THE JERUSALEM JEWISH VOICE
FAST DAYS & FASTING
THIS STUDY IS SPONSORED BY ELY LEVISHON IN MEMORY OF KURT LEVISOHN Z"L
SOME SALIENT STATEMENTS:
YET EVEN NOW, SAYS GOD, TURN BACK TO ME WITH ALL YOUR HEARTS, AND WITH FASTING, AND WITH CRYING AND WITH LAMENTATION (Joel 2:12-- cf. Esther 4:3).
YESHURUN BECAME FAT AND KICKED-- HE FORSOOK THE LORD WHO MADE HIM... (Deut. 32:15)
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LEST YOU EAT AND BE SATISFIED... AND YOU'LL FORGET GOD YOUR LORD (Deut. 8:12f)
... FOR NOURISHMENT, LET ME FIND THE BREAD ALLOTTED ME, LEST I BECOME FULL AND DENY, SAYING: "WHO'S GOD?"... (Proverbs 30:7f).
WHEN THEY WERE FED, THEY BECAME FULL; THEY WERE FILLED AND THEIR HEART WAS EXALTED-- THEREFORE THEY'VE FORGOTTEN ME (Hosea 13:6).
ALL WHO SIT FASTING ARE SINNERS (Talmud Taanit 11a)
YOUR SUBMISSIVENESS ON DAYS OF FASTING IS NO MORE ACCEPTABLE TO GOD THAN YOUR REJOICING ON SABBATHS AND HOLIDAYS (Kuzari, 2:50).
ON YOM KIPPUR I'M TOO BUSY, ON TISHA B'AV TOO SAD, TO EAT AND DRINK-- RAV JOSEPH SOLOVEICHIK
PART 1: FAST DAYS
A. THE PUBLIC FAST DAYS
Jews observe 4 historic Public Fast Days, besides Yom Kippur, the Biblical Sabbath of Sabbaths (see R.H. 18b, Beit Yosef O.H. 549). The 4 Days all commemorate stages in the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, and Israel's expulsion from their good and broad land. Most, but never all, Jews were lost in diaspora persecution and assimilation.
1) THE FAST OF GEDALIA is on the day after Rosh Hashana, Tishre 3 (RH 18B); the Bible simply calls it THE FAST OF THE SEVENTH MONTH (Zech. 7:5, 8:19). The last hopes of Jewish survival in Israel were dashed when a right wing zealous patriot, Ishmael b. Netanya, killed the righteous vassel governor of Judea, Gedalia b. Achikam, with his aides, after he worked out a modus vivendi with the Assyrian conquerors. This led to the final exile of Israel.
LESSONS FOR TODAY: Rabbis blamed saintly Gedalia for the death of his followers, as he ignored a warning of the plot (Nid. 41a). One must pay attention to lashon hara (evil talk) about plans of the wicked-- otherwise they'll carry them out.
ZIONIST MOURNING: We mourn the end of Jewish settlement in Israel, despite subsequent Jewish prosperity in Babylon; few Jews returned with Ezra (cf. USA Today). Leaving the Torah led to leaving Israel; conversely, returning to God and Torah is followed, in Dvarim, by return to Israel. This, in turn, is followed by new sensitivity, circumcision of the heart, which leads one still closer to God and Torah, on a higher and deeper level. HOW CAN I SING GOD'S SONG IN AN ALIEN LAND? (PS. 126; cf. Pirchei choirs in London, Miami, etc.)
The death of the righteous, as Gedalia, is compared to the destruction of the Temple, commemorated by the other fast days (RH 18b)! But why is Gedalia's death singled out for a post-Rosh Hashana fast? Perhaps because he was a model leader, of great patience, tolerance, and kindness, for Jews trying to repent-- such men help us to hang in and survive when God will NOT grant us our eventual glory and dominion, due to our low state (cf. today). Non-compromising zealot Eliyahu must retire, burnt out and angry, until that glorious end of days; meanwhile, slow, patient Elisha will do what can be done, little by little, yidel by yidel. So Yochanan b. Zakai is sure God won't help Israeli zealots; he makes the best deal he can with Vespesian (cf. Oslo?); he saves the Jewish people thru Yavneh and its sages; otherwise, we might never have come back in 1948. So Ovadia hid 100 prophets, while ostensibly working hand-in-hand with Achav and Izevel; Esther later did likewise with Achashvarus (cf. Kissinger?).
2) On the 10th of Tevet, wicked N'vuchadnetzer laid siege to Jerusalem; its famine and affliction were the beginning of the end (Ezek. 24:1-2). The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has named it as the general Kaddish Memorial Day for those whose date of death is unknown.
3) On the 17th of Tamuz, the tablets were broken, the daily offering ceased in the first temple, the walls of 2nd temple Jerusalem were breached, and wicked Apostomos burnt the Torah and set up an idol in the sanctuary. These 3 fast days are from daybreak until night.
4)On the 9th of Av, it was decreed that the Exodus generation not enter Israel; that day both temples were destroyed*, and the great independent Jewish metropolis, Betar, was captured with its leader, Bar Kochba-- R. Akiva believed that B.K. had Messianic potential (did B.G.?). Turnus Rufus levelled and plowed the area of the sanctuary (R. Akiva married his ex-wife-- cf. Nancy Kissinger). Jews fast from before sunset until the following evening, as on Yom Kippur-- Yom Kippur's physical affliction greatly divorces one from physicality and elevates him, to some degree, toward the aspect of angels (Derech Hashem, Ramchal, 4:8:5).
* Per Jeremiah, the First Temple was burnt on the 10th of Av (52:12ff.); II Kings claims that Nevuzaradan came to Jerusalem on the seventh and burnt the house (25:8ff.); amidst terrible tragedies, it's hard to keep dates straight (Rav J. Soloveichik). Our rabbis answer that the Chaldees entered the Temple on the 7th, partied there thru the 8th, and ignited it on the 9th, toward evening-- it continued to burn thru the 10th (Taanit 29a; perhaps only one date appears in each book as the words of Torah are only to be fully revealed to she who reads and compares every source-- cf. 2S24 with 1Ch21; but many haredi yeshivot do not teach Tanach).
