וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עֹולָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשֹׂור לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל־מְלָאכָה לֹא 16:29
תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתֹוכְכֶם
Levi. 16:29 “And it shall be for an everlasting statute for you: In the seventh month, on the month’s tenth day, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work, neither the home-born nor the stranger sojourning among you.”
Two issues need to be addressed regarding this verse. What does it mean to afflict your soul and what does the last phrase mean? I try to answer each of these below.
Afflict your souls:
Traditionally afflicting our souls means to fast -- no food or water for 26 or so hours. I have to admit that fasting certainly feels like my soul is being afflicted. But I’m not sure that is the meaning intended. Is there another way to afflict one’s soul more directly rather than by depriving the flesh? Isn’t it possible that the meaning is for us to dwell intently on our sins of the past year? Look, we’re directed to bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle/Temple on Yom Kippur (Levi. 16:5, for one). Those offerings have to be eaten in that day. Then how can we fast?
Let’s examine the occurrences and implications of the term “afflict” more closely. The words afflict, afflicted, or affliction appear in the Torah 23 times (including this time). The words “afflict and “souls” appear together five times (including this time). The words “bread of affliction” appear once. It is the last of these which brings fasting as the meaning of “afflict your souls” into greatest question. Matzah is the bread of affliction. Can it possibly mean the bread of fasting? Of course not! Then can it mean the bread of struggle, difficulty, and/or suffering? How about the verse that tells us to not afflict the widow or the orphan (Exod. 22:21)? In most occurrences of the word “affliction” it appears to refer to suffering. Then does Exod. 22:21 mean to not make the widow or the orphan suffer? But aren’t they suffering already? Maybe it means not to make them suffer more. Then does afflict the soul also mean to make the soul suffer? Well, certainly fasting appears to fill that bill reasonably well. But so does putting on ashes and sackcloth and deeply repenting. The high priest must wear plain linen garments on Yom Kippur in place of his ostentatious attire when he enters the holiest of holies behind the veil. So wearing less ostentatious clothes seems appropriate. Now there’s another verse that may add some light on this problem. In Gene. 41:52, Joseph refers to Egypt as the land of his affliction. He certainly suffered in Egypt (but not a great deal; he had a relatively short stay in prison and that about covers his “affliction”). Then his suffering wasn’t of the same intensity as that of the Israelite slaves later in Egypt when God saw their affliction (Exod. 3:9). There God refers to the Israelites’ affliction by the term “oppression.” Now I have to ask, are suffering and oppression the same? They can be, but in this case I think not. I believe that suffering can be less intense than oppression. Suffering covers a range of difficulty, oppression is more confined to dire circumstances. One can suffer from a finger cut. One is seldom if ever oppressed by a finger cut (unless it becomes badly infected).
So what can we conclude from this discussion? As with any commandment about which there is no single obvious interpretation, I believe it is appropriate to include all possibilities: So fast and wear old ugly clothes (if you dare).
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The home-born and the stranger:
Now what would you suppose the phrase “neither the home-born nor the stranger sojourning among you” means? It appears over and over in one form or another throughout the rest of the Torah. As this statute is everlasting, it must apply to all times in history and wherever the Jews find themselves.
While the Israelites wandered in the desert of Sinai, the stranger sojourning with them could be anyone who visited, such as Jethro, for example, or any Egyptian accompanying them on their journey. The home-born (or native) would have been more complicated. Were those born in Egypt considered home-born? Or were only those born in the desert home-born? Or does home-born mean those born of one or two Israelite parents? There seems to be no definitive answer to these questions.
On the other hand, while the Jews were in Israel, the distinction seems to flip. The home-born is the Jew born in Israel. But the sojourner is now a bit of a mystery. The stranger sojourning with you could be a non-Jew living among the Jews, or he could be a Jew whose parents had been out of Israel when he was born, or a non-Jew who had been adopted by a Jewish family, or a non-Jew who had become a Jew (by circumcision and conversion -- if the latter was a requirement then. Exodus 12:48 offers some small support for the idea that a stranger was anyone who was uncircumcised.
Then, finally, after the destruction of the second Temple and during the 2000-year-long dispersion of the Jews, the distinction takes on a different set of uncertain characteristics. Who is the home-born now? And who is the sojourner? In my humble opinion (written with figurative tongue in cheek), the Jew is the sojourner and the home-born is the non-Jewish native of the land. That’s obviously not what is meant. To conjecture further, I might suppose that the home-born would a Jew and the stranger would be uncircumcised. This is basically the same as when the Tabernacle or Temple existed. Isn’t that interesting!
Notwithstanding all of the above, I venture to suggest that the scribe may have assumed that Israel would be the land of the Israelites forever, and had no need to figure out the problems and questions we are grappling with here.
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