The Latest from BZBI

Should We Continue to Fast

Pinhas 5779 / 27 July 2019

July 29, 2019

A few years ago, about 4 years before the Apollo 11 flight we commemorated recently, I was preparing to take the entrance exams for Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Several of my friends advised me that I HAD TO know the names of the five daughters of Zelophehad.

Just to help you remember them – They are the women who approach Moshe and raise the issue of a woman’s right to inherit from their father’s portion when there are no male offspring. Moshe is stumped and has to ask G-d how to handle the situation. G-d replies that the daughters request is valid, and the Torah gives us a detailed order of inheritance.

Admittedly, since that day those many years ago, I have not had many opportunities to show off my deep knowledge on this topic and the people involved. But their names were mentioned in our reading today – and now is my big chance:

The five daughters of Zelophehad are:
Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah

Since the daughters of Zelophehad have a sequel coming up in another Parshah, I will save any further discussion on their situation until later.

Instead, I want to talk about an issue which is suggested by another part of the
Parshah. After Zelophehad, the Torah goes on to discuss the timing and make up of the offerings that were brought to the Temple.

With the destruction of the Temples, our sacrificial system – given in so much detail in our Parshah, halted. The subsequent exile of our people, brought on the need to change our approach to ritual observances. For now, I will just point out, that our Tefilot, our services, grew out of a need to replace the sacrifices.
Since we are currently in the middle of the 3 weeks, which started last week with שבעה עשר בתמוז and continues until תשעה באב , a time that commemorates the destruction of the Temple, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the yearly Fast Days.

In the years after the destruction of the First Temple, the rabbis established four fast days:

  1. שבעה עשר בתמוז.  the 17th of Tammuz – in the 4th month – to commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem.
  2. תשעה באב .  the 9th of Av – in the 5th month – to commemorate the destruction of both Temples. And other tragedies.
  3. אשרה בטבת.  the 10th of Teveth – in the tenth month – to commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar
  4. צום גדיה .  the Fast of Gedalia – in the 7th month – commemorating the assassination of Gedalia. Although not directly related to the destruction of either Temple, it somehow has stayed in the calendar. Or as a distinguished Rabbi once told me: “If the situation would be reversed, would Gedaliah fast for you?”

Which leads us to the question I would like to examine in detail. Should we continue to observe these fast days?

Let’s look at the question of whether these fast days should remain on our calendar.

We’ll start with the 1st text:

Zechariah 7: 1-6 

1 And it came to pass in the fourth year of King Darius; The word of the Lord
came to Zechariah on the fourth of the ninth month, in Kislev.

2 And Sharezer and Regem Melech and his men sent to Bethel to pray before
the Lord,

3 to say to the Priests of the house of the Lord of Hosts and to the prophets,
saying, “Shall I weep in the fifth month, abstaining as I have done these many years?”

4 And the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me, saying:

5 Say to all the people of the land and to the priests saying: When you fasted
and mourned in the fifth [month] and in the seventh [month] even these seventy years, did you fast for Me, even for Me?

6 And when you eat and when you drink-are you not the ones who eat and you the ones who drink?

The Book of Zechariah is a relatively short book – included in the 12 Minor Prophets. (I’m sure many of you have read it thoroughly many times!! Yeah, right – me, too!)

He prophesied during during the reign of Darius. He was a Persian king – who ruled after the defeat of the Babylonians. He is known for allowing more freedom to the Jews and permitting some of them to return to their homes.

Zechariah was very careful to date his writings. He wrote in the immediate Post-exilic world – or right after after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Thus the 4th year of Darius, which is 70 years after the destruction, was around 516 BCE.

Those Jews who returned to the land had visions of an easy life – just like the Prophets promised them. The land would be lush, times would be good, they could rebuild the Temple and restore sacrifices.

But reality quickly struck. Sever drought, poor crop yields, and other difficulties caused delay after delay in the start of the construction. At long last the work was completed. The community, while excited about the new place of worship, wonder about the continuation of some observances. Shar-ezer and Regem Melech lead the delegation to Beth-el.

There, they are to ask the Kohanim – (V3) “Shall I still weep in the 5th month – that is AV – as I have all these years?” – In other words, do we need to continue to fast of the 9th of Av, now that we have a new Temple?

The answer G-d tells Zecharia to give: (V5) “When you fasted and mourned in the 5th & 7th months, did you fast for me?”

… is somewhat obscure. It is not a straight answer – rather it shifts the blame back to the questioners – blaming their indifferent attitude as the cause of the complaints.

The Second text: Zechariah 8: 16-19

Now, take a look at the second reading.

Zechariah 8:16-19

16 These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth each one with his
neighbor; truth, and judgment of peace you shall judge in your cities.

17 And let no one think evil of his neighbors in your heart, nor shall you love a false oath-for all these are what I hate, says the Lord.

18 And the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me, saying:

19 So said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth [month], the fast of the seventh [month], and the fast of the tenth [month] shall be for the house of Judah for joy and happiness and for happy holidays-but love truth and peace.

In this chapter, Zechariah is told to give a different type of reply:

This passage implies that, even when the Temple is standing, one should continue to observe the fasts – as established – until there is a marked change in the community’s attitudes and then these days can change from days of sadness, to days of love, truth and peace.

While the initial question of canceling Tisha B’av stemmed from the renewed possibility of offering sacrifices, G-d’s response emphasized societal issues. He said – you must wait until there is a change in society.