Besides these 4 ancient fasts (see Zech. 8:19), Jews customarily observed the Fast of Esther, Adar 13 (see Est. 10:31), commemorating the Jewish response to anti-semitic persecution-- fasting, prayer, lobbying, and self-defense; if it falls on Shabbat, it's advanced to Thursday, unlike the 4 fasts, which are postponed from Shabbat to Sunday (M.T. 5:5).
Like Yom Kippur, the aim of all fasts and mourning is spiritual rebirth; critical self examination should lead to a return to oneself, God, and a higher level of living. Fasting is not an end to itself, but a means to effect this transformation. The tragic events we commemorate are both caused and perpetuated by our low level; we confess both our sins and those of our ancestors (Lev. 26:40; see M.T. Taanit, Ch. 5). One fasting becomes aware of both his mortal weakness, his dependency upon God for his daily food and drink, and his own strength, howbeit limited, to do without that which seems so necessary (cf. Sharansky and Mendelovitz in Siberia); afterwards, he keenly appreciates God's vast variety of nourishing and pleasant food. So kashrut and the required blessings before and after eating and drinking transform the most basic primal drive into an experience of God, its source.
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B. A PARABLE
JEREMIAH WARNS THAT THE VOICE OF JOY AND REJOICING, THE VOICE OF JOY AND REJOICING, THE VOICE OF BRIDEGROOM & BRIDE, WILL NO LONGER BE HEARD IN THE CITIES OF JUDAH & THE STREETS OF JERUSALEM (7:34). AT EACH WEDDING WE SING OF THE MESSIANIC ERA, NOW WELL UNDER WAY, WHEN: "THERE WILL AGAIN BE HEARD IN THE CITIES OF JUDAH AND THE STREETS OF JERUSALEM-- THE VOICE OF JOY AND REJOICING, THE VOICE OF BRIDEGROOM & BRIDE (33:10-11)"
Once upon a time, a noble bridegroom built a magnificent palace for his bride; alas, she turned out to be a miserable wife and a sloppy housekeeper, causing him constant anguish and disappointment. She even flirted with his servants, hoping to get some respect and attention; yet even they ridiculed her in their hearts. Nevertheless, he loved her so much; he wouldn't divorce her; he also knew that she was still so deeply in love with him, that she'd never completely give herself to anyone else. Heartbroken, he closed down and boarded up their beautiful home, but wouldn't sell it. From time to time, squatters occupied it, but it remained a dreary ruin, as tho built only for the noble couple.
One day she suddenly shaped up! She resolved to return to their original home-- it was still there, howbeit under layers of dust, debris, and cobwebs. Her husband was overjoyed, but waited to see if her resolution would hold, before he'd again live at home and proudly appear with his wife. She evicted the squatters and worked day and night on the restoration, cleaning every corner, replanting every flower. Sometimes she even forgot her husband in her preoccupation with the task at hand. Finally, when the house again shone in all its original glory, she felt deep joy and satisfaction; yet as she continued to run it well, and even entertain many visitors, she still felt unfulfilled, empty, and alone without her man. One dark cold frightening night, as she yearned for him, she heard a knock at the door. He had returned. The joy they knew together and its impact on all their neighbors was beyond description.
The bride was Israel, the groom God; their palace is the land of Israel, their neighbors, the rest of mankind. On a deeper level, BRIDEGROOM & BRIDE throughout the Bible represent God and His People of Israel (e.g. in Song of Songs). Once He brought them to Israel, that land would never again yield itself to another, remaining a bleak desert throughout their exile; Mark Twain described it as one of the most desolate places he'd seen! Now Israel's back in Israel, again rapidly becoming a garden of Eden, after tremendous effort and sacrifice. A sense of reconciliation and joy between God and His People permeates their songs and dances. In every city of Judah, their voice is heard in a synagogue or house of study. In Jerusalem, the very streets are full of old and young, exchanging words of Torah; many young men are pregnant with the excitement of the beginning of the redemption, many young women with their 5th child! Every bride and groom who begin a Jewish home add another link to our chain of redemption, from Avraham to Meshiach. May they all be forged together in the land of Israel-- here mankind's noblest dreams will become reality, eventually permeating every aspect of a modern model society. Then even Tisha B'Av will be a day of true joy.
C. THE FAST DAY TORAH READINGS
On all rabbinic fast days, we read Exodus 32:11-14 and 34:1-10, both in the morning and the afternoon, except Tisha B'Av morning.
Ex. 32: Moshe tries to placate God's anger against His people after the golden calf incident; he reminds Him how much He invested in them at Exodus and of the dire consequences to His good Name, should the Egyptians hear of their destruction. The Patriarchs and His covenant to give Israel to their countless descendants are recalled. God is placated and will not destroy His people (a model for all future generations-- no matter how bad the Jews are, God will never change His mind re their mission, vs. most traditional Christian and Moslem teachings, which are now beginning to change).
Ex. 34: At dawn, Moshe ascends again to Sinai, alone, and hews two new tablets. God descends in a cloud, standing with Moshe, and reveals His attributes as He passes by: GOD, GOD, THE LORD, MERCIFUL AND GRACIOUS, SLOW TO ANGER, WITH LOTS OF LOVE AND TRUTH. KEEPING DEEDS OF LOVE FOR THOUSANDS (of generations), FORGIVING SIN, REBELLION, AND ERROR. HE DOES NOT CLEAR THE (unrepentant) GUILTY AND KEEPS THE SINS OF THE FATHERS IN MIND RE THEIR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN FOR THREE OR FOUR GENERATIONS (34:6-7). Moshe quickly worshipped and again asked God to forgive Israel, to take them for an inheritance, and to go in their midst. God promises a covenant with hitherto unheard of miracles, in view of all the people-- then all Moshe's folk will see (= have insight into) the Lord's interaction with Moshe as most awesome.
