Contemporary Issues in Halakhah “To Fast or Not to Fast?”


In this lesson, I would like to examine the history and current relevance of four traditional fast days in Judaism which are in one way or another connected with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the death or exile of the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. There is one, Tisha B’av (the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av) which is a major fast – from sundown to sundown, and three minor fasts – from sunrise to sunset: Tzom Gedaliah (the fast of Gedaliah), Asarah b’Tevet (the 10th of Tevet) and Yud-Zion b’Tamuz (the seventeeth of Tamuz).

I will explain the background of each of these four days in a moment, but let me state for the record that there are two more public fasts on the Jewish calendar which we will not be discussing because they have nothing to do with the destruction of Jerusalem. One is of course the major fast of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which happens on the 10th of Tishrei. Out of all of the fasts, this is the only one commanded in the Torah. The other fasts, although mentioned in the Bible, were ordained by the Rabbis. The second one is Ta’anit Esther, the minor fast of Esther, which occurs prior to Purim and is connected with the calamity that threatened the Jewish people in the Persian empire at that time.

There are a number of sad events which occurred throughout history on Tisha B’av, but the primary ones of concern for us are the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of a Jewish state. The destruction by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE put an end to what is referred to as the “First Temple” era which commenced when King Shlomo (Solomon), the son of King David, erected the Temple some four centuries earlier. Most of the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon. When the Persians replaced the Babylonians as the major power in the era, Cyrus the emperor declared that the Jews could return to the land of Israel. Seventy years after the destruction of the first temple the second temple was built. The “second temple” period lasted until the 9th of Av in the year 70 of the common era, when the temple was destroyed by the Romans.

The Tenth of Tevet and the Fast of Gedaliah are connected with the end of the first Temple era . The Tenth of Tevet marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonians. The siege lasted for a year and a half before the walls surrounding Jerusalem were breached and the city and Temple were destroyed.

The Fast of Gedaliah, on the third of Tishrei, the day following Rosh Hashanah, commemorates the slaying of Gedaliah ben Ahikam, whom the Bablyonian ruler Nebukhadnetzar appointed to be governor of Judah to the remnant of Jews who escaped deportation. Gedaliah’s death was the final blow to any remaining hopes that the Babylonian domination might be alleviated and there may be a return of some Jewish sovereignty.

The Seventeenth of Tamuz is connected with the destruction of the second Temple. It is the days on which the Romans breached the walls encircling Jerusalem. Following a period of fighting which lasted three weeks, the Jews were defeated and the Temple was burned. Not only did the seventeenth of Tamuz become a minor fast day but this whole period, known as the “three weeks” became a mournful time in the Jewish calendar.

As Rabbi Isaac Klein writes in his Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (p.243), “Without the longing for a return to Israel that was fortressed by these fasts, memories would have grown dim. Mourning for Jerusalem preserved the Jewish people’s yearning for the restoration of the holy city, strengthened their historical consciousness, and kept alive the bond that tied them to their past. Thus, Israel’s restoration in our time resulted from the harnessing of energies that had been stored in the Jewish souls for centuries. As days of national mourning, the four public fasts still serve to recall the calamities that have befallen the Jewish nation, making each generation as it were participate in those misfortunes (Maimonides, Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5:1). . . . The banishment from the holy land was [also] understood as divine retribution visited on the children of Israel because of their lack of faith in the teachings of the Torah. Restoration was promised if the Jewish people would change their ways. The lessons taught by the four fasts tented further to confirm Israel’s faith in God’s direction of history, and especially in his providential concern with the destiny of the Jewish people.”

The question before us today is now as the Jewish people have returned to the land of Israel, is it still necessary to observe these four fasts? Are the fasts etched into the stones of history to be observed forever more or does their observance depend on the present state of the Jewish people?

The first question that I wanted to ask myself is, “What was the status of these fast days during the second temple period?” Meaning, once the Jews (or some Jews) returned to the land of Israel and actually built the second temple, did they continue to observe mourning over the destruction of the first temple? The first source on the accompanying source sheet, taken from the book of Zekhariah, examines this very question. Construction of the second temple was underway and a delegation was sent to the prophet Zekhariah to ask him this question. A prophet speaks words of prophecy which are not always so simple to understand. We must see how in source number two the Rabbis in the Talmud understood Zekhariah’s response. The rest of the sources are Rabbis who came after the closing of the Talmud. We will see how they understood the passage in the Talmud and how it reflected upon the times in which they were living.

The source sheet contains more information and questions for thought and discussion.

Source Sheets

Source Sheet Part 1

Source Sheet Part 2