The Laws of Fasts - The Purpose and Function of Different Fast Days

  • Rav David Brofsky

the laws of THE FESTIVALS



In memory of Yissachar Dov Shmuel bar Yakov Yehuda Illoway

and Leah Ruth Illoway bat Natan Naso Jacobs



Shiur #19: The Laws of Fasts

by Rav David Brofsky



The Rambam, in his Laws of Fast Days, discusses two types of ta'aniyot (fast days), each established to fulfill a different purpose.


The first group of fast days, observed by an individual or community are declared in response to a personal or communal tragedy, including war, plague, famine, drought, and sickness. Regarding this category, the Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 1:1-2) teaches:


A positive Scriptural commandment prescribes prayer and the sounding of an alarm with trumpets whenever trouble befalls the community. For when Scripture says, "Against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets" (Bamidbar 10:9), the meaning is: Cry out in prayer and sound an alarm against whatsoever is oppressing you, be it famine, pestilence, locusts, or the like.


This procedure is one of the roads to repentance, for as the community cries out in prayer and sounds an alarm when overtaken by trouble, everyone is bound to realize that evil has come upon him as a consequence of his own evil deeds… and that his repentance will cause the trouble to be removed…


In a previous lecture ( we discussed the notion of a "tefilla be-et tzara," a prayer recited in response to a personal or communal crisis. We noted that although the Ramban, in his comments to the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (mitzvat asei 5), rejects the Rambam's claim that the obligation to pray daily is mi-deorayta, he suggests that there may be a Biblical obligation to turn to God in prayer in a time of need. He writes:


[This derasha] … may be instructing us that included in the service [of God] is that we should learn Torah, and pray to Him in times of crisis, and our eyes and hearts should be towards Him alone like the eyes of slaves to their masters, and this is similar to when the Torah writes, "And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets; and you shall be remembered before the LORD your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies…" (Bamidbar 10:9). And it is a mitzva to respond to every crisis which the community will face by crying out to Him in prayer…

The Rambam cited above clearly agrees that there in a mitzva to respond to crisis with prayer, and, as he writes, with fasting and repentance.

Further on, however, the Rambam discusses the four fast days instituted to commemorate the different stages of the destruction of the Temple and the Exile. He writes (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 1:1-3):


There are days which are observed by all of Israel as fasts because tragic events happened on them, the object being to stir hearts and open the way to repentance and to remind us of our own evil deeds, and of our fathers' deeds which were like ours, as a consequence of which these tragic afflictions came upon then and upon us. For as we remember these things we ought to repent and do good, in accordance with the Scriptural verse, "And they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers," etc. (Vayikra 26:40).


Here, too, the Rambam explains that the focus of the fast should be on repentance. However, while the first type of fast comes in response to an immediate crisis from which one seeks deliverance, the four fast days commemorate a prior national tragedy, as well as the current national condition, as we shall see, to promote repentance for previous and current sins.


R. Soloveitchik (Harerei Kedem II, 280) notes that while the Rambam described the first type of fast as "one of the roads to repentance," he writes that the second type "stirs hearts and opens the way to repentance." He explains that only a clear and present crisis or tragedy directly triggers repentance in an attempt to save one from the current situation. A prior calamity, however, such as the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash and ensuing exile, merely inspires one to repent. Therefore, while a "communal fast" constitutes part of the process of repentance itself, the four fasts serve to encourage future repentance.


In the upcoming lectures, we will focus on the second category of fast days, the four fasts, and we will discuss their origin and laws. In addition, we will pay special attention to Tisha Be-Av and its numerous halakhot.

 The Four Fasts

 Asara Be-Tevet


The prophet Zekharya (8:19), in response to a query regarding the Jewish people's transition from exile to the period of the Second Temple, mentions these four fasts, describing them as "the fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months." These four fasts commemorate the events leading to and following the destruction of the first Temple.


The Tosefta (Sota 6:10) enumerates these events: 


Rabbi expounded: It states (Zekharya 8:19), "Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be joy and gladness for the house of Judah, and cheerful seasons; therefore love truth and peace."

"The fast of the fourth month" refers to the Seventeenth of Tammuz, when the city was breached… The "fast of the fifth" is Tisha Be-Av, the day upon which the Beit Ha-Mikdash was burned… The "fast of the seventh" is the day upon which Gedalya ben Achikam was murdered by Yishmael ben Netanya. This is to teach you that, before God, the death of the righteous is equal to the destruction of the Temple… The "fast of the tenth" is the Tenth of Tevet, when the king of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem.