D. THE HAFTARA, read at Mincha, is Isaiah 55:6-56:8
God calls Man to especially seek Him at those moments most conducive to finding Him, such as bleak fast days, when all seems hopeless, and happy holy days, when all evil is seen as transient and unreal-- SEEK GOD WHEN HE CAN FOUND, CALL TO HIM WHEN HE IS NEAR. LET THE WICKED FORSAKE HIS WAY AND THE MAN OF INIQUITY HIS THOUGHT PATTERNS-- THEN HE'LL RETURN TO GOD, WHO WILL HAVE PITY UPON HIM, AND TO OUR LORD, WHO FORGIVES SO MUCH. FOR YOUR MODES OF THOUGHT ARE NOT MINE, NOR ARE YOUR PATHS MINE-- THE WORD OF GOD. FOR AS HEAVEN (God's place) IS SO HIGH ABOVE EARTH (man's place), SO ARE MY PATHS AND THOUGHTS SO MUCH ABOVE YOURS (cf. God's addresses to Job, reminding him that he wasn't around at the creation of a world of freely chosen good and evil; he thus can't understand what happens in it-- see our V'etchanan study-- A.).
Isaiah continues: "For as rain and snow descend from heaven, never returning until they water earth, giving birth and causing growth-- giving seed to the sower and bread to the consumer-- so shall be my Word which emerges from My mouth! It will not return to me empty, but will have done that which I wished, and advanced the cause for which it was sent (God's words always have purpose and effects). FOR IN JOY YOU SHALL GO FORTH AND WITH PEACE SHALL YOU BE BROUGHT IN-- THE MOUNTAINS AND HILLS SHALL BREAK FORTH BEFORE YOU WITH JOY (when man stops fighting his own better nature, nature gets better) AND ALL THE TREES OF THE FIELD SHALL APPLAUD (making their fruit fall off without having to pick it?)". The Jewish people, redeemed, will no longer suffer, IF they'll practice righteousness and justice. True religion, Shabbat, must be accompanied by true interpersonal morality. "Religious" folks who shout with anger at tourists trying to photograph them praying at the Wall, or at those who conduct egalitarian services there, disgrace God's Good Name and render their prayers a mockery. Even those feeling most out of it, the stranger and the barren, will also have fulfillment and reputation of eternal quality, should they cleave to God's ways.
So, while being vigilant against their attempts to destroy us, nothing precludes peaceful Arabs, monotheists, from living here. Indeed, God may side with them, should we not live per His Torah; Midian and Moav often prevailed, even within Israel, against pagan Israelis (see Judges). Finally, God promises: "I'll bring them to my holy mountain and make them rejoice in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and feast offerings will be accepted upon my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL nations" (God welcomes all to the Wall and to His universal Noachide religion-- cf. Rav David Rosen's Jewish-Christian Conference to deal with our common problems in a secular society, condemned by Agudat Yisroel)-- "the Word of God the Lord, Who gathers up the oppressed of Israel-- I'll yet gather him up from wherever he's been scattered".
E. THE TISHA B'AV TORAH READINGS
ON TISHA B'AV MORNING, WE READ FROM V'ETCHANAN-- DEUT. 4:25-40. Long established prosperity and progeny in Israel will lead to inner corruption and idolatry; these, in turn, will ignite Divine wrath. Moshe warns that quick exile and destruction will be the inevitable result. Jews will survive as small minorities in the far flung diaspora. There they'll worship dead gods of wood and stone, fashioned by human hands (e.g. a house on the Pacific Coast, a sauna in Monsey). Both Rabbis Yaakov Emden and J. B. Soloveichik say that "idols" here refers to exaggerated and distorted value systems among the nations-- only in Israel will the Jews, coming from so many nations, get it all together, taking the best from each culture, putting each aspect of God's reality in its proper proportion. They'll finally seek God from exile and find Him-- when they seek Him with complete heart and soul (cf. Mendolovitz in Siberia).
When the Jewish people undergoes the long painful exile, they WILL, at some point, return to God, their Lord, and really pay attention to His voice. Merciful, He never forgets His covenant with their fathers. The Jewish miraculous experience and emerging nationhood within Egypt, as well as God's Appearance at Sinai, are unique testimony to God's Revelation and Providence: YOU HAVE ENGENDERED VISION TO KNOW THAT GOD'S THE LORD-- THERE'S NONE OTHER THAN HE. He tested the Jews with His voice from heaven and made them hear His words from fire on earth. His love for the Patriarchs and choice of their progeny generated Exodus and the usurping of the mighty Canaanitaes. YOU SHALL REALLY KNOW THIS DAY AND INCULCATE INTO YOUR HEART THAT GOD'S THE LORD IN HEAVEN ABOVE AND ON THE EARTH BELOW-- THERE'S NO OTHER. YOU SHALL GUARD HIS STATUTES AND COMMANDS WHICH I COMMAND YOU THIS DAY-- THAT IT BE GOOD FOR YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN AFTER YOU AND THAT YOU LENGTHEN DAYS ON THAT LAND WHICH GOD YOUR LORD GIVES YOU, ALL THE DAYS.
F. THE HAFTARA IS JEREMIA 8:13-9:23
God sees destruction and exile as the only hope to eventually redeem Israel; having left God and Torah, there's no mutual trust and integrity left in Jewish society (cf. today). Jerusalem will be desolate, while the Jews shape up in the diaspora. Eventually, after long mourning, the Jews will understand the source of their exile and return to God and His Torah as the only source of human worth-- SO SAYS GOD: "LET THE WISE NOT PRAISE HIMSELF WITH HIS WISDOM AND LET THE MIGHTY NOT PRAISE HIMSELF WITH HIS MIGHT; A RICH MAN SHOULD NOT GLORIFY HIMSELF IN HIS WEALTH. FOR ONLY WITH THIS CAN HE WHO SO DESIRES EXULT-- TRUE WISDOM AND KNOWING ME, FOR I'M GOD WHO PERFORMS KINDNESS, JUSTICE, AND RIGHTEOUSNESS ON EARTH-- FOR IN THESE I DELIGHT, THE WORD OF GOD.
