The sacral calendar in chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus includes mention of what is subsequently called Yom Kippur. It is intended to be a day of “affliction” as well as a day of cessation from labor (Lev. 23:27-28). But what, exactly, constitutes “affliction” goes unstated. Tradition (cf. Mishnah Yoma 8:1) ascribes five acts of self-denial to affliction – no eating of drinking, no washing, no application of oils to the body, no wearing of leather shoes, and no sexual intimacy – as if to define the term as avoidance of pleasurable, physical activity. Without discounting or disputing the traditional understanding, Don Isaac Abarbanel makes a case for understanding “affliction” differently.
To Abarbanel, all fasting is affliction, but not all affliction is fasting. For instance, in Psalm 102:24 the psalmist declares that God “has afflicted (New JPS translation: drained) my strength having shortened my days.” This kind of affliction is different from self-abnegation. Likewise, Abarbanel interprets Isaiah (58:3) to say that Israelites tried to curry favor from God through fasting as well as through “afflicting the soul.” Separate and apart from self-denial is a kind of affliction that affects the spirit. The people boast of not only refraining from food and drink, but also refraining from inappropriate thoughts. Affliction can be located in the mind as well as in the body.
Yom Kippur is a time for experiencing two distinct categories of affliction. It is a time to diminish physical pleasures and it is a time for dwelling on failures in character. And by engaging in the first, one advances the second. The first kind of affliction is circumscribed by law and ritual. The second kind of affliction is a product of self-reflection.
An oft cited story is that of the yeshiva student who boasted to his master that he had gone through the Talmud three times! (An admirable and certainly an impressive accomplishment.) But the master was unmoved. He looked sternly at his student and asked: “But how many times has the Talmud gone through you?” As much as ritual holds an important place in Judaism, ritual must be complemented by feelings without which actions become mere mechanics. Abarbanel use the example of Yom Kippur to make the point.