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Yom Kippur: The Fast of All Fasts

‘On Rosh Hashanah all shall be inscribed and on the day of the fast of Kippur all shall be sealed,” the High Holy Day prayer book says. “The day [yom] of the fast of Kippur,” yom tsom kippur, rather than “the fast of Yom Kippur,” tsom yom kippur, is an expression found in ancient rabbinic literature, in which Yom Kippur is sometimes simply referred to as ha-tsom, “the fast.” In the Aramaic of the Talmud, too, we find it called tsoma, “the fast,” or tsoma rabba, “the great fast.” (In Aramaic, the definite article is suffixed to the end of the word rather than prefixed to it as in Hebrew and most other languages.) This was not because there were no other fasts in the Jewish year, but because Yom Kippur was the fast of fasts, far greater in importance than any of the others. When a Jew spoke of ha-tsom or tsoma, there was no need to be more specific.

After Sukkot: The calm Mediterranean became stormy and unreliable for antique shipping during the fall season. Image by wikicommons

An interesting example of this can be found in the New Testament, in the book of Acts. There is a story there about how Paul, who was raised as an observant Jew, is arrested in Palestine for his Christian preaching and sent aboard ship in the custody of a Roman centurion for trial in Italy. Off the coast of Crete the ship runs into strong winds and puts into a little anchorage for shelter. The Greek text continues: “As much time had been lost, and the voyage was dangerous because the fast had already gone by, Paul advised them [the crew of the ship], saying, ‘Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.’”

What “fast” that had “already gone by” was the Jewish author of Acts talking about? It couldn’t have been Tisha B’Av, the fast of mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple, because the Temple was still standing in Paul’s day. In theory, it might have been one of the minor fasts of the Jewish year, such as the Tenth of Tevet, which commemorates the beginning of the siege laid by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to the First Temple, or Ta’anit Esther, which takes place on the day before Purim. Yet the next verse of Acts leaves no room for doubt that it must have been Yom Kippur: “But the centurion paid more attention to the captain and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. And because the harbor was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to put to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, and winter there.”

The fast in question, we are told, took place as winter was approaching and as the long, dry, stormless Mediterranean summer, in which ships sailed the sea with relative safety, was drawing to an end. Although bad storms don’t usually strike the Eastern Mediterranean until later, the first rains usually fall in late September or early October — a change in weather marked in Jewish tradition by a parallel change in the Shemoneh Esreh or “Eighteen Benedictions,” the silent prayer that is said daily in the morning, afternoon and evening services. Until the holiday of Sukkot, which comes in mid-September to mid-October, Jews pray in the Shemoneh Esreh for dew at night to moisten the parched earth. Starting with the second day of the holiday and until Passover, however, they pray for wind and rain to bring the winter precipitation on which the spring harvest in the Land of Israel depends.

“The fast” referred to in the book of Acts must therefore have occurred right before Sukkot and been the fast of Yom Kippur, which takes place five days earlier. Ten-day, or even two-day, weather forecasts did not exist in ancient times, in which storms could be predicted only a short while in advance, and as far as Paul was concerned, the sea was already dangerous. The ship’s captain and owner, however, counting on the fact that really bad weather was still rare at Yom Kippur time, decided to raise sail as soon as the wind subsided and head for a better port in which to spend the winter. According to Acts, this was a miscalculation. The ship was hit by a storm and blown off course all the way to Malta, nearly capsizing on the way before running aground on shoals.

Although most English translations of the book of Acts stick to the Greek wording of “the fast,” a few, such my United Bible Societies’ New Testament, have substituted “Day of Atonement” for it. Whether Paul, whose attitude toward Jewish observance was highly ambivalent, fasted on that Yom Kippur at sea we don’t know, but even if he didn’t, it remained for him the fast. So, I imagine, it is for you, too.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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