G. THE BOOK OF LAMANTATIONS IS READ ON TISHA B'AV
THIS CHRONICLE OF DOOM AND DESTRUCTION IS CALLED BY THE FIRST WORD OF CHAPTERS 1, 2, & 4-- EICHA? "HOW COULD IT BE?". EICHA is also used by Moshe to describe his despair, unable to handle the troublesome Jewish folk alone (Deut. 1:12). Their lack of closeness to Moshe may have led to their rebellion, following the spies. This, in turn, led to Moshe and that generation not being able to enter Israel; had they been the conquerors, not a shot would have been fired, and the destruction of the Temple and exile need not have occurred (see Sforno on Num 1:1). So EICHA introduces Isaiah's elegy (1:21). We read that Jerusalem, in essence the greatest city, has now sunk to the depths of despair. This implies that once the Jews return to God and He makes Zion flourish, Jerusalem will again be a source of joy for all the earth (cf. tourism today). The Jews' false faith in so-called allies and friends having evaporated, they once more return to their only true friend-- God. Once they return to Him, their former glory shall return in full force. YOU, GOD, SIT FOREVER, YOUR THRONE FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION. WHY FORGET US FOREVER, ABANDON US FOR LENGTH OF DAYS? THO YOU HAVE SO DESPISED US, SO TREATED US WITH ANGER-- RETURN US, GOD, TO YOU, AND WE SHALL RETURN-- RENEW OUR DAYS AS OF OLD.
ALL THESE FASTS (not Yom Kippur) WILL BE ANNULLED IN THE DAYS OF MOSHIACH-- NAY MORE, TO BECOME HOLIDAYS AND DAYS OF FEAST AND REJOICING (So Rambam closes his Laws of Taanit, citing Zecharia 8:19).
H. FASTING IN JEWISH TRADITION
Besides these fixed fasts, both individuals and communities fasted for various religious reasons, especially to avert or terminate calamity; such fasting, as Achav's, is linked to prayer and penance (IK21:27-29); David loses his son, despite his fast, then sees no point in further fasting (IIS12:22-23; cf. Ps. 35:13; 69:11; 109:24; Ezra 10:6**). Fasting and prayers precede a Divine vision in Daniel 9:3 and 10:3.
Public fasts are proclaimed to avert a public disaster, e.g. upon going to war (Judg. 20:26, 1 Sam. 7:6, 14:24, II Chron. 20:3) or upon a threat of annihilation (Jer. 36:3, 9; Esther 4:3, 16), famine (Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15), oppression (Neh. 9:1), or divine punishment (1 Kings 21:9, Yona 3:5).
Moshe fasted 40 days and nights while in direct contact with God on Sinai (Ex. 34:28, Deut. 9:9, 18); he also divorced his wife; but other Jews, even Aharon and Miriam, had no such restrictions, tho men and women separated at Sinai for 3 days to avoid ritual impurity. Fasting prepared Saul for communion with dead Samuel (I Sam. 28:20). Elijah doesn't eat or drink for 40 days on his way to Chorev, tho sustained by a previous meal which remained in his stomach (I Kings 19:8, per Radak).
The Jews consulted Zechariah about abolishing the fasts for destruction of the First Temple when the Second Temple was approaching completion (Zech. 7:1; cf. Ezra 6:15); this coincided with the end of 70 years of exile predicted by Jeremiah (Zech. 7:5; cf. Jer. 25:12).
The fast was accompanied by prayer (during the First Temple period sacrifices were offered) and confession of sins (Judges 20:26; I Sam. 7:6; Ezra 10:1). From the Second Temple period onward, the public fast was also accompanied by reading of the Torah (Neh. 9:3). After the destruction of the Temple, prayer alone substituted for sacrifices, which no longer got the right message across; atonement is based on repentence, not the magical use of blood, a mistake among some Christians-- "OUR LIPS (not Jesus) SHALL REPLACE (lit. PAY FOR) COWS" (Hosea 14:3). Judaism believes that the death of the righteous brings atonement, but not that it's the usual means of atonement, nor that their blood per se is involved.
Prayers and fasting were generally held in the open (II Chron. 20:5; Judith 4:11); the people humiliated themselves in public by tearing their clothes, wearing sackcloth (I Kings 21:27; Joel 2:13; Ps. 35:13; Judith 4:10, 8:5), and putting ashes or earth on their heads (Isa. 58:5; Neh. 9:1). Rambam says people in distress must do so, not attributing misfortune to chance, thereby losing God's good will; ** but Jews of L.A. would not have to fast, if there's no more imminent danger from earthquakes. The sages exempted young children (and animals-- cf. Nineveh's fast of man and beast, Yonah 3:6f), the sick, those obliged to preserve their strength, and, in most cases, pregnant and nursing women, from fasting (Tosef. to Ta'an. 2:12; 3:2).
Hananiah b. Hezekiah b. Garon (first century C.E.) compiled Megillat Ta'anit ("Scroll of Fasting") which lists 35 commemorative dates on which a public fast could not be proclaimed. In time, however, the Megillat Ta'anit was abrogated. It was customary to hold public fast days on Mondays and Thursdays (Tosef. to Ta'an. 2:4); many individuals, especially after the destruction of the Temple, took upon themselves to fast every Monday and Thursday (Ta'an.12a).
Exaggerated propagation of fasting aroused a sharp counteraction in rabbinic literature; both adoration and condemnation of fasting are found in Talmud Taanit 11; some justify it only in cases of special need and capacity. The rabbis condemned ascetic women, especially widows and "fasting maids" (TJ, Sot. 3:4, 19a-- cf. anorexia, 100 day stints at the Wall and little red strings around the wrist). R. Yose declared: "The individual has no right to afflict himself by fasting lest he become a burden on the community which will then have to provide for him" (Tosef. Ta'an. 2:12).