According to this Tosefta (which appears in Rosh Ha-Shana 18b as well), the fast of Asara Be-Tevet recalls the siege on the walls of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon. Indeed, the Bible (Melakhim II 25:1) relates:


And it came to pass in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and encamped against it; and they built forts against it round about.


Other Biblical sources (Yechezkel 24:1-2, Yirmiyahu 52:4-6) also refer to this event.


One might question why this event deserves to be commemorated by a communal fast day. The breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Temples (first and second) are certainly of great historical and spiritual importance. Similarly, the murder of Gedalya ben Achikam by a fellow Jew, which led to the cessation of any remnant of Jewish autonomy in Eretz Yisrael for almost two thousand years, may also deserve to be commemorated.  However, the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem, which itself lasted almost three years, does not necessarily seem worthy of an independent fast day!


            We might simply explain that the BEGINNING of a process is indeed worthy of our attention; often, one's inability to properly respond at an early junction impacts upon the final result. The siege of Jerusalem was not only tragic because of its impact upon the city's inhabitants, but also because the Jewish people apparently did not respond to it in a manner that may have averted the final destruction.


            However, we may suggest another dimension to this fast. The prophet Yirmiyahu (7:1-15) portrays the Jewish people as unwilling to imagine the violation of their city and Temple.


Don't put your trust in illusions and say, "The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these [buildings]." Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Ba'al, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced, and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, "We are safe"? – [Safe] to do all these abhorrent things!  Do you consider this House, which bears My name, to be a den of thieves?  


One can only imagine the shock and astonishment with which the siege on Jerusalem must have been received. Indeed, even the report of the siege, as related to Yechezkel (24:1-2), reflects the nation's disbelief.  The prophet relates: "And the word of the Lord came unto me in the ninth year, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, saying: 'Son of man, write the name of the day, even of this selfsame day; this selfsame day the king of Babylon has invested Jerusalem."  It is almost as if God speaks to Yechezkel's sense of surprise that the siege of Jerusalem began, by emphasizing the day of the attack, "the name of the day, even of this selfsame day; this selfsame day."


The fast of Asara Be-Tevet reminds us of the false sense of security, both spiritual and physical, which took hold of the people prior to the destruction of the Temple. Asara Be-tevet challenges us to constantly examine ourselves and in whom we place our faith, and not to "put our trust in illusions." (See


Interestingly, the Tosefta (11) also cites another view, which asserts that the "fast of the tenth" refers to the fifth of Tevet, the day upon which the bad tiding regarding the destruction of the Temple reached the Diaspora. Yechezkel (33:21-2) reports:


And it came to pass in the twelfth year of our captivity, in the tenth month, in the fifth day of the month that one that had escaped out of Jerusalem came unto me, saying: "The city is smitten." Now the hand of the Lord had been upon me in the evening, before he who escaped came; and He had opened my mouth against his coming to me in the morning; and my mouth was opened, and I was no more dumb.


As we explained above, Asara Be-Tevet may not commemorate a specific event, but rather the impact of an event upon our national morale. Even the shock and horror of HEARING about the churban are worth commemorating.


Aside from the siege upon the city, other sources (Behag 18, Seder R. Amram Gaon Seder Ta'anit, Machzor Vitry 271, Siddur Rashi 541, Kolbo 63, etc.), as well as the day's selichot, attribute two other tragedies to the month of Tevet.


The first, according to these sources, refers to the translation of the Torah to Greek, as a result of which "darkness came to the world for three days." On the eighth of Tevet, according to tradition, in the third century BCE, seventy-two elders were forced to translate the Torah into Greek. The gemara (Megilla 9a) records:


Talmai [Ptolemy] gathered the seventy-two elders and brought them to seventy-two separate houses… He commanded each one to "write the Torah of Moses your teacher." The Holy One, blessed be He gave each one counsel, and they all agreed to one [translation].


Record of this event also appears in the "Letter of Aristeas," a Hellenistic work of the second century BCE, which describes the Greek translation of the Hebrew Law by seventy-two interpreters, who were sent to Egypt from Jerusalem at the request of the librarian of Alexandria. The translation became known as the Septuagint.


While seemingly one might find reason to celebrate this miraculous event in which all seventy-two scholars produced identical translations of the Torah, and indeed Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) records that Alexandrian Jewry celebrated this event each year (De Vita Mosis 2.7.41 cited by L. Feldman in his Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, 52), the Rabbis describe this day as tragic. Masekhet Sofrim (1:7), which records this and a similar incident, explains, "That day was a difficult for Israel as the day that the [golden] calf was made, as the Torah was unable to be interpreted properly."


