The Laws of Fasts - The Purpose and Function of Different Fast Days
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
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 (http://vbm-torah.org/archive/tefila/19tefila.htm) 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
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 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
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
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
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
And it came to pass in the ninth year
of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar
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
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
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
Don't put your trust in illusions and
say, "The Temple of the Lord, the
One can only imagine the shock and
astonishment with which the siege on
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
In addition, the Talmud relates that "Apostamos burned the Torah, and he
placed an idol in the
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
The most well-known event that we mark on the seventeenth of Tamuz is the
breaching of the walls of
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.
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
The Bible (Melakhim II 25 and
Yirmiyahu 40 - 41) relates that after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed
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
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
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.