"A scholar may not fast (where optional), because, in doing so, he decreases the work of heaven" (he'll be too weak to learn properly; Ta'anit 11a-b). Fasting as a discipline, a routine for the pious, is attested only after biblical times; it was widely practiced by mystics and kabbalists, especially by Hasidei Ashkenaz, but many latter-day Hasidim opposed it.
Reform Judaism recognizes only one mandatory fast--the Day of Atonement. Its general attitude towards other fast days (public or privage) is negative, based upon a superficial understanding of Isaiah 58:3-8-- just as the prophet condemns only INSINCERE prayer and holidays, so he condemns only INSINCERE fasting and sacrifice. For further information, see Otzar Yisroel and E.J., used for this study. Part 2 deals with fasting and self-mortification in later Jewish writings, other religions and science.
IS GOD HAPPY WHEN I'M NOT? FASTING & SELF-DENIAL IN JUDAISM
In Part 1, we explored the fixed public fast days, when Jews mourn the sin-full loss of their land, Holy City and Temple; fasting, as on Yom Kippur, helps us search our hearts and deeds, to strive to repent, to end our exile and rebuild our Temple. Then these fast days will be feasts. There are also 2 extended peak mourning periods for the continuing tragedies of Jewish history-- 1) the 3 weeks between the fasts of Tamuz 17 and Av 9-- Rav J. Soloveichik urged Jews to celebrate the 4th of July anyway then, for the USA is a great source of blessing to all Jews. 2) the less severe 7 week Omer countup from Pesach to Shavuot. The intensity and length of mourning, e.g. not making weddings and refraining from meat and wine, vary among Jewish communities, tho none fast except on the above days; Ashkenazic Jews added and extended mourning practices, primarily in response to the first European Holocaust, the Crusades-- did it help? Today we too might respond to history by mitigating their additions with the joyful emergence of the State of Israel, the beginning of our redemption. Independence Day and Jerusalem Day indeed both fall within the 7 weeks.
Both mourning and rejoicing can have positive and negative effects. Either extreme is ruinous-- excessive absorption in mourning and sadness can kill initiative and drive to accomplish life's many tasks, even alienate man from God; youth are likely to abandon such a life style and the society which preaches it (cf. A. Memmi). On the other hand, frivolity and rejoicing, ignoring life's tragedies, leads to a life of fantasy and inability to cope with unpleasant reality. Indeed there's a certain peace and inner happiness amidst mourning-- one ceases to deny reality, to pretend that all is A-OK, e.g. in the often superficial upbeat U.S.A. Solomon indeed recommends attending funerals over weddings (Ecc. 7:2)-- not to be preoccupied with sadness, but awareness of life's brevity should renew commitment to making every moment as productive and meaningful as possible.
B. THE POWER OF FASTING
Fasting, inducing humility and repentence, was prescribed as an antidote to evil forces, especially bad dreams. Some proclaimed that they would not so fast, to prevent their having such dreams; others fasted and acted out their dream. But even fasting, pious deeds and prayer are of no avail against houses haunted by demons (Sefer Hasidim of Yehuda Hahasid, died 1217). The invocation of magical names was the commonest feature of medieval Jewish magic-- fasting was often a prerequisite. Lev. 26:42 was a magic verse for good health after a fast. Human saliva, especially of a fasting man, was believed to possess anti-demonic and anti-magical powers (Galen; Maimonides called it a remedy for poison-- see Dear Maimonides by Andrew Sanders). From Talmudic times on, Taanit Chalom, the dream fast was part of a repentence program to prevent bad dreams, viewed as warnings, from becoming reality. Such fasts are allowed even in joyous periods, when other fasts were forbidden, even by those only dreamt about by others, even the day before Yom Kippur (Rama, O.H. 429:2; cf. O.H. 220:2). Doing so on Shabbat remains a matter of contention-- a frightened dreamer couldn't enjoy Shabbat without fasting (Maharil). A second fast day is observed for desecrating a holiday with the first fast. Fasting also preceded divination via dreams.
After a dream fast, comes Hatavat Chalom, transformation of the omnious dream into a favorable one. 3 friends and the dreamer proclaim the dream good 3-12 times; the dreamer recited 9 positive verses and/or a prayer, Thus fortified, he could throw off the oppressive weight of his dream and go his way, eating his bread in peace (Ecc. 9:7)-- until another night visited another evil vision upon him; this is rarely done today (see Jewish Magic and Superstition, J. Trachtenberg, DREAMS, for sources. Is this a religious realm or ancient secular science of dreams?-- rabbis lack authority in secular realms (Avraham b. Maimon, Introduction to the Agada). Some medieval scholars believed in demons and evil spirits, but ignored those which seemed to have disappeared; some claimed that human nature changed. See Raben, 271, R. Tam, Yoma 77b, Hul. 107b.
Rebbe Yishmael fasted 40 days at 13, to enter the transcendental world. He brought down angel Yofiel, who told him that he was still defiled; he had to fast 40 days, while immersing himself 24 times a day... to sit in a dark room and not look at any woman... then he got the Divine Name Password to ascend and descend (Sefer Hapardes, quoted in Shalshelet Hakabbala, P. 64, Seder Hadorot 5, 118a; if you don't believe this or the following item, you're not a heretic!); R. Akiva got similar advice, per Raza Shel Sandelfon, in Merkava Shelema, 2b-- "at the end of these days of fasting and purification, he should sit in water up to his neck. Before binding the angel with an oath (not to destroy the world), he should say: "I bind you by an oath, princes of pride and terror, appointed to strike down one who's not pure and clean, yet dares to reach out to make use of the servants on high... I do this thru the glorious and fearsome Name...".
Bride and groom (in some places only the groom) fast on their wedding day; some say this is to insure that the groom not be suspected of inebriety during the ceremony! (see Rokeach 353, Tashbetz 465). Many fast on their parent's yahrtzeit. Firstborn fast the day before Passover, unless they attend a festive siyum of a Tractate. Some fast on 7 Adar, Moshe's yahrtzeit, and 3 Mondays and Thursdays in Cheshvon and Iyar. Those present when a Torah scroll falls must fast. In the 16th Century, Safad kabbalists instituted the custom of fasting on the eve of the new moon (the day was a feast day; 15th century Christians fasted at new moon, even when forbidden, e.g. Sunday or Christmas).
