“Against the Enemy That Oppresses You”: The Basis of the Historical Fasts

  • Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Adapted by Rav Yair Kahn

Translated by Kaeren Fish


According to the Rambam, the situation that mandates fasting is “tzara,” “affliction” or “trouble.” Thus, he rules concerning a public fast:

It is a positive commandment from the Torah to cry out and to sound the trumpets for any trouble that befalls the community, as it is written, “Against the enemy that oppresses (ha-tzar ha-tzorer) you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets” (Bamidbar 10:9), meaning that [when there is] anything that afflicts you, such as drought or pestilence or locusts or the like, cry out to Me and sound the trumpets… And from the Sages we learn that a fast is held for any trouble that befalls the community, until there is Divine compassion. (Rambam, Hilkhot Ta’aniot 1:1-4)

The Rambam also rules concerning a personal fast that “just as the community fasts over its affliction, so the individual [likewise] fasts over his affliction” (ibid. 1:9).

However, at the end of Hilkhot Ta’aniot, the Rambam addresses a different sort of fast, one related to events of the past:

There are days when the entire Jewish People fasts because of the calamities that occurred then, in order to arouse their hearts and to open the paths of repentance… (Hilkhot Ta’aniot 5:1)

If fasts are prompted by “affliction,” then what is the basis for these “historical” fasts, which recall affliction that was experienced two thousand years ago?[1] The Rishonim do not discuss this question explicitly, but from their teachings we discern two fundamental directions in addressing it.

The mishna in Massekhet Rosh Ha-Shana (18a) teaches:

For six new moons the messengers go out [to announce Rosh Chodesh]: In Nissan, on account of Pesach; in Av, on account of the fast…

The gemara then asks: “Why should they not then also go out to announce Rosh Chodesh in the months of Tammuz and Tevet [for the sake of the fasts in those months]?” The gemara answers:

R. Huna bar Bizna said in the name of R. Shimon Chasida: What is the meaning of the verse, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month and the fast of the tenth shall be [times of] joy and gladness for the house of Yehuda” (Zekharia 8:19)? The prophet calls these days both “days of fasting” and “days of joy”… R. Papa said: What it means is this: When there is peace, [these days] shall be for joy and gladness; when there is persecution, they shall be fast days. If there is no persecution but also no peace, then if they wish to, they fast, and if they do not wish to, they do not fast. But if so, should Tisha Be-Av also [be optional]? R. Papa replied: Tisha Be-Av is different because several misfortunes took place on the same date.

The Rishonim are divided as to how we define a period of “peace,” when the four public fast days are to be celebrated as joyful holidays. Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ramban maintain that the existence of the Temple defines the period as one of peace. According to this opinion, these fasts were celebrated as holidays throughout the entire Second Temple period.[2] According to this approach, in our times, after the destruction of the Temple, when there is persecution or war, fasting remains a traditional obligation. In the absence of persecution, fasting remains voluntary; if people wish to fast, they do so, but if they do not wish to, they need not. According to this view, the obligation of fasting on the four public fast days is not built solely on events of the past; it also takes into consideration the present circumstances. Thus, the historical fasts should not be viewed as deviating from the general obligation of fasting as a result of affliction. Even on these fasts, the motivating factor is the affliction, while the enactment of the prophets merely adds a special focus on specific dates. When there is persecution and danger in the present, we recall the source of all our troubles – the destruction of the Temple.

The Rambam has a different approach to this sugya. In his commentary on the mishna in Rosh Ha-Shana, he explains:

During the Second Temple Period, they did not fast [as a communal obligation] on either the tenth of Tevet or the seventeenth of Tammuz. Rather, whoever wanted to would fast, or not, and therefore messengers were not sent out for [Rosh Chodesh] Tevet or Tammuz… But they would fast on Tisha Be-Av, even though it was a voluntary matter, because many troubles occurred on that date.

According to the Rambam, the period of the Second Temple is defined as the intermediate situation in which “there is no war and there is no persecution.” Thus, in his view – in contrast to that of the other Rishonim – Tisha Be-Av was observed because of the multitude of catastrophes commemorated on that day, while the other fast days were observed on a voluntary basis.[3] The “time of persecution” when it is obligatory to fast, in accordance with the enactment of the prophets, is – to the Rambam’s view – the period of the destruction of the Temple and exile. Only in the Messianic Period will the four fast days become days of joy and gladness, as the Rambam explains at the end of Hilkhot Ta’aniot (5:19): “All these fasts will ultimately be cancelled in the Messianic Period; moreover, they are destined to become holidays and days of joy and gladness.”

While this approach is presented in the Rambam’s Perush Ha-Mishnayot, there is no direct reference to it in the Mishneh Torah. In fact, the commentaries on the Rambam understand his ruling there to be in accordance with that of Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ramban. The Rambam writes:

These four fasts are explicitly mentioned in the prophetic tradition [in Zekharia 8:19]: “The fast of the fourth month,” “the fast of the fifth month”… And the entire Jewish People follows the custom (ve-nahagu) of fasting at these times (zemanim), and on the thirteenth of Adar, commemorating the fasts that they observed in the time of Haman. (Hilkhot Ta’aniot 5:4-5).

