Torah Metaphors: Yom Kippur (Part 1)

General Introduction:

Just to make it absolutely clear, this is not a standard Torah commentary based on the teachings of the rabbis that one would obtain in a yeshiva. My background is in English and Comparative Literature and what we will be doing in this series of articles is examining the Torah in a similar fashion one might examine the writings of Shakespeare. Accordingly, if you wish to make a comment on the article, I would like to request that you present your arguments utilizing an academic format, based on the text, and not quote outside sources. It is the purpose of these articles to introduce an alternative and, hopefully, a fresh perspective to what is written in the Torah and not merely to reheat and serve up the same ideas that have been presented again and again during the last thousand years. Finally, I would just like to add that the inspiration for these articles comes from the works of the English psychologist Maurice Nicoll and that the source I used for the Torah was the website:


                                                                Yom Kippur

This subject shall be split into two parts. The first dealing with the translation and interpretation of the statement usually quoted as: “afflict the soul”. In part two we shall discuss the animals associated with this Holy Day and attempt to determine: Why specifically were these animals selected?

Probably the first thing that should be discussed in relation to Yom Kippur is that the English translation in regards to fasting is incorrect. In fact, the word fasting doesn’t even appear in the sections about Yom Kippur.  What actually is written in Hebrew is that on Yom Kippur one should impoverish the soul. Although it is possible to translate this phrase as “punish or afflict the soul”, I hope to show later these too are not the correct translations.

The second most important issue concerning the English translation, is the statement made by God to Noah which usually appears as: “…..the life is in the blood…..”. What is clearly written in Hebrew is that the soul is in the blood.

Why all this becomes important is that Abram is told in a dream that his descendants will be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, which is then rephrased as four generations. Regardless, the relevant wording for us is that they while they are there they will be impoverish/afflicted/punished by the Egyptians (i.e. the exact same word which is used to discuss Yom Kippur).

Since the word for impoverish/afflict implies a connection between Yom Kippur and slavery in Egypt, the first question we must ask is: Did the Hebrews actually fast while they were slaves in Egypt? The answer to this question can be found in the story about craving meat in the Book of Numbers. In short, we are told that it was only when the people were following Moses that their conditions resembled a fast. While the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, however, they had a large variety of foods to eat in almost unlimited quantities.

In the story of Samson’s riddle we see that in ancient times plowing a field was associated with producing knowledge. This is quite logical because for centuries the rabbis have claimed that the Torah is the bread of life. In ancient times wheat was referred to as the fruit of the land and in the story of Garden of Eden a clear connection is made with fruit and knowledge. Hence, a worker can be seen as a metaphor for a student and a slave can be seen as someone who is compelled to study the beliefs of another. A parallel example can be found in modern times when people claimed that the communists had enslaved the minds of the Eastern Europeans. Thus Moses himself is described as “God’s servant” (i.e. slave) and we are clearly told he did not want to bring God’s message to the Israelites.

What all this suggests then is that, while with Moses, the Israelites were to be weaned off the teachings of men and thus they were given very little bread, water or meat. Unfortunately, as a result of their continuous complaining, God relented and provided them manna from heaven, water from a rock and quails which flew in from the sky (here it is important to grasp that in Hebrew the words sky and heaven are the same, thus a bird is a metaphor for a spiritual intermediary). Nevertheless, when Moses provided the Israelites with water, he angrily screamed out and called them “fallen ones”, meaning they had fallen from a higher level of understanding back to the level of understanding symbolized by: “over fed Egyptian slaves”. This connection between water and lower levels of understanding can be seen in the story of Sodom which was located in the “amply watered” Jordan Valley. In Hebrew the name Jordan means to go down.

