Fasting and Cessation of Work on the Day of Atonement

On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), both Israelites and non-Israelites who were considered a part of the nation were commanded to fast and cease work during this very important celebration:

"And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourns among you" (Lev.16:29 KJV).

"And you shall have on the tenth day of this seventh month an holy convocation; and you shall afflict your souls: you shall not do any work therein" (Num.29:7 KJV).

In Leviticus 23:27-32, God commands the Israelites to keep an assembly and offer sacrifices to the Lord on this day. Again, he gives the command to fast and to refrain from doing any work during this day:

"Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord. And you shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the Lord your God" (Lev.23:27-28 KJV).

Verses 29 and 30 show the warning that the death penalty would be administered to anyone who refused to fast or cease from work on this day.

"For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people. And whatsoever soul it be that does any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people" (Lev.23:29-30 KJV).

"You shall do no manner of work: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of rest, and you shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even to even, shall you celebrate your sabbath" (Lev.23:31-32 KJV).

Verses 29-30 reveal that there are two distinct violations of this celebration which would cause the violator to come under the death penalty.


Why would God impose the death penalty on those who disobeyed his command to fast on this day? The answer is simple when the covenant relationship the Israelites had with their Creator is understood.

The Book of Exodus and many other sources show that God promised to dwell with the Israelites, walk among them, be their protector and benefactor, and bestow upon them many other blessings, if they would obey his way of life. However, before God would come to dwell and walk among them, there were certain rules and conditions of physical purity with which the Israelites had to comply.

Because the Israelites did not diligently obey the laws concerning physical purity, God could not walk among them. However, his presence did reside within the tabernacle.

If God removed his presence from the tabernacle, all of the physical benefits the Israelites derived from having him dwell among them would be lost. These benefits included prosperity, health, and national security and protection.

God wanted them to understand the seriousness of this celebration and the consequences if he did not accept the sacrificial offerings on this day. The removal of his presence from Israel would bring disaster upon the nation and its people.

Fasting was a way to remind the Israelites of the seriousness of this celebration and their individual responsibly to maintain purity and right-standing before their God and benefactor.

If an Israelite was unwilling to fast on this day, it would show contempt and lack of respect for God and his ways. This individual would be dealt with as someone in rebellion against God.


God commanded the Israelites to cease from all work on this day just as they did on the weekly Sabbath. Again, if an individual did not obey, he was to be put to death.

It is important to note the difference between the types of work forbidden on the Sabbath and the annual festivals. In Leviticus 23, the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals are listed along with certain instructions for each. The instruction for the weekly Sabbath is "You will not do any work" (Lev.23:3).

In contrast, all of the annual festivals, (except for the Day of Atonement), have a ban on "any work of labor" (Lev.23:7-8,21, 25, 35-36). The difference between 'work' and 'work of labor' is found in Exodus 12:16, which shows that food preparation qualified as work, but not as work of labor. Because no food was to be eaten on the Day of Atonement (Lev.23:27,32), no preparation of food was permitted. Therefore, no work was to be done.

Besides the major differences between the Sabbath and the annual festivals, there is an actual difference in the Hebrew vocabulary used to describe the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals.


The words used to denote the weekly Sabbath and the annual festivals come from the same root word, SH.B.T, which means to cease, not to rest, which is commonly thought.

The word for the weekly Sabbath is shabbat. This word appears to be constructed out of the Piel (intensive/causative) verb stem usage of the root SH.B.T. Therefore, the meaning of shabbat is 'an utter cessation'.

One of the words associated with the Annual festivals is shabbaton, which is also built from the root SH.B.T. However, the '-on' ending may indicate that this noun is built from the Qal/Pa'al verb stem usage of the root, which denotes normal action. The verb means 'to cease' in this stem; therefore, shabbaton means 'a cessation'.

There is also the combination of these two words shabbat-shabbaton, which means 'an utter cessation-cessation'. This phrase is connected only with the weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement. On these days, no kind of professional act is permitted.

On the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement, even food preparation was not permitted, which is indicated by Exodus 12:16. This verse shows that food preparation is considered melakhah ('a professional act'), but not melekhet avodah ('a laborious professional act'). Avodah means 'labor', in the sense that it is strenuous activity.

The weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement are the only days on which all work is forbidden. Both are called a 'shabbat-shabbaton' (Lev. 23:3;32) a word which consists of the words 'shabbat' and 'shabbaton'. Both of these words come from the same Hebrew root, which means 'to cease', not 'to rest'. The words 'shabbat' and 'shabbatshabbaton' refer to the weekly Sabbath. The word 'shabbaton' alone is the only word used in reference to the annual festivals: the Festival of Trumpets, the First day of the Feast of Shelters/Ingathering, and the Feast of the Eighth Day (Lev.23:24,39).

The word 'shabbaton' appears to convey approximately the same meaning as the English words 'holiday' or 'festival'. The literal meaning of 'shabbaton' seems to be 'a cessation'.

The kind of work prohibited on the Sabbath and the annual festivals has been defined in the Bible. The weekly Sabbath is a day when all work is prohibited (Lev.23:3). The annual festivals, except for the Day of Atonement, are days when 'professional work' (the means by which one makes a living) is prohibited (Lev.23:7-8,21,25,35-36).

The term used for 'work' is melekhet avodah. Avodah is the generic word for labor. Melekhet comes from the same root as mal'akh (the word for 'angel') and has the sense of 'service under someone and in his name'.

Further distinction in these words can be made when studying them in context. The Hebrew word for 'work' mentioned above is melakhah. It is a word used to describe the construction of the Tent of Meeting (Ex.35:

36) and Nehemiah's repair of the wall of Jerusalem (Neh.4:16; 5:13; etc.). Additionally, it describes what a potter does (Jer.18:3) and the occupation of sea traders (Psa.107:23). It also refers to the moneymaking ventures of the King of Persia (Est.3:9; 9:3).

All of these examples of the usage of melakhah contain the element of organized activity in a professional sense. The builders of the Tent of Meeting were craftsmen by trade (Ex.31:1-11). The rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall under Nehemiah involved much organization and it was essentially the occupation of all those involved during the time that it was going on.

The rest of the examples given above involve activities that provided financial support. For this reason, it appears that melakhah should be translated as 'a professional act.' This word refers to a singular professional act as opposed to one's profession as a whole, which is shown by the Hebrew syntax in the prohibitions of Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28 and 29.

A clear definition of melakhah is found in Leviticus 23:3, which shows that the activity which one ceases on the weekly Sabbath is called melakhah.

The only distinction made in the Bible between work prohibitions is that food preparation is not included in the prohibition of professional activity, which is why the Day of Atonement was classified as a shabbatshabbaton and 'all work' was prohibited. This day was a commanded fast in which no food was to be prepared or eaten (Lev.16: 37; 23:28-31).

Both cessation from all labor and fasting on the Day of Atonement were strong reminders for the nation of Israel as to the importance of this day. This was a day to reflect on their conduct and to be aware of the fact that, if the high priest failed to correctly perform the ceremonies and sacrifices, God would remove his presence from Israel. Moreover, it was a day to rejoice because God's presence would remain among them for another year with all the benefits thereof.

By  B. L. Cocherell      b5w62