Nazarene Space

Philo of Alexandria on Yom Kippur

By

Philo of Alexandria

(193) And after the feast of trumpets the solemnity of the fast is celebrated,  Perhaps some of those who are perversely minded and are not ashamed to censure excellent things will say, "What sort of a feast is this where there is no eating and drinking, no troupe of entertainers or audience, no copious supply of strong drink nor the generous display of a public banquet, nor moreover the merriment and revelry of dancing to the sound of flute and harp, and timbrels and cymbals, and the other instruments of music which awaken the unruly lusts through the channel of the ears? (194) For it is in these and through these, it seems, that they think good cheer consists. They do this in ignorance of the true good cheer which the all-wise Moses saw with the most sharp sighted eyes and so proclaimed the fast a feast and named it the greatest of feasts in our ancestral language, "a Sabbath of Sabbaths," or as the Greeks would say, a seven of sevens and a holier than things holy. He did this for many reasons.

(195) The first reason is the temperance which the lawgiver is continually exhorting men to display at all times, both in their language and in their appetites, both in and below the belly. And he most especially enjoins them to display it now, when he devotes a day to the particular observances of it. For when a person has once learnt to be indifferent to meat and drink, those very necessary things, what can there be of things which are superfluous that he would find any difficulty in disregarding?

(196) The second reason is, that every one is at this time occupied in prayers and supplications, and since they all devote their entire leisure to nothing else from morning till evening, except to most acceptable prayers by which they endeavour to gain the favour of God, entreating pardon for their sins and hoping for his mercy, not for their own merits but through the compassionate nature of that Being who will have forgiveness rather than punishment.

(197) The third is an account of the time at which this fast is fixed to take place; for by this season all the fruits which the earth has produced during the whole year are gathered in. And therefore to proceed at once to devour what has been produced Moses looked upon as an act of greediness; but to fast, and to abstain from touching food, he considered a mark of perfect piety which teaches the mind not to trust to the food which it may have prepared as the cause of health or life. (198) Therefore those who, after the gathering in of the harvest, abstain from the food, do almost declare in express words, "We have with joy received, and we shall cheerfully store up the bounteous gifts of nature; but we do not ascribe to any corruptible thing the cause of our own durable existence, but we attribute that to the Saviour, to the God who rules in the world, and who is able, either by means of these things or without them, to nourish and to preserve Us. (199) At all events, behold, he nourished our forefathers even in the desert for forty Years.  How he opened fountains to give them abundant drink; and how he rained food from heaven sufficient for each day so that they might consume what they needed, and rather than hording or bartering or taking thought of the bounties received, they might rather reverence and worship the bountiful Giver and honour him with hymns and benedictions such as are due him."

(200) The day of the fast is always celebrated on the tenth day of the month by order of the law. Why is it on the tenth? As we have specified in our treatments of it, it is named complete perfection by wise Men and encompasses all the proportions, the arithmetical and the harmonic and the geometric, and in addition the harmonies: the 4:3 ratio through four notes, the 3:2 ratio through five notes, the 2:1 ratio through the octave, the 4:1 ratio through the double octave, and it also has the 9:8 ratio so that it is the most perfect summation of musical theories. From this fact it is named complete Perfection.  (201) Therefore God has ordained that abstinence from food should take place in accordance with the perfect number, for the sake of affording the best nourishment to the best thing which is in us; that no one may suppose that the interpreter of God's word is enjoining hunger, the most intolerable of all evils, but only a brief cutting off of the stream which flows into the channels of the body. (202) For thus the clear stream which proceeds from the fountain of reason was likely to be borne smoothly and evenly to the soul, since the uninterrupted use of food inundating the body contributes also to confuse the reason. But if the supply of food be checked, then the reason getting a firm footing as in a dry road, will be able to proceed in safety without stumbling; (203) and besides it was fitting that when the supply of all things had turned out according to the wishes of the people and become completed, they should, amid the abundance of their harvest, preserve a commemoration of their previous want by abstinence from food, and should offer up prayers, in order that they might never come to a real experience of a want of necessary food.

(Special Laws 2, 193-203)

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