Aside from the authoring of the Septuagint, some sources (see above) allude to another event that occurred on the ninth of Tevet, without specifying which specific incident. Seder R. Amram Gaon, for example, simply writes, "on the ninth [of the month] – the Rabbis did not write what occurred."


Some (see Kolbo 63) explain that Ezra the Scribe died on the ninth of Tevet. Interestingly, a footnote in the Tur (Orach Chaim 580) published by Machon Yerushalayim cites a commentary to the Vilna edition of Megillat Ta'anit, which states that, "on the ninth of Tevet THAT MAN was born," a clear reference to Jesus of Nazareth. He explains that the early sources therefore did not explicitly mention which "tragedy" occurred on the ninth of Tevet, fearing what might happen if it became known that a fast was declared to commemorate his birth.


In addition to the events enumerated above, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, in 1951, declared that the tenth day of Tevet should be observed as "Yom Ha-Kaddish Ha-Kelalli," the day upon which we should remember those who were murdered during the Holocaust and recite kaddish for those whose date of death is unknown.


Shiva Asar Be-Tamuz:


The Talmud (Ta'anit 26b) describes the events which occurred on the seventeenth of Tamuz:


Five things happened to our ancestors in the 17th of Tammuz, and five on the 9th of Av: On the 17th of Tamuz, the Tablets [with the Ten Commandments] were broken, the daily [burnt] offering was stopped, the city was breached, Apostamos burned the Torah, and he placed an idol in the Temple.


            According to the Talmud, Moshe broke the Tablets on the seventeenth of Tamuz, forty days after ascending Har Sinai. The Talmud (Ta'anit 28b) records that although the Rabbis disagree regarding the specific day upon which the Ten Commandments were given, on the sixth or seventh day of Sivan, all agree that he ascended the mountain on the seventh day, and descended forty days later (Shemot 24:16-18) on the seventeenth of Tamuz. Upon witnessing the nation and their celebration of the golden calf, he threw down the tablets, smashing them to pieces.


In addition, the daily burnt offering, known as the "korban ha-tamid," ceased to be offered on the seventeenth of Tamuz, according to the Talmudic Tradition. The time period, as well as the circumstances surrounding this event, is unclear. The Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 5:2) writes that this refers to the time of the First Temple. However, the Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 4:5), as well as the Bavli (Bava Kama 82b), refer to an incident during the late Second Temple period.


Rashi (Ta'anit 26b) explains that the government prohibited the offering of this sacrifice. R. Ovadya Bartenura (15th century) suggests that during the siege on the city, they were unable to attain sheep for the sacrifice. R. Yisrael Lipschitz (Tiferet Yisrael; 1782-1860), in his commentary to the Mishna, explains that R. Bartenura must be referring to the three year siege of Jerusalem by Nevuchadnezzar at the time of the destruction of the First Temple.


The Tiferet Yisrael, however, offers another interpretation, pointing to a Talmudic passage (Bava Kama 82b) which records the story of the battle between the two Hasmonean heirs, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus.


Our Rabbis taught: When the members of the Hasmonean house were contending with one another, Hyrcanus was within and Aristobulus without [the city wall]. [Those who were within] used to let down to the other party every day a basket of denarii, and [in return] cattle were sent up for the regular sacrifices.  There was, however, an old man [among the besiegers] who had some knowledge in Grecian Wisdom and who said to them: "So long as the other party [are allowed to] continue to perform the service of the sacrifices, they will not be delivered into your hands." On the next day, when the basket of denarii was let down, a swine was sent up. When the swine reached the center of the wall, it stuck its claws into the wall, and Eretz Yisrael quaked over a distance of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs.


According to this opinion, the gemara refers to an incident during the first century before the Common Era, during the time of the Second Temple.


            In addition, the Talmud relates that "Apostamos burned the Torah, and he placed an idol in the Temple" on the seventeenth of Tamuz. The identity of Apostamos and the details of this incident have intrigued scholars for generations.


Some attempt to match this episode with other known incidents during which Torah scrolls were burn. Ancient sources mention at least three incidents during which a Torah was publically destroyed. The Talmud (Avoda Zara 18b) relates how during the Hadrianic persecutions R. Chanina ben Teradyon, one of the great Rabbis of his time, was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned. Similarly, Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (XX:5:4), relates how a Roman soldier "seized the laws of Moses that lay in one of those villages and brought them out before the eyes of all present and tore them to pieces…" This solder was later beheaded by the Roman procurator Cumanus, "out of fear lest the multitude should go into a sedition." Others point to the burning of the Torah scroll by Antiochus (Epiphanes), as related in Maccabees 1:1:56.


