"You Shall Afflict Your Souls" - Leviticus 16:31

Written by Felicia Trecek
(Updated October 6, 2002)

How do we know, "You Shall Afflict Your Souls" means fasting?
In Isaiah 58 the word afflicted is directly associated with fasting. YHWH's people afflicted themselves by a fast, but they claim YHWH did not take notice. YHWH responds:

(v:4) "Look, you fast for strife and contention, and to strike with the fist of wrongness. You do not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. (v:5) Is this a fast I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his being? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, and an acceptable day of YHWH? (v:6) Is it not the fast that I have chosen: to loosen the tight cords of wrongness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to exempt the oppressed, and to break off every yoke? (v:7) Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, and cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?"

We know the fast written about was a mandate by YHWH by reading verses five and six. The Hebrew to English Interlinear Bible reads, (v:6) "Is not this the fast I have chosen, to open bands wickedness..." It is a chosen fast by YHWH. The only commandment (mandate) in the law that reflects fasting is: "afflict your souls" on the day of Atonement.

The people afflicted their souls by the means of a fast according to YHWH's law, but they didn't understand why YHWH did not take notice. YHWH responded and told the people they missed the objective of the fast. The people followed the physical commandment, but did not follow the spiritual aspect of it.

There are several places in the law that mandate "You Shall Afflict Your Souls" such as: Lev 16:29, 16:31, 23:27, 23:32,and Numbers 29:7. When the law was given to Moses, they only had the first five books, not the book of Isaiah. From these verses, three words are important to examine: 1) Soul, 2) Afflict, and 3) Atonement.

According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, the three words in Hebrew mean the following (summarized):

  1. Soul (neh'fesh) #5315 = from 5314, a primitive root word to breath. Figuratively to be refreshed. From #5314; prop a breathing creature. Used very widely - fig. sense (bodily or mental):- any, appetite, beat, body, breath, creature...
  2. Afflict (aw-naw) #6031 = through the idea of looking down or browbeating. To depress lit or fig. Various applications such as: abase self, chasten self , humble self, submit self, weaken.
  3. King David wrote: "I humbled my soul with fasting" in Ps 35:13. In Ps 69:10, King David wrote he chastened his soul with fasting.

  4. Atonement (kip-poor) #3725 = expiation (to make amends for sin). From 3722 - to cover. Fig to expiate or condone to placate or cancel:- appease, make an atonement, cleanse, disannul, forgive, be merciful, pacify, pardon, to pitch, purge (away), put off, (make) reconcile (-liation).

    In Jeremiah 36:4-6, Jeremiah told Baruch to read the scroll, from the mouth of YHWH to the people, in the house of YHWH on the fasting day. I believe this "fasting day" was the day of Atonement.

After reviewing the definition of the word "afflict", the understanding is clear as to why the people bowed their heads down like a bulrush, and spread out sackcloth and ashes. But, after reviewing the combination of all three word definitions, one can obtain a better understanding of the phrase, "afflict your souls". I extracted four words from the above definitions. Soul can mean appetite, afflict can mean weaken, and atonement can mean cleanse and purge away. To cleanse oneself physically is to fast. A fast certainly weakens the soul (body) and purges poisons out. This physical act represents what we are to do spiritually. I have no doubt, when these laws were given to Moses and told to the people, they understood the phrase, "afflict your soul" to mean abstain from food from evening to evening on the tenth day. The Hebrew spoken in Moses day is not the same type of Hebrew spoken today in Israel. These words have been translated through several languages, thus some words and phrases are obscure in meaning. But, the Jews advocate we comply with the Oral Law based on the reasoning of those obscurities requiring explanation by the means of the Oral Law. "You shall afflict your souls" (Lev. 16:31) does not indicate whether it means by mortification of the body through ascetic practices, by fasting, or in some other manner. However, through the ages after Moses, YHWH inspired additional books with the five books of Moses for our understanding of the law today. We have the passages in Isaiah and Ezra to reference. We do not need the Oral Law to interpret scripture. Scripture interprets itself with divine help.