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What does fasting do? Is it to put us in a certain mindset? If so how does it do so? Does the pain itself atone? If so, how and why? Or, is there some other reason for fasting?

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    I've always heard it that on YK Israel rises to the level of angels, and since angels don't eat, we don't either.
    – ezra
    Commented Sep 20, 2018 at 1:57

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Fasting allows introspection. When you are well fed you are all too aware of yourself. When you step back from physical pleasures, you can focus more sincerely on repentance, or on the solemn ideas of the day. (But pain is a distraction, so it's important to prepare well for the fast.)

Also, fasting is a form of self-sacrifice. Medieval works suggest a person fasts whenever he does teshuva.

About Yom Kippur, the Maharal writes, the soul dwells completely in the body through the five enjoyments. These make the body match up to a soul — through being a place of life, unique, wholesome, clean and aloof. These are attributes of the soul, which accordingly has five names: נפש, רוח, נשמה, יחידה, חיה.

By refraining from these enjoyments, the soul is slightly removed from the body. This is appropriate for a day in which the soul is cleansed from sins that the body dragged it into committing.

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In his excellent book “Teshuvah”, R' Immanuel Bernstein suggests: The translation of וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֑ם is not to “afflict” but to “unsettle”. He derives this from the fact that the amount of food which would cause punishment is not an olive's bulk as elsewhere, but a fat date, which is more. Our sages understood that the amount of the fat date is sufficient to settle one's mind.

Being unsettled physically is likely to lead to a more productive form of introspection.

(similar answer to that of HaLeiVi)

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This is not a comprehensive answer and my knowledge is small, but here are some helpful texts on "other reasons" for fasting.

In Daniel 9, Daniel fasts and prays after reading in Jeremiah how Hashem promised deliverance from exile when the seventy years in Babylon were completed. In this prayer, Daniel confesses the sin of the people as a whole and pleads with Hashem for mercy. Daniel's prayer expresses grief over sins and a strong desire for Hashem's deliverance in fulfillment of His promises. Likewise, if we grieve over our sin, fasting is a way of humbling ourselves before Hashem while asking for mercy. (See also Ahab's fasting in 1 Kings 21:27-29, of which it is written "Ahab humbled himself", and Hashem had mercy.)

See also Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7 for helpful perspectives on the heart behind fasting.

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As most of our sins come from our physical urges, it makes sense to withhold from physical pleasures when one tries to atone.

Besides fasting, our Sages also imposed restrictions on sex, bathing, and leather footwear. The difference is that fasting is explicit in the Torah; all others fall under Rabbinical definition of עינוי - types of affliction.

P.S. There's a dispute in the Gemara regarding whether or not the commandments have reasons. Anyway, fasting on Yom Kippur is explicitly commanded in the Torah. Therefore, we must fast even if no reason makes sense to us — just because G-d commanded us so.

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  • I don't see how it follows. How does withholding from physical pleasures improve Repentance?
    – Orion
    Commented Sep 20, 2018 at 0:41
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    I'm not sure it's unanimous that the other עינויים are Rabbinic. Also the Torah doesn't say anywhere to fast.
    – robev
    Commented Sep 20, 2018 at 1:56

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