The Status of the Fasts Nowadays

  • Rav David Brofsky

One may distinguish between different types of fasts. On the one hand, at times a ta'anit may be instituted in response to an immediate tragedy, as "one of the roads to repentance" (Rambam, Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 1:1), in order to stir the people to mend their ways and to pray that God rescinds His decree. On the other hand, the four fast days which commemorate the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and its two Temples, involve past tragedies, of which we still feel the impact, and were therefore instituted to "stir hearts and opens the way to repentance" (ibid., 5:1) in a more general sense. In this shiur, we will discuss the status of the latter fasts nowadays.


The prophet Zekharya relates a fascinating incident. After the rebuilding of the second Temple, the people came to Zekharya and asked, "Should we weep in the fifth month, fasting as we have done over the years?" (7:3). In other words, should they continue to observe the four fasts that were instituted after the destruction of the First Temple during the time of the Second Temple?  He prophet responded cryptically: "The fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months will become joyful and happy, pleasant feasts for the house of Judah, so love truth and peace.'


The Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shana 18a), in the midst of a discussion regarding the messengers that were sent out each month to notify those outside of Jerusalem regarding the day of the consecration of the new moon, attempts to clarify Zecharya's answer. The gemara questions why, according to the mishna, messengers were sent during the month of Av on account of the fast of Tisha Be-Av, but NOT during the months of Tevet and Tamuz, which also contains fast days.


The gemara (18a-b) explains:


Why were they not also sent for Tamuz and Tevet? Did not R. Chana bar Bizna say in the name of R. Shimon Ha-Tzaddik: "What is the meaning of the passage (Zekharya 8:19): 'Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall become in the house of Judah joy and gladness'? [Why are] they called fasts, and also days of joy and gladness? [This is what it means:] In the time of peace (shalom), they shall be for joy and gladness, but in the time when there is not peace (ein shalom), they are to be fasts…


R. Pappa said: It [the verse in Zekharia] means this: When there is peace (shalom), these days should be for joy and gladness; in the time of persecution (gezeirat malkhut), they shall be fast days; in times when there is neither persecution nor peace (ein gezeirat malkhut ve-ein shalom), people may fast or not, as they see fit. (Rosh Ha-Shana 18b)


            According to R. Papa, there are three scenarios: shalom (peace), gezeirat malchut (persecution), and ein gezeirat malkhut ve-ein shalom (times in which there is neither persecution nor peace). Seemingly, the gemara answers that since the mishna refers to the period after the destruction of the Temple (see Turei Even ibid.), during which observance of the fast days was dependent upon the will of the people, it was unnecessary to send out messengers to inform the people regarding Rosh Chodesh. If that is the case, then why were messengers sent out for the fast of Tisha Be-Av? The gemara responds that Tisha Be-Av is different, as "multiple misfortunes befell us on that day."


            The Ritva (Megilla 5a, Rosh Ha-Shana 18b) questions how the people could abolish a fast instituted to commemorate the destruction of the Temple before the Temple was actually rebuilt. He suggests an alternative understanding: the people may decide whether to observe the other stringencies of a fast, i.e. to begin the fast the night before and to abstain from washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations. The fast itself, however, must still be observed. He concludes that nowadays, while the fasts are certainly binding, communities never accepted upon themselves the additional stringencies.


Most Rishonim, however, understand that during the period in which the community may "choose" to observe or not to observe these fasts, they may actually choose not to fast at all! Nowadays, we have accepted upon ourselves the fast themselves, but not the additional stringencies. We will discuss the halakhic ramifications of this distinction next week.


The gemara leaves us with many questions. How should we define "shalom," the time period during which the fast is observed as a festival? How should we define a period of "gezeirat malchut," during which one MUST observe the fasts? When a time period is defined as neither a period of "shalom" or "gezeirat malkhut," who decides whether to fast? Is it possible for there to be "shalom" AND "gezeirat malkhut"? Furthermore, how should we define our present situation, especially since the establishment of the autonomous State of Israel? And finally, why did the Rabbis legislate that, at least theoretically, the observance of the fast is dependent upon the will of the people?