In the story of Cain and Abel we are told that Abel’s blood called out to the lord. If we add that to God’s statement about the soul being in the blood, we can then see that the soul has the ability to communicate. In spite of the fact that I believe the gospels can serve as a valuable resource tool for interpreting metaphors in the Torah, when making my proposal for this series of articles I promised “The Times of Israel” that I would make very few references to the New Testament. Nevertheless, since I have implied that the rabbis have mistranslated the Torah, I think it is only fair to give an example of where the Christians have mistranslated it as well. Briefly: one of the main reasons Christians don’t keep a kosher diet is that they believe Jesus declared all foods to be clean. Jesus said that it was not important what went into the mouth, it was only important what came out of the mouth. Unfortunately, the Torah does not speak of clean and unclean food, in Hebrew it speaks of pure and impure food. Thus what Jesus was actually saying is that the food we eat is not what makes us impure, it is how purely we transmit the word of God to others. In other words: the Jews have been entrusted with God’s Torah and sins are based on how accurately we pass on these teachings to the next generation. Thus God says he had selected Abram because he knew he would teach God’s ways to his descendants.

In order to better appreciate what is going on here, I believe we must turn to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. In this narrative we are told that the location is called Mount Moriah, but we also are told this is God’s Mountain. The key here is that the name: Moriah shares the same root as the Hebrew word for teacher. Hence, it is possible to conclude that God is a teacher of a higher level of understanding.

In addition, the Hebrew word for sin is actually an archery term and it means: to miss the mark. Why this is significant is that the word Torah shares the same root as the verb for shooting an arrow. Hence, originally, sin had nothing to do with bad behavior, but was related to accurately teaching the words of God. This was the criteria to be used when judging a prophet. A prophet was someone who accurately repeated to the people the words which God told him to speak and was not necessarily someone who predicted the future. Hence, Moses: the Lawgiver, was described by God as the greatest of the prophets, not so much for his predictions of the future, but because he accurately relayed to the people a large quantity of God’s teachings.

If all this is acceptable, then we can see that the concepts of “purity” and “kosher food” have to do with accurately repeating God’s word and are only indirectly related to eating cheeseburgers. Thus, we can then better appreciate the connection between the statement of Jesus and the Israelite slaves eating large quantities of food in Egypt. To impoverish/afflict the soul has nothing whatsoever to do with the physical act of eating food and is in fact a reference to eating “the bread of life”. Thus the land of milk and honey is a reference to a source of spiritual teachings. The Hebrew word for bee also means word, thus honey is a reference to “the writings of God” and it has been a tradition amongst Jews to place a piece of candy on the words for God when teaching children to read the Torah. The Hebrew word for a woman’s breast also means spirit as well as field, hence “a land of milk…” is a play on words, implying that the breast of mother earth provides spiritual teachings.

The soul is something which allows man to communicate with God. God said the soul is located in the blood, God did not say the soul was located in the intestines! Thus, we can see in the story of Samuel selecting David as the future king, God was not interested in the outer appearance of a man’s physical features and most certainly did not care about the way he dressed. If we agree that a sin is determined by how purely/accurately one communicates God’s messages to others, and we further agree that the soul has the ability to communicate, then when God judged the heart of David he saw it as being a pure vessel which had the ability to transfer God’s will to his people. It seems obvious that, originally, King Saul’s heart also was a pure vessel, but King Saul allowed the ideas and desires of men to mix in with the teachings he received and be began to take into consideration the needs of men rather than follow only the commands of God. Thus, Saul was removed as king not because he didn’t wait for Samuel when sacrificing some sheep, but because he had become an impure source of God’s word by allowing men to influence his decisions. Naturally, the most famous example of the soul being a vehicle of communication is when God hardens the heart of Pharaoh and prevents him from listening to the pleas of Moses.

Another important theme is the connection between children, a mother and the word of God, as well as a seed, the earth and fruit. Where this is most clearly apparent is in the Holy Day of Shavout which celebrates the giving of God’s word to his people. This is also referred to as “The Festival of the First Fruits” and this is significant because in Hebrew the words for first fruits and first born sons are the same.  Thus, the statement in the Torah “I brought my son out of Egypt” is a reference to knowledge and this implies that there are certain aspects to the Egyptian religion which can be found in the religion of the Israelites. Another example of this transfer of knowledge is the prediction given to Abram by God that the Israelites would take great wealth from the Egyptians.

