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Fasting Prayers-Rabbeinu Bachya-Kad HaKemach

“A righteous man knows the soul of his beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel (Proverbs 12:10).” The ancient scholars, who discussed the soul and its mystery, and who have written countless books on that subject, are divided into two groups. One group maintains that man’s soul is a single entity which consists of three forces: the animalistic, the organic, and the rational.


The other group of scholars contends that there are three separate souls in man. Through his animalistic soul, man joins the other moving creatures, cattle, beasts, and birds. Like them, man desires to eat, to procreate, to dominate, to have honored and other physical pleasures. The center of that soul is the liver. This soul is called Nefesh and Ruach.

In his organic soul, man joins the trees and plants by growing and expanding. This soul is not centered in any particular part of the body.

In his rational soul, man partakes of the nature of those, “Angels whose dwelling is not with flesh (Daniel 2:11).” These are the higher Separate Intelligences. The center of that soul lies in the brain, and it is called Neshamah. It knows its Creator and praises Him constantly.

Among the sayings of our sacred Rabbis, the Sages of the Talmud, we find a dictum which inclines towards the opinion that there are separate souls in man, as follows (Sanhedrin 65b): Rava brought into existence a man and sent him into Rabbi Zeira. The latter spoke to the man, who did not answer, for the power of speech is given only to man created by God. Rabbi Zeira said to him, “You were created by one of the rabbinical colleagues; return to your dust.” The Sages thus explained to us that in his great wisdom, Rava created this man with the knowledge found in the Book of Creation. He was able to bestow upon him the animalistic soul of man, but he could not invest it with the rational soul, one of the functions of which is speech.

However, it appears that the Torah’s conception of the human soul is that it is a single entity which consists of three forces, each of which is termed Nefesh.

It is further known that the superiority of the righteous over the wicked is the manifestation of the righteous man’s subjugation of the animalistic drives within him and the strengthening of his rational faculty. A person who achieves this is called “righteous,” and Solomon said of him, “A righteous man knows the soul of his beast,” thus teaching us that a righteous man is one who subjugates his animalistic soul.

The great factor which assists a person in subduing his physical desires is fasting, for the nature of man is such that as soon as he lacks his necessary food, his physical strength wanes. Upon fasting, therefore, the animalistic drives weaken and man’s material substance diminishes. At that time, the light of reason shines upon him, and he is able to aim at the truth.

His worship of God will then be welcome, and his prayer will be accepted. For this reason, the Torah has ordained fasting on the Day of Atonement on which human beings are judged, for eating and drinking induce coarseness and arrogance, as it is said, “When they were fed, they became full, they were filled and their hearts were exalted, therefore have they forgotten Me (Hosea 13:6; it is for this reason that saying Grace after a Meal is obligatory by law of the Torah, for satiety could easily be the cause of forgetting the Creator Who provided us with food).”

Since that day has been designated for the atonement of sins and for capital judgment, we have therefore been commanded to fast on that sacred day, as Scripture states, “And you shall afflict your souls (Leviticus 23:27).” Tradition affirms that this “affliction” is accomplished with fasting, as it is said, “And He afflicted you and suffered you to hunger (Deuteronomy 8:3).” Tradition is thus the lamp which direct its light to the true meaning of the Torah. Without it, I might have said that this affliction can be accomplished by great physical effort and heavy toil. However, since it says, “and you shall afflict your souls,” it obviously includes both the affliction of the body with hunger, as affirmed by tradition, and the affliction of the soul by purging it of evil thoughts and impure fancies, which are more deleterious to the rational faculty than the sin itself.

It is also known that affliction of the soul is essential, for merely afflicting the body by fasting without afflicting the soul places such a person in the category of a sinner, and he has no merit gained from fasting alone. Isaiah similarly expressed it when he said, “Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness; you do not fast this day so as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I have chosen (Isaiah 58:4–5).” He explained here that afflicting the body without afflicting the soul is not at all the principal aim of acceptance by God. Bodily affliction must be accompanied by purging the soul of its evil thoughts and deeds of wickedness.

The prophet expressed this thought, as he continued, “Is not this the fast I have chosen? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry (6–7)?” Isaiah is thus saying that the intent of fasting is not merely to subject your body to hunger, but to feed the hungry.

Thus, the prophet said, “And do not hide from your own flesh,” for it is forbidden to constantly afflict your flesh alone. The principal intent in the fasting is the affliction of the soul.

On a fast day, it is appropriate to grieve over your sins and to shed tears, for tears attest to a broken and contrite heart. Tears with fasting are like the libation of water with an offering. When a person strengthens himself with prayer and tears on a fast day, he is assured that his prayer will be heard on high providing that he does not have against him one of the major obstacles to repentance.

Thus, the prophet said, “You fast not this day so as to make your voice be heard on high.” From this we learn that a proper fast causes a person’s prayer to be heard on high, and this is the main intent of the fast. (Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts; Translated and Annotated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, Shilo Publishing House 1980)

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