Almost every year since I've been keeping Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) I get asked this question: What does it mean to afflict the soul (KJV)? This question is asked because in Scriptures like Leviticus 23:26-32 Yahweh instructs the Israelites to afflict their souls on the 10th day of the 7th month. Other Bible translations say to practice self denial (HCSB), humble yourselves (NET), or deny yourselves (NIV).
The Hebrew word for afflict (KJV) is the word anah. This word is found in other passages of Scripture that deal with how people would afflict their selves or practice self denial.
Ezra 8:21 | I proclaimed a fast by the Ahava River, so that we might humble (anah) ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us, our children, and all our possessions.
Psalm 35:13b | I humbled (anah) myself with fasting, and my prayer was genuine.
Isaiah 58:3, 5 | Why have we fasted, but You have not seen? We have denied (anah) ourselves, but You haven't noticed... Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny (anah) himself...
These three passages equate fasting with self denial or humbling one's self. This is not the only form of self denial, but it is probably the most common form. The human body thrives on nourishment from food and drink. An extremely good way to practice self denial is to deny your body this same food and drink, i.e. to fast. Other ways may include refraining from sex as well as personal grooming, and the list could be added to.
That fasting was the common way to practice self denial on the Day of Atonement is seen in a proper understanding of Acts 27:9. We read here:
Acts 27:9 | By now much time had passed, and the voyage was already dangerous. Since the Fast was already over...
Commentator Adam Clarke has this to say in regards to this verse:
Sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past - It is generally allowed that the fast mentioned here was that of the great day of atonement which was always celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month, which would answer to the latter end of our September; see Lev. 16:29; 23:27, etc. As this was about the time of the autumnal equinox, when the Mediterranean Sea was sufficiently tempestuous, we may suppose this feast alone to be intended. To sail after this feast was proverbially dangerous among the ancient Jews. See proofs in Schoettgen.
Also note commentator John Gill on this verse:
The Syriac version reads, "the fast of the Jews"; this was the day of atonement, which was the grand fast of the Jews, on which day they afflicted their souls, Lev. 23:27 in memory of the worshipping of the golden calf; on that day they neither eat nor drink, nor do any work, neither do they wash, nor are they anointed, nor do they bind on their shoes, or make use of the marriage bed; nor do they read anything but sorrowful things, as the Lamentations of Jeremiah, until the setting of the sun, and the rising of the stars; and hence this day is called by them יום צום, "the day of fasting", and צום הגדול, "the great fast, and the day of the fast of atonement, and the fast of the atonement": now this day was on the 10th of the month Tisri, which answers to the latter part of our September, and the former part of October; so that it was now Michaelmas time, when winter was coming on, and sailing began to be dangerous; about this time of the year the Pleiades set, which brings on tempestuous weather, and unfit for sailing...
Blog by Matthew Janzen. Lover of Yahweh, Yeshua, my wife and 5 children. All else is commentary.