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Yom Kippur: Afflicting Our ‘Nefesh’

The noun “נפשׁ” occurs over 700 times in Tanach. The word has a range of meanings including: person, life, life-force, breath, desire and appetite. (For the last one, see,  e.g., Isaiah 56:11: “dogs have a strong appetite.”) “נפשׁ” is also often translated as “soul,” something separate from the body. (The Rambam discusses various meanings of the noun in his Moreh Nevuchim, volume I, page 41.)

“נפשׁ” also has the meaning: “throat.” See, e.g., Isaiah 5:14: “She’ol has opened wide its throat,” and Psalms 69:2: “Water reached to the throat.” Most probably, “throat” was its original meaning. See Hayim Tawil, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion,” page 244. “נפשׁ” then expanded to the other meanings, as the throat is the organ for breathing and eating.

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The root only appears three times as a verb. Probably, the word started out as a noun.

One of the three times the word appears as a verb is in the Shabbat morning kiddush: “shavat va-yinafash,” (Exodus 31:17). Here, “va-yinavash” certainly has a meaning related to “breathing.” One suggestion is “caught His breath.” See Rashi: “meshiv nafsho u-nshimato.” (Even though God’s creations were with words and not through physical effort, the Torah speaks bi-lishon bnei adam.)

An alternative translation is “breathed easily.” See, e.g., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, volume 9, page 504 and Kaddari, Milon Ha-Ivrit Ha-Mikrait, page 723 (“לרווחה נשׁם”). See also in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, the first suggestion is: “take (a) breath.” (I have seen the suggestion that, perhaps, every time the Tanach uses “nefesh” to mean “person,” it literally means “breather!”)

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But, let us return to the noun. The recent trend in scholarship is to avoid translating the word as “soul.” According to this view, the idea of a “soul,” as something separate from the body is a later idea. In the ancient Israelite world view, the “נפש” was always connected to life in the flesh.

In fact, the scholar, Robert Alter, in his recent translation of the Bible, decided to avoid the word “soul” altogether. But, many believe that “soul” is still a proper translation in many verses. Richard Steiner, who taught at Yeshiva University for decades, wrote a monograph on this for the Society of Biblical Literature, disagreeing with the view that the “soul” meaning is a post-biblical one. He admits that “נפש” has so many meanings that it is easy to claim that the meaning is not “soul” in almost any verse. But he finds one verse in which he argues that “נפש” can only have the meaning “soul:” Ezekiel 13:18.” This legitimizes the possible interpretation of “soul” in other biblical verses.

Another scholar who agrees with Steiner’s approach has written: “Emphasizing the Hebrew Bible’s concrete approach to life should not obstruct its occasional reach toward otherworldliness. Nefesh deserves to have its soul restored.” One example she points to is in Kings I, 15:21-22, where Elijah miraculously brings back the “נפש” of a child. The alternative view would translate it with something like: “life force.” But it does seem that the “נפש” here is something that existed at least temporarily, outside of the body.

Bearing all this in mind, let us see how “נפש” is translated in the context of fasting on Yom Kippur . In the context of Yom Kippur, the Torah uses the idiom “ענה” (afflict) and “נפש” (with ענה preceding) five times: two times in Leviticus, chapter 16, two times in Leviticus, chapter 23, and one time at Numbers 29:7. Let us focus on the first occasion: Leviticus 16:29: “te-anu et nafshoteichem.”

All can agree that “ענה” and “נפש” are an idiom for fasting. According to the Even-Shoshan concordance, outside the Yom Kippur context, it appears four times. Admittedly, the context at Numbers 30:14 is vague. But at Isaiah 58:3, it is parallel to “צמנו,” and at Isaiah 58:5, it is parallel to “צום,” as well as  at Psalms 35:13, we have the phrase: “ineiti va-tzom nafshi” (I afflicted my “נפש” with a fast). See also Isaiah 58:10 (not cited for the idiom in Even-Shoshan, because here “נפש” precedes the affliction word.)

Given that “ענה” and “נפש” is an idiom for fasting, how should we translate “nefesh” in the Yom Kippur context? The King James Bible (1611) and the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1917 (included in the Chumash of Rabbi Dr. Hertz) translates it as: “Ye shall afflict your souls.” Rabbi Hertz is very happy with this translation. He writes: “This Hebrew phrase well indicated the spiritual aim of fasting … The abstention from all food and from gratification of other bodily desires … must be accompanied by deep remorse at having fallen short of what it was in our power to be and to do as members of the House of Israel. Without such contrite confession, accompanied by the solemn resolve to abandon the way of evil, fasting in itself is not the fulfillment of the Divine command … ”

The above statement of Rabbi Hertz is quoted approvingly in the Soncino commentary to Psalms 35:13. Their commentary begins: “To afflict the soul is the Hebrew term for a fast.”

On the other hand, afflicting the physical self seems to be the simpler meaning of deprivation. For example:

ArtScroll’s Chumash translates: “You shall afflict yourselves.”

Samuel David Luzzatto uses an Italian word that means “your persons.”

Etz Hayim (the Conservative movement’s Chumash): “You shall practice self-denial.”

I have also seen the translation: “afflict your appetite.”

Moreover, since our idiom “ענה” and  “נפש” also appears outside of the Yom Kippur context, we can argue that there is no reason to read the “soul” meaning into the word “נפש” in the Yom Kippur context. (But Rabbi Hertz might respond that all fasting in Judaism is ultimately for a spiritual purpose!)

(Rav Shimshom Rafael Hirsch translates: “you shall starve your vital spirits.” He seems to be straddling the line between the spiritual interpretation and the physical. See also the note in “The Living Torah” which mentions both possibilities.)

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What about the four other activities prohibited on Yom Kippur? All five are listed together at Mishnah Yoma 8:1. But all authorities agree that it is only a violation of eating and drinking that warrants כרת“” Many authorities believe that, nevertheless, all five are considered Torah-level prohibitions. But there is an alternative view that the four other prohibited activities are rabbinic in origin, and the verses cited in the Talmud are merely “asmachtot,” (literally, “things to lean upon.”) See the commentary of Kehati.

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The ArtScroll Chumash makes an interesting observation about the language of Rambam at Shevitat Asor 1:5. Based on the phrase: “Shabbat Shabbaton,” Rambam here describes the goal of the day as “לשבות” from those five activities. The ArtScroll commentary writes that this “indicates that (according to Rambam) the purpose of fasting is not that one should suffer, but that he should transcend the normal human limitations that prevent him from functioning properly unless he eats. On Yom Kippur, a Jew is like an angel who serves God without need for food.”

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Nachmanides on Leviticus 16:29 mentions that there are Karaites who disagree with the view that the idiom “ענה” and “נפש” means “fast.” I could not find such a Karaitic view. In recorded Karaite sources, they do fast on Yom Kippur. (I was told that this may be the only time that Nachmanides mentions Karaites!) Most likely, Nachmanides erroneously inferred that there was such a Karaitic view from Ibn Ezra’s brief comments on this verse.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. The Karaites do have a different understanding of “Yom Teruah,” but that is for another column.

P.S. I have a new book: Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy. It is available at kodeshpress.com and at Jewish bookstores.

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