Interestingly, the Tiferet Yisrael suggests that the Talmud may be referring to the authoritative sefer Torah of Ezra. Alternatively, it may refer to a decree to destroy EVERY sefer Torah. In any case, it clearly points to an attempt to eradicate the Torah from the Jewish people.


The next event, the placement of an idol in the Temple, also generated scholarly debate. The Talmud Bavli's text reads, "and he put up," implying that Apostamos brought an idol to the Temple as well. Indeed, that would support the view that the Antiochus Epiphanes we know, who erected the Olympian Zeus in the Temple, also burnt the sefer Torah. The Talmud Yerushalmi offers another suggestion based upon a variant text, "and there was put up," explaining that the Talmud refers to King Menashe (Melakhim 2 21:7), who also erected an idol in the Temple.   


            The most well-known event that we mark on the seventeenth of Tamuz is the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. The Talmud notes that the prophet Yirmiyahu (52:6) implies that the walls were breached on the ninth of Tamuz! The gemara explains that while before the destruction of the First Temple, the city was breached on the ninth, during the siege on Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple, the city was breached on the seventeenth. One might still question why the fast commemorates the second breach of the city's walls and not the first. The Ramban (Torat Ha-adam, Sha'ar Ha-Evel, Inyan Aveilut Yeshana) explains that the second destruction was more severe. Others suggest that, ultimately, the destruction of the Second Temple affects us more directly, and therefore its date is commemorated.


Alternatively, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 4:5) insists that the walls were breached during both sieges on the seventeenth of Tamuz; the intensity of the siege during the first destruction led to scribal errors in the recorded history.

Tzom Gedalya

Now it came to pass in the seventh month that Yishmael the son of Netaniah, the son of Elishama, of the royal seed and one of the chief officers of the king, and ten men with him, came unto Gedalya the son of Achikam, to Mitzpa; and there they did eat bread together in Mitzpa. Then Yishmael the son of Netaniah arose, and the ten men that were with him, and they smote Gedalya the son of Achikam the son of Shafan with the sword, and slew him, whom the king of Babylon had made governor over the land. Yishmael also slew all the Jews that were with him, even with Gedalya, at Mitzpa, and the Chaldeans that were found there, even the men of war. (Yirmiyahu 41:1-3)


The Bible (Melakhim II 25 and Yirmiyahu 40 - 41) relates that after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, he appointed Gedalya ben Achikam as the governor of Judea. Aalis, the king of Ammon, sent Yishmael ben Netanya, another Jewish refugee, to Mitzpa to assassinate Gedalya. Although Gedalya was forewarned of Yishmael's intentions, he did not believe the warnings and was subsequently killed by Yishmael.


Why did the Sages see it fit to commemorate the death of Gedalya with a fast? On the one hand, the assassination of Gedalya ben Achikam, in the month of Tishrei, represents the completion of the churban, the destruction of autonomous Jewish rule in Judea. On the other hand, the Sages (Ta'anit 28b) note that mourning over this individual alongside the fasts associated with the various stages of the destruction teaches us that "the death of a righteous man is akin to the destruction of the house of God."


Is there any relationship between Tzom Gedalya and Rosh Ha-Shana, which falls immediately before the fast? The Radak (Yirmiyahu 41:1) insists that Gedalya ben Achikam was actually murdered on the first of Tishrei, on Rosh Ha-Shana itself. The Rabbis, however, declared the fast day to be observed on the third in order not to interfere with the celebration of Rosh Ha-Shana. In his opinion, however, the relationship is no more than coincidental. Interestingly, R. Shmuel Eliezer ben R. Yehuda Ha-levi Edels (1555-1632), known as the Maharsha, arrives at a different conclusion. He writes:


And furthermore, one should have in mind that as this [murder] occurred during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva [the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur), Yishmael, who killed him, should have woken up to repent. As he did not, he added a great sorrow to the Jewish people with the killing of Gedalya, who was a salvation for the nation of Israel… Therefore, during this time in which we pray for life… on the third day of the days of repentance, upon which Gedalya was killed, we suffered a great blow, and therefore on this specific day we should be extra concerned and request God's mercy… 


We affirm our commitment to continuing a spiritual life as we commemorate the actions of one who chose not to pursue this path.


            Next week, we will continue our discussion of these four public fast days.