C. MORTIFYING MORTIFICATION?
Louis Jacobs notes 3 differing attitudes among religious people towards gratification of physical appetites, when there's no breach of religious law-- the ascetic, the puritanical and thankful acceptance. The first calls abstinence a virtue, as body and soul are in conflict; to indulge one is to frustrate growth of the other-- man should reduce his needs to the bare minimum required to exist. The physical is impure-- fasting and general mortification bring holiness (see Pele Yoetz below). The puritanical attitude agrees, but makes allowance for physical and spiritual dangers, e.g. ill-health, morbidity, rebellion, masochism, pride and lack of charity. Physical appetites are needed for human survival, but more a necessary evil than a positive good, or only good as a preparation or condition for higher things. Ramban has such views. The 3rd attitude sees physical pleasure as a gift of the Creator-- not man's highest pursuit, but not shameful or sinful or only of value as means to an end. Rashi calls a Nazarite a sinner for even denying himself wine (but see Klei Yakar). The stress on good food and drink on sabbath and festivals, and blessings of praise and joy to God for our food and drink, reflect a positive mainstream Rabbinic attitude to physical pleasure.
We explored (Part 1) Jewish attitudes toward fasting in Bible and Talmud. Both contain pros and cons. From the early middle ages on, rabbis wrote ethical and philosophical tractates; but they often quoted or stressed only one side of an issue. Their life experiences, personalities and views help us understand and evaluate their writings; so the Talmud tells many tales of its rabbis' lives and wives.
Some works stressed ascetism, ignoring anti-ascetic traditions, perhaps to combat predominantly hedonistic culture (cf. Goodbye Columbus); but such works can be psychologically and religiously dangerous to those with a poor self-image. Rabbis J. Soloveichik and Chaim Lifshitz would ban would-be Messiah, poet and mystic Ramchal's spiritual guide, Messilot Yesharim, for general instruction, despite the Vilna Gaon's awe of it; the same would apply, a fortiori, to 2 popular haredi books of advice; both rabbis promised that their followers' prayers at their graves would be answered!--
RAV NACHMAN'S ADVICE (by Rav Natan, trans. by A. Greenbaum): "Each person must subdue his physical aspect. The way to achieve this is thru fasting, which weakens the 4 basic elements of which man is composed, the source of all his lusts and impulses... to humble and nullify the coarse materialism of the body, the source of folly and darkness, animality and death. The finer side of man is thereby strengthened and his Divine intellect-- the form as opposed to the substance-- is elevated" (cf. Plato's cave, Bishop Berkeley's Idealism and Chuang Tzu's image of this life as a great dream-- fools believe that they're awake now!). The Divine Intellect is the soul-- wisdom, light and life. The power of forgetfulness is broken and man remembers his mission in the world. The darkness and harsh judgements are nullified and lovingkindness and blessing are drawn into the world. The main effect is accomplished thru charity which one gives while fasting. Thru fasting, the influence of alien ideologies is thwarted and the wisdom of Torah reigns supreme; it's also helpful for one's livelihood and honor... and makes us worthy of experiencing miracles.
"... the Tzadik eats to satisfy his holy soul-- he's forbidden to fast... but one who has to fast should certainly do so... fasting conquers one's anger, its main value... it brings a new radiance to the face and restores one's wisdom-- the very image of God. He'll be held in awe by those around him and his enemies will fall before him... thru fasting, it's possible to perfect our speech-- then we can pray with devotion... and draw near those who were far from God, deepening our faith... fasting has the power to resolve conflict, both physical and spiritual... it revives one's "dead days" and brings joy-- the more you fast, the greater the joy; it fixes dreams. One should recite the sections of Leviticus dealing with sacrifices on fast days".
Rav Nachman had ascetic tendencies from early childhood, perhaps linked to feelings of guilt in comparing himself to his illustrious ancestor, the Besht, who urged moderation in bodily discipline (see Likutei Sichos 1:32, The Tormented Master, A. Green). As a litle boy, Rav Nachman swallowed his food whole, with minimal chewing, not to enjoy its taste-- "God's happy if I'm not". Near his death at 38, Nachman regreted his many fasts and mortifications (Hishtapchut Hanefesh, Introd.); had he known what he could achieve by meditative prayer alone, he wouldn't have abused his precious body. Nachman's Boswell, Rav Natan, seems to regret his regret, tho he urged a fasting hasid to go home and eat instead of craving food all day! (Rav G. Fleer). Nachman indeed recommends fasting OCCASIONALLY in L. M. 2:86, and values sighing with regret over one's shortcomings over fasting in 1:109-- but these passages aren't part of Advice, which he approved; the translator didn't note Nachman's later regrets, perhaps causing much pain and ruin to young returnee readers. His outlook resembles (and is based on?) RABENU YONA'S in Sharay Tshuva and RABENU BACHYE'S in Kad Hakemach-- Bachye views the soul as one entity, with 3 forces-- animalistic, organic and rational (cf. id, ego, and superego); others view them as 3 souls. Moshe fasted 40 days on Sinai, subduing his animal soul, enabling his rational faculty to receive great truths.