            Regarding the definition of "shalom," the state during which one must not fast but rather celebrate, most Rishonim (see, for example, Rabbenu Chanenel 18b, Ramban, Torat Ha-Adam, Sha'ar Aveilut Yeshana, 243, Tur 550) explain that this refers to the existence of the Beit Ha-Mikdash.


The position of Rashi (18b), however, has generated much discussion. On the one hand, he explains (18b s.v. de-amar) that the mishna refers to the period after the destruction of the Temple, implying, possibly, that when the Beit Ha-Mikdash exists, all of these fasts are transformed into festivals. On the other hand, when explaining the term "shalom," he writes (s.v. she-yesh shalom), "When there is 'shalom' is when the non-Jews do not have dominion over Israel." 


            Some (see R. E. Lichtenstein's notes to Ritva, Rosh Ha-Shana 18b nt. 366, for example) explain that when non-Jews do not have dominion over Israel there will be a Beit Ha-Mikdash. In other words, Rashi fundamentally agrees with the other Rishonim. Others suggest that according to Rashi, Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel is sufficient to abolish the fasts.


            Concerning times of "gezeirat malkhut," R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran (1361-1444), in his responsa known as the Tashbetz (2:271), insists that during times of persecution one must fast the entire day and observe all of the "afflictions," as we do on Tisha Be-Av. Interestingly, however, we do not have record of such practice during the various persecutions of the Jewish people throughout the ages, including the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Expulsion from Spain, pogroms and blood libels, and the Holocaust.


During a time in which we have neither "shalom" nor "gezeirat malkhut," who determines whether we should fast? The Rosh (Rosh Ha-Shana 1:6) writes that the "community" determines whether or not the fasts should be observed, and that "an individual should not separate from the community, as long as the community fasts." Similarly, the Ritva (Rosh Ha-Shana 18b) explains that the beit din decides whether the community should fast.


What happens when "gezeirot malkhut" occur during a time of "shalom?"  The Rambam (Commentary on the Mishna, Rosh Ha-Shana 1:3) explains that even during the time of the Second Temple the fasts were at times observed. While the Tashbetz (ibid.) insists that this Rambam must be based upon a scribal error, reliable manuscripts prove otherwise. Seemingly, the Rambam believes that "shalom" and "gezeirat malkhut" are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and may unfortunately exist side by side.


Interestingly, a careful examination of the Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot chapter 5) reveals that in his view, nowadays the fasts are all obligatory, and not dependent upon custom or the will of the people (ibid. 5:5 and Maggid Mishna; see Frankel edition of the Rambam). In other words, the choice to fast was really only offered during the time of the Second Temple; nowadays, all the fasts are obligatory! If so, how is it possible that during the time of the Second Temple, under certain circumstances, the fasts, including Tisha Be-Av, established to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, were still observed?


Apparently, the fast days do not necessarily commemorate the destruction of the Temple, but rather the precarious position of the Jewish People and their Temple and the potential to experience "churban" at any moment. During times of "gezeirat malkhut," these fasts were observed, while during periods of "shalom" they were not. After the destruction of the Temple, however, all agree that the fasts are observed, as the Rambam rules.


The Tur/Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 550), however, conclude that nowadays the fasts are fundamentally "optional," but the Jewish people have accepted these fasts upon themselves as if they are obligatory and "ein lifrotz geder," one should not violate this well-established practice.


Finally, we should question the entire ruling of the prophet Zekharya. In the world of halakha, practices are most often deemed "permissible" or "prohibited." How are we to understand that the observance of these fasts was dependent upon the will of the people?


Seemingly, the point of these fasts, as we mentioned above, is not simply to commemorate, but rather to use as an opportunity to stimulate and to honestly assess, as individuals and as a nation, our behavior. In the absence of a clear indication, shalom or gezeirat malkhut, on each and every fast day, we are called upon to determine the extent to which we as a nation must repent. The fast days serve at an indicator, or litmus test, of the spiritual place of the Jewish people.