our daf seeks to clarify the term through midrash:
The sages taught: “You shall afflict yourselves.” (Leviticus 16:29) Lest you think that this means one has to sit in the sun or in the shade in order to be pained, the verse states: “And you shall do no labor.” Just as the prohibition on labor requires one to sit and do nothing, so too does the affliction of one’s soul require one to sit and do nothing.
Rashi helps to explain how affliction on Yom Kippur is accomplished through sitting and doing nothing — it means refraining from the sorts of things we usually do: eating, drinking and bathing.
But we can see immediately that this is a rather unsatisfying way to understand how to afflict ourselves. Indeed, the Gemara itself raises the obvious objection:
Say that it means that when one sits in the sun and it is too hot for him we do not say to him: “Get up and sit in the shade.”
In other words, to afflict ourselves through doing nothing can mean myriad forms of self-abnegation or even self-harm that have nothing whatsoever to do with avoiding food and drink.
Perhaps in response to the relative weakness of this first effort to show that afflicting one’s soul means simply fasting, much of the remainder of the daf is given over to various interpretive efforts to prove the connection — some of them a bit overwrought, like a long beraita that seeks to show how all manner of foods from sacred to profane must be prohibited on Yom Kippur. As a reader, it is hard to escape the conclusion that our sages know that fasting on Yom Kippur is how we are meant to understand self-affliction, they just are not entirely sure how they know it.
Complicating matters further is the fact that biblical Hebrew has a perfectly good word for fast (tzom) that is simply not used in discussing Yom Kippur. B’yom tzomchem, the prophet Isaiah thunders in chapter 58: “On the day of your fast you see to business and oppress all your laborers!” Although this rejection of the Israelites’ empty ritual of fasting does not specify the day in question, Megilah 31a assigns these words to be read as the haftarah of Yom Kippur morning, bolstering the rabbinic idea that a core feature of the holiday is the affliction we cause ourselves by refraining from food and drink.
But in strengthening the putative connection between self-affliction and fasting by means of Isaiah’s searing critique of the observance, the Talmud also reminds us not to imagine self-affliction (in whatever form) as an end in itself; as the prophet makes clear, our self-denial is merely a means to the improvement of our ethical and moral behavior. Paradoxically then, the lengthy rabbinic exegesis aiming to link affliction to fasting serves to enhance the sense that denying ourselves food and drink is indeed the proper form of observance of Yom Kippur, while simultaneously reminding us that simply “not doing something” is not nearly enough to make the holiday truly meaningful.
Read all of Yoma 74 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 24th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.