YAAKOV EMDEN claims that Jews are unconsciously influenced by their non-Jewish majority environment, e.g. Ashkenazic Jews' Christian-like contempt for the body and its pleasures and Breslavian disdain for intellect. Sefardim, like Moslems, were pro-body, e.g. polygomy, tho fasting is one of 5 major commandments of Islam (Sheilot Yavetz, II:15, where he advocates reinstitution of concubinage). But kindly saintly ascetic Sephardic Rav E. Papo (in Pele Yoetz, Wonderous Advisor) goes way beyond Nachman, viewing denial of pleasure and mortification as the golden road to atonement and the world to come. Papo also urges women to tolerate intolerable husbands, trusting to God to reward them in the next world. He rejects the argument that it's better to eat just bread than fast, because of the associated mitzvos and grace, as his holy predecessors fasted day and night; he urged Jews to avoid pleasant food, other than on Shabbat and Holidays, and to subject themselves to insect bites, flagation, etc., but not to tell anyone of his private fasts (for humility, as not seeking approbations for one's books, vs. haredi authors). The Kabbalistic Kibbutz, Lovers of Peace, founded in 1757 by Rav Shalom Sharabi in the Jewish 1/4's Bet El Synagogue, included pupils and relatives of Rav Papo. They refrained from worldly talk and were frequent fasting spiritual flyers.
The Ari revered the Zohar and was revered by Hasidim, tho both taught doctrines against some of their more learned predecessors, e.g. reincarnation, vs. Saadya and Albo; he prescribed many fasts for sins-- 151 for anger, 73 for drinking non-Jewish wine, a rabbinic prohibition, 61 for missing prayers (noone is obliged to follow him-- Judaism is suspicious of new revelations). Great Kabbalists, e.g. Rav Nachman, felt that they must defend their views; some, as Torah scholars, felt obliged to bring the other side, but disparage or reinterpet it. For example--
RAMCHAL spurs, never spurns, self-denial in Messilat Yesharim (Ch. 13): Separation is the beginning of saintliness... "sanctify yourselves thru what's permitted you (Rava, Yevamos 20a)"... means forbidding oneself something permitted ... which might bring about evil, tho it doesn't bring evil at the moment and isn't evil in itself, ...to be far removed from evil (but Rava's example is rabbinically prohibited marriages, a fence about the Torah, not general individual self-denial. One sanctifies life by really enjoying what God gives in a refined and holy manner-- YF; cf. TV).
If you ask: "What basis is there for multiplying prohibitions?-- Behold our sages of blessed memory said: `Isn't what Torah forbids enough for you, that you come to forbid yourself other things?' (Jer. Ned. 9:1). Behold, that which our sages deemed fit to ban as a safeguard they've already banned and they've left permissible what they felt should be so... Also there's no limit to this matter and man can thus become depressed and afflicted and won't enjoy life at all-- yet our sages said one will have to account before the Omnipresent for everything which his eyes saw, which he didn't wish to partake of, tho permitted and able to do so (Jer. Kidd. 4:12)... `Anything my eyes asked, I didn't keep from them' (Ecc. 2:10)."
Luzzato answers that separation's certainly necessary and essential; he cites talmudic views supporting this position, e.g. "Before one prays that words of Torah penetrate his intestines, let him pray that food and drink not enter them (Yalkut Dvarim 830; this may refer to psychological absorption with, rather than the act of, eating and drinking-- YF)". He claims that all indulgence leads to sin and further indulgence. The rabbis never legislated saintly separation from pleasure, but only because most people couldn't abide by it, those they must cleave to those who can. He claims that Talmudic statements against separation refer to affliction or deprivation of the body, not just denying it non-essential pleasure, as foolish gentiles do (and the rabbis above?).
RAV SCHNEUR ZALMAN (Tanya III) notes indeed that both Rambam and Sefer Mitzvos Gadol don't even mention fasting re repentence, even for capital sins-- just confession and the plea for forgiveness (unlike Mussar works, especially Rokeach and Sefer Chasidim). Nevertheless, fasting replaces sacrifices, a gift of reconciliation to God after offending him-- "May my loss of fat and blood be regarded as tho I offered before You..." (Ber. 17a). Talmudic sages undertook many fasts for trivial faults (e.g. Yer. Betza 2:8, Chag. 22b, M.K. 25a, B.M. 33a; they may have viewed them as signs of major character flaws-- YF). The Tanya claims efficacy of fasts for Divine Revelation, while limiting them to the strong and healthy, like those in past generations. Those who might suffer illness or pain are forbidden to fast more than they can tolerate, especially if they study Torah; they should give matching gifts of charity instead. He should, however, strive to complete fasts for sins incurring a death penalty.
D. BACK TO BALANCE
PIRKE AVOT correlates more advice with more wisdom; equally great rabbis, e.g. Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveichik and the Besht, are much better balanced models for Jews today. Healthy Hirsch comments on: THE RIGHTEOUS EATS TO SATISFY HIS SOUL, BUT THE STOMACH OF THE EVIL IS ALWAYS LACKING (Proverbs 13:25)-- The person who observes Divine Law allows himself enjoyment of food and satisfaction of other physical needs only inasmuch as this is necessary for the maintenance of his body as the receptacle of his soul on earth... even when attending to his physical needs, the righteous man remains... spiritual. To a person without any law... sensual satisfaction is purely a demand of his body... unlike animals, he knows neither limit nor satiety...
YEHUDA HALEVI reflects upon body and soul in Kuzari, 2:50: The Divine Torah hasn't burdened us with mortification. It has rather taught us proper proportion in commanding us to give all physical and soul forces their due-- not to favor one over others, to their loss... lomg fasting is not Divine work for one with limited appetites and a weak body... likewise, minimizing business acquisitions isn't Divine labor for he for whom it requires little effort and distraction from study and good works-- especially if he has children to support or intends to give charity... YOUR SUBMISSIVENESS ON DAYS OF FASTING IS NO MORE ACCEPTABLE TO GOD THAN YOUR REJOICING ON SABBATHS AND HOLIDAYS-- IF your joy comes from thought and willful intent... if your religious enthusiasm rises to the level of song and dance, you should also consider these Divine service, for thru them you'll cleave to Divinity (cf. Shlomo songs)... Keeping the commandment of Shabat brings one closer to God than much prayer, being a Nazarite, and self-denial.
