Body and Soul: Why We Fast On Yom Kippur

"The absolute uniqueness of Judaism is not its God-consciousness; it is the teaching that the body can be drawn up into sanctity."

"The struggle in life is to see past the material and its craving for immediate gratification, and realize that we are angelic souls in a physical casing longing for deeper meaning and fulfillment."


Rabbi Akiva Tatz

What was Abraham’s major contribution to the world? It’s not what you think.

It is commonly understood that Abraham’s major contribution was the doctrine of monotheism. He taught an idolatrous world that there is only one God, and that idea is synonymous with Judaism. But I have to tell you that that picture is not accurate. The idea of one God was very firmly established before Abraham. (Idolatry, as we have seen, is the practice of relating to intermediaries as if they have independent power, not the failure to recognize God altogether.) Knowledge of God was standard…

What did Abraham bring to the world as the amazing novelty that started the Jewish people and changed history forever?

The answer is this: Abraham did not begin the path of the spirit; he began the path of bringing spirit into flesh. His contribution was not in the sphere of knowledge. Others had already explored the higher reaches of the spirit and were well versed in the highest wisdom when Abraham began his journey. What he pioneered in the world was the process of bringing that wisdom down into the physical, showing how to express the highest level of consciousness in fingers and toes of flesh. That is the radical idea of Judaism.

The absolute uniqueness of Judaism is not its God-consciousness; it is the teaching that the body can be drawn up into sanctity. It is not the teaching of the holiness of spirit; it is the teaching of the holiness of the physical. Examine the world’s spiritual systems; you will see that they grasp the conflict between spirit and flesh, the primal battle between soul and body in which body seeks to dominate soul and bring it down to serve its animal agenda. And they define a solution to this most basic of all conflicts: abjure the flesh, discipline the body by starving it of its sensuous feed, become an ascetic, celibate, enter the monastic mode. The highest exponents of the world’s spiritual systems are monks and nuns, celibates and ascetics who have renounced the body in order to transcend it.

The body must not be left behind while mind and spirit transcend. It must be made to serve mind and spirit. The commandments. The mitzvot are physical actions (there are very few mitzvot that are performed in consciousness alone) that express spirit. Every part of the body is commanded to act; each limb and organ performs an action that expresses Torah. Mitzvot are to Torah what body is to soul.

Abraham did not bring the idea of pure spirit to the world; he brought to the world the radical idea that the body, that fallen, subversive, treacherous and lecherous body can and must be elevated to purity. Its functions and actions are not to be suppressed; they are to be expressed as holy. The world perceives shame and the problems of male-female intimacy, its potential to erode spiritual refinement; we perceive its holiness. The world perceives the danger of alcohol, its tendency to replace mind with earthy physicality; we use it for elevation. The world understands that the body must be renounced, that is the only way to free the soul; we give the body full expression in actions that are harnessed to serve spirit. That is how we discipline the body; we do not command it to be silent, we command it to serve.

But Judaism requires engaging the body; requires marriage, requires the experience of bodily pleasure, regards permanent celibacy as a sin. Our path is not to separate body and soul but to engage the body and elevate it to the level of soul. For us, the body is not the point of departure for the spiritual voyage; it is the vehicle.


Rabbi Shmuel Reichman

Yom Kippur provides the unique opportunity to transcend our physical limitations and embrace our truest sense of self.

Yom Kippur is one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar; it is also one of the most unique. While we may think of Yom Kippur as a solemn and difficult day, the Jewish sages refer to Yom Kippur as a joyous and spiritually uplifting day. In fact, Yom Kippur is linked to the happiest day of the year – Purim. The name itself, Yom Kippurim, literally means “a day like Purim.” However, Purim is a time of feasting and joy, and Yom Kippur is a day when we remove ourselves completely from the physical world – we do not eat or drink, engage in marital relations, wash ourselves, or wear leather shoes. These behaviors are often associated with mourning and sadness, the exact opposite of the joy we experience on Purim. If Yom Kippur is indeed meant to be a joyous holiday as well, how do we reconcile this with the restrictions of the day?

But it is easy for people to forget that they are a soul, and instead identify with their physical body whose urges and desires are ever-present and enticing. Born in to a physical world, we tend to believe that we are only that which we can see.

The struggle in life is to see past the material and its craving for immediate gratification, and realize that we are angelic souls in a physical casing longing for deeper meaning and fulfillment. Yom Kippur is the time to realize that we are at essence spiritual beings trying to uplift our physical experience.

A soul is angelic, perfect, pure, and transcendent. However, the moment one enters this physical world, the infinite expansiveness of the soul is confined within the physical body, its container in this world. The body is meant to be the tool of the soul, allowing the soul to fully manifest its will in this world. This is our mission in life. As we journey through life, we tap into greater and greater aspects of our soul, our true self, and we must then manifest them into the world through our physical bodies. In doing so, we uplift our physical vessels and enable them to tap into greater and greater aspects of our true self. Life consists of the endless expansion and expression of self into this physical world.

Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we completely free ourselves of our physical limitations and embrace our angelic selves. The central theme of Yom Kippur is “teshuva,” repentance. Teshuva literally means “return”; on Yom Kippur we return to our ultimate root, our spiritual and perfect soul. The Jewish Sages teach that Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we have the ability to become angelic. On this day, our lower selves and our physical urges are powerless, they cannot bring us down. On Yom Kippur, we are transcending our physical bodies, embracing our angelic selves.  Yom Kippur provides the unique opportunity to transcend, to experience the infinite and embracing our truest sense of self.
The transcendent experience of Yom Kippur lays the foundation for the rest of the year. While the physical can be destructive if misused, the ideal is not to completely transcend the physical, but rather to use the physical in order to reflect something higher. Our goal as humans is not to escape the physical, but to use it as a means of connecting to the transcendent.

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