So what are they to do:

V16 & 17 – These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth each one with his
neighbor; truth, and judgment of peace you shall judge in your cities. (17) And let no one think evil of his neighbors in your heart, nor shall you love a false oath-for all these are what I hate,

If you – and of those in your community – meet these the conditions, the fast days will be canceled and the 4 days, which were brought on by tragedies – “shall be for the house of Judah for joy and happiness and for happy holidays.”

(Part of Hebrew text missing from sheet:

כֹּֽה־אָמַ֞ר יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֗וֹת צ֣וֹם הָרְבִיעִ֡י וְצ֣וֹם הַחֲמִישִׁי֩ וְצ֨וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י וְצ֣וֹם הָעֲשִׂירִ֗י יִהְיֶ֤ה לְבֵית־יְהוּדָה֙

לְשָׂשׂ֣וֹן וּלְשִׂמְחָ֔ה וּֽלְמֹעֲדִ֖ים טוֹבִ֑ים וְהָאֱמֶ֥ת וְהַשָּׁל֖וֹם אֱהָֽבוּ:)

I want to draw 2 conclusions from this text:

  1. Since the prophet entertained the question of discontinuing the fasts, we see that there is a “Non-Halachic” element to them. It is possible to abolish them, they are not derived from a biblical command. Meaning: that which the rabbis have ordained, the rabbis may abolish.
  2. Even with the construction of the Second Temple, the fasts were observed.

This is borne out in the next readings; take a minute to read them

Mishnah: Rosh Hashana 1:3

There are six months [at the beginning of which] messengers go out. On Nisan because of Pesah; On Av because of the fast. On Elul because of Rosh Hashanah. On Tishri because of the setting of the festivals. On Kislev because of Hanukah. And on Adar because of Purim. When the Temple stood, they used also to go out to report Iyar because of Pesah Katan (Pesah Sheni).

Last reading: Talmud Megillah 5a-b:

Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ḥanina said: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did several unusual things: He planted a sapling on Purim.

And he bathed at the time when the wagons [kerona] were traveling through Tzippori, i.e., on the market day, when the public would know about it, on the seventeenth of Tammuz, to show that bathing is permitted on that day. And he sought to abolish the fast of the Ninth of Av. And with respect to the Ninth of Av, the Sages did not agree with him.

Rabbi Abba bar Zavda said to Rabbi Elazar: My teacher, the incident did not occur in this fashion. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi never sought to abolish the fast of the Ninth of Av.

Rather, it was a year when the Ninth of Av occurred on Shabbat, and they postponed it until after Shabbat. And Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said about that case: Since it has already been deferred from its usual time, let it be altogether deferred this year. And the Rabbis did not agree with him.

We know that these are texts from a later time.

We’ll look at the second one first. Let’s accept Rabbi Hanina’s statement at face value, that Rabbi Judah HaNasi wanted to abolish 9th of Av.

There are two points that require emphasis. First, Rabbi Judah HaNasi sought to change accepted normative practice, but the Sages “did not agree with him”. Evidently, the other Sages thought that the time had not yet come to abolish Tisha B’av.

Second, it has been shown that during the days of Rabbi Judah HaNasi there was a messianic atmosphere in his court. He may have viewed himself as the King of the Jewish people. As a result of this mood, Rabbi Judah HaNasi may have tried to abolish Tisha B’av, but the Sages of his time “did not agree with him”, because they did not believe that the peaceful conditions would continue, and of course, in retrospect, they were correct.———

There are many sources throughout Rabbinic literature showing the Rabbis’ feelings towards the Fast days. In some cases, like Judah HaNasi, they tried to abolish 9th of Av, Some passages, discuss 17th of Tammuz. Others, say that the time is not right to mention any of this.

For example, when discussing the Mishnah from Rosh Hashanah (at the top of the page), – The Talmud asks: “Let them also go out for Tammuz and Tevet?” that is, Why does it say that the messengers of the new moon go out for Av? shouldn’t it also say that they go out for Tammuz and Tevet as well?

The Talmud’s answer is based on verse 19 of our selection from Zechariah:

The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness for the House of Judah.”

The Talmud goes on to say: When there is peace, there shall be days of “joy and
gladness,” when there is no peace, there shall be a “fast.” That is, at the present time there is no peace – and therefore, there is an obligation to continue to fast on these four days; and therefore we are obligated to send messengers for Tammuz and Tevet as well?

The Rabbis go on to show that there are only three options from a halakhic point of view. If we are living in an age of “peace,” we are required to rejoice on these four fasts. If it is a time of “persecution,” we must fast on all four days. Finally, if it is an age of “neither persecution nor peace”, we are required to fast on Tisha B’av, while in regard to the other three fasts, “if they wished, they fast; if they wished, they need not fast.

Over the years, most authorities have ruled in similar fashion to Nachmonides who said:

“And now, as they have already wished – they fast, and have become accustomed to fasting and have accepted it upon themselves; therefore it is forbidden for the individual to violate this rule.”

Which has meant that many Jews have maintained all 4 Fast days and it has become established custom.

In our day, when there is neither persecution nor peace, some Rabbis – both in the Orthodox community and in the Conservative community have ruled;

If they wish, they fast, if they do not wish, they do not fast… Therefore, on three of the fasts, if there is one who does not wish to fast, it is nothing, and he is not obligated therein.

But on Tisha B’av, since troubles were multiplied thereon, we are required to fast, and to behave thereon as we do on Yom Kippur.

Let us pray that an age of peace will arrive soon.

שבת שלום