RAMBAM, master of balance, writes in his Laws of Traits, 3:1: "One might say: `Since passion, pride, etc. are a bad ways which remove one from the world, I'll really separate myself from them and distance myself to the opposite extreme'-- until he won't eat meat nor drink wine nor marry nor live in a nice home nor wear nice clothing, only sackcloth and coarse wool, etc., as the priests of Edom-- this too is a forbidden evil way. He who travels this path is called a sinner (including young Rav Nachman and Rav Papo?)-- behold it's stated re a nazarite: He (the priest) shall atone for his sinning against the soul (Num. 6:11). The wise men said (Taanit 11a): If a nazarite, who only separated from wine, needs atonement, how much more he who refrains from everything. Thus the wise ordered that noone refrain except from those things which the Torah withheld, and he shouldn't bind himself with vows and oaths re permitted things. `Isn't what the Torah forbade enough for you, that you forbid yourself other things?' (Jer. Ned. 9). Included in this are those who constantly fast, not going in the good way; the scholars banned one from self-mortification by fasting; on all such matters, Shlomo commanded: "Be not over-righteous nor excessively making yourself wise-- why become desolate?" (Ecc. 7:16).
Isaiah (58:3f) denounces fasting divorced from morality: "... Behold, on the day of your fast you seek pleasures and oppress all your debtors. Behold you fast for quarrel and strife... don't fast so to make your voice heard on high... Will such be a fast I'll choose, a day of man's afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to God? Behold this is the fast I'll choose-- to undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness and to let the oppressed go free... Wow-- share your bread with the hungary and bring the broken poor to your home, when you see the naked, clothe him and hide not your eyes from your own flesh (kin). Then your light shall break forth as dawn... then you'll call and God will answer... and from you they'll build ancient ruins... and if you call Shabbat a delight... then you'll delight in God...".
E. NON-JEWS FAST TOO
In exploring fasting in other religions, secular cultures and science, we may achieve insights which will enable us to better understand our Torah tradition. Both Abarbanel and the Vilna Gaon stress how such sources are necessary to understand Torah; God presupposes that His folk are intelligent, worldly, curious and learned; applying their God-given intelligence to God-given Nature, the audio-visual division of His grand Yeshiva University, man discovers God and his own Divine Image. Torah gives the Jews a way of life and connection to God's essence and posits absolute eternal values for their exploration and manipulation of the universe. Torah is to sanctify life, not replace it.
Fasting, self-denial, is an integral part of all religions except Zoroastrianism, which views it as sinful denial of the good, weakening one in his conflict with evil. Physical and mental evil has often resulted from excessive fasting. It's most widely approved, rigorously required and extensively practised in Christianity. It's purpose is purifiction, sympathetic (after death), Penitential, Meritorious (for reward or power) or disciplinary (to develop moral control, especially in ages of voluptuousness and huge feasts). Fasting is often used today in diagnosing and curing illness, cleaning out the system, especially in Russian and holistic medicine. It's also a sport of endurance-- little kids brag about their Yom Kippur fasts. It's also used to protest injustice.
The only non-religious books I found on fasting at the H.U. Mt. Scopus library dealt with anorexia nervosa, which might have been the #1 modern epidemic disease, but for AIDS. Thruout the ages, women, mothers of all flesh (Gen. 3:20), the prime nurturers, have tended to excessive involvement with food and used its denial as a symbol to protest either their personal state or that of society. "Fasting women and girls have made more noise in the world than fasting men" (Dickens). Chana expresses her childless crisis in refusing to partake of the festive sacrifices, when her sad state is highlighted by her co-wife receiving portions for all her kids (Judy Sterman). The dangerous suicidal aspect of fasting is ignored in the recent pietistic works above, unlike the Talmud (Taanit 11a).
Modern Anorexia nervosa emerged during the throes of industrial capitalist development and was nurtured by central aspects of bourgeois life: intimacy and material comfort, parental love and expectation, the sexual division of labor and popular ideas about gender and class. An early and distinctive psychopathology of middle-class family life, the disease itself preceded the familiar body-image imperatives usually associated with it, before mass cultural preoccupation with dieting and a slim female body. While denial and anger also characterize medieval religious asceticism, the different cultural and social systems transform even as basic a human instinct as appetite, whose meaning varies in different historical epochs-- women use appetite as a form of expression more often than men, at least from medieval times. American adolescents are in the worst trouble in many realms. In a society where consumption and identity are pervasively linked, the anorexic makes nonconsumption the perverse centerpiece of her identity. In affluent societies, the human appetite is uneqivocally misused in the service of a multitude of nonnutritional needs. In a sad and desperate way, today's fasting girls epitomize the curious psychic burdens of the dutiful daughters of a people of plenty (Fasting Girls, J.J. Brumberg, Harvard Press; cf. Anorexia Nervosa, Helmut Thoma, Int. Univ. Press, Inc. 1967 and On Fasting and Feasting, Buitelaar, Marjo, Berg, 1993). Dr. Garfield Duncan (U. of P.) found that fasting patients lose all sense of hunger after 48 hours-- Why?--
U.K. Prof. Ketwick and Dr. Pawan discovered a fat-mobilizing hormone was present in urine after a 48 hour carbohydrate free diet-- this and the presence of ketone bodies in the urine signified that the body was satisfying its hunger by burning its own fat as fuel. Chana Poupko, who fasted (but drank water) 2 1/2 days reports greatly diminished, but not extinguished, appetite after 2 days; she cites studies that animals fared better fasting once a week. After 5-6 days, fasters feel very good and bouyant, tho weak. These discoveries led to Dr. Atkins' diet revolution. Harvard's Dr. Jean Mayer, with Barry Commoner, refuted Paul Erlich's Malthusian fears of food shortage accompanying population boom. He also discovered that, with an abnormal metabolism, fat may be manufactured even w/o food, while fasting. Between 59-66% of weight lost during fasting is not fat tissue, but vital lean tissue taken from muscles and vital organs. Former Guru Gutman Locks (6277959 for info on his Shabbat programs) fasted daily for 3 years, 3 months and did 24 hour fasting 5 days until he collapsed; his conclusion-- it's harder to eat in moderation than to fast!
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