In modern times we have the expression: “a wealth of knowledge”. We also speak of a person having: “a rich vocabulary”. What must be understood is that when reading the Torah is that we are discussing the word of God and not: “The Wall Street Journal”.  In the story of the burial of Sarah we are told that Abraham (his new name) paid four hundred pieces of silver for a field containing a cave and that this was located near a town called, in Hebrew: Kiryat Arbah, which can be roughly translated  as: “the fourth village”. What we see immediately is that these are the same two numbers which are used in relation to impoverishing the soul in Egypt. In later articles we shall discuss all these aspects in much greater detail, but for now I think it is enough to make the connection between the number four and the forty days and nights of rain in Noah’ story, as well as the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. We are told that Abram brought with him great wealth from Ur of the Chaldees and later he increased this wealth in Egypt. Later we are told that Jacob left the lands of his Uncle Laban with great wealth. Again, we are speaking about the Torah, not the Wall Street Journal. Why is God providing us with all these references to wealth? Is there a connection between money and godliness? Should Bill Gates be considered a spiritual leader?

Another major issue we must consider is: Of all the nations in the world, why were the Israelites sent to Egypt? In short, I believe the answer comes from the philosophy of alchemy, which many people wrongly believe has solely to do with turning lead into gold. We have already discussed the connection between working in a field and studying in a school. We have also discussed the concept of “a wealth of knowledge” and “rich vocabularies”. While it is true workers can be paid in food, usually they were paid money, hence a worker’s “wages” in particular a field of study could be described as the lessons he received from his master. Since, we have already shown that sin represents an inaccurate teaching, it is easy to appreciate where the Pharisee: Paul of Tarsus came up with the statement: “The wages of sin are death” (death being a metaphor for little or no understanding).

Accordingly, the study of alchemy is not really about transforming lead into gold, but is dealing with transforming a base mind into a source of precious knowledge. “Chem” is the name the Ancient Egyptians used to call themselves and these people should not to be confused with modern Egyptians who are a different race. Alchemy means: “The Arts of the Egyptians” but more accurately should be translated as “The Arts of the Black Land” or “The Black Arts” (not to be confused with evil). By contrast, the name Laban, the brother of Rebecca and father of Leah and Rachel, means “white” and modern day Lebanon, named after him, could be translated as “The White Land”.

Regardless, the main concept in alchemy is “purification and attaining a new perspective”. Thus, since we have already touched upon the connection between wealth and knowledge, as well as the connection between the number four and purification, what we can then begin to see is that the four hundred years of slavery in Egypt has to do with removing the wealth of knowledge the Hebrews had obtained from other cultures and replacing it with Egyptian ideas about purification of the spirit. Thus, God describes Egypt as a blazing furnace and when the Israelites leave Egypt they take with them great wealth. Thus Yom Kippur has nothing to do with punishing ourselves for misdeeds and evil sins, because Abram’s descendants hadn’t really done anything wrong. Yom Kippur is about learning to purify the body from the wealth of knowledge of men, so that all that remains is a pure soul which possesses the ability to communicate with God at a higher level of understanding. This is not to say that fasting is not a valuable procedure, only that there is no connection between fasting and impoverishing the soul. Apparently then, based on the story of the Israelites in the desert, fasting has more to do with maintaining a pure state of mind, then with attaining a pure state of mind.

Fasting does not remove sins, otherwise the Children of Israel would not have been provided with food while wandering in the desert for forty years after sinning against God. It was only before they had sinned that they were deprived of food. The prophet Nathan did not tell King David to fast in order to remove his sin. King David took it upon himself to fast in an attempt to save the life of the baby, not to remove his sin.

Dror Ben Ami is the author of the book: THE MISUNDERSTANDING: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments.


About the Author
Dror Ben Ami has studied English and Comparative Literature at Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Haifa. Building on research begun almost forty years ago, Mr. Ben Ami has written a complete commentary on Biblical Law (i.e. the Hebrew Torah) and is currently working on a complete commentary of the four gospels. Living in Israel since 1980, Mr. Ben Ami brings a unique perspective to scripture, answering many questions that few people have the background, or the knowledge, to even ask....