The Maggid Mishneh infers from this the following:

Our teacher based these [fasts] on custom, as set forth in the gemara… If there is no peace, but [on the other hand] there is no persecution propagated against all of Israel, then if they wish to, they fast, and if they do not wish to, they do not fast.

However, this understanding of the Rambam seems forced, as it raises the question of why the Rambam would omit the conclusion reached in the gemara – that at a time of persecution, the fasts are not merely a matter of custom, but actually required by law. Furthermore, the formulation of the halakha here is clumsy and not in the Rambam’s usual clear style. Had this been his intention, he should have written it in more precise language: “And the entire Jewish People would fast on these days (yamim), and they would also fast on the thirteenth of Adar.”[4]

It seems that the most accurate version of the Rambam here is one that appears in a manuscript:

And the entire Jewish People follows the custom of fasting, at these times, on the thirteenth of Adar, in commemoration of [that] fast.

The omission of a single letter “vav” (“and on the thirteen of Adar…”) solves all the problems that we have raised here. According to this version, which is clear and precise, what the halakha is saying is that at this time, the entire Jewish People have the custom of fasting on Ta’anit Esther (the 13th of Adar). It says nothing about the four fasts, which are not dependent on custom; the source of their obligation is an enactment of the prophets within the framework of the “time of persecution” following the destruction, which was the subject of our discussion. Thus, the Rambam’s opinion in the Mishneh Torah conforms to his opinion in the Perush Ha-Mishnayot. During the Second Temple period, the four public fasts were a voluntary matter; in our times, there is an obligation to fast based on the enactment of the prophets, and only in the Messianic Period will these days turn into days of joy and gladness. In view of this, it is clear why there is no reason for the Mishneh Torah to rule concerning a time when “there is no persecution and there is no peace” – because it has no practical relevance.

We have established that what determines the declaration of a fast is “affliction,” and we have shown that according to Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ramban, the four historical fasts are also based on a situation of persecution and affliction. However, according to the Rambam, no such connection exists. What, then, is the factor obligating the historical fasts according to the Rambam?

We might explain that the Rambam agrees in principle with the other Rishonim that the situation of affliction is what makes the four historical fasts obligatory, but in his opinion – in contrast to Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ramban – at no time during the exile was there complete quiet and tranquillity. The Jewish People is constantly in a situation of persecution and affliction. Sometimes the threat is clear and immediate and affects major Jewish centers; at other times, it is less acute and affects only Jews of the periphery, but there is always some level of trouble.[5]

However, there is another way of understanding the Rambam’s approach. It may be that the Rambam disagrees in principle with the other Rishonim, and it appears to me that this is the proper understanding. This explanation is based on the concept of “remembrance.” Remembrance is not the opposite of “forgetting.” The prophet says, “Whenever I speak of him, I earnestly remember him still” (Yirmiyahu 31:19). If God is “speaking” of him, can He possibly “forget” him? Obviously not. Rather, “remembrance” is a fundamental connection that bridges the chasm of time. Remembrance means actively resisting the passage of time, which erodes connections and relegates things to the past, to dust and ashes. Remembrance is a superhuman effort to oppose the general current, which forgets all mourning and pain and dismisses all joy and happiness after enough years have gone by.

It is impossible to understand the Jewish festivals without understanding the concept of “remembrance.” For Am Yisrael, significant events do not just pass by and then disappear into oblivion; rather, they remain part of the national religious consciousness. The Exodus from Egypt is not merely a historical event; it is part of our consciousness and our experience. Evidence of this is to be found in the halakha: “In each and every generation, a person must see himself as though he personally left Egypt.”

However, this principle is not limited only to festivals and holidays. Just as in every generation we must regard ourselves as though we left Egypt, so we learn in the Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1) regarding the fasts and days of mourning that “every generation that does not have the Temple rebuilt in its days is considered as though the destruction took place in its days.” Clearly, then, the four fasts in general, and Tisha Be-Av in particular, are rooted in our living memory, where events remain fresh and alive. The halakha that obligates us to tear our garment upon beholding the ruins of the Temple and of Jerusalem proves this view, for as we know, “any rending [of garments] that is not performed in the flush of grief is not a real rending” (Mo’ed Katan 24a). The living memory that is engraved in our consciousness is what transforms events of the past into “the flush of grief” in the present.

The prophets made an enactment that four fasts are to be observed at a time of persecution. In the view of Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ramban, this “persecution” means a time of affliction in the present, and thus the enactment of the prophets is no different from the declaration of a public fast that is obligatory at a time of trouble. The Rambam, on the other hand, believes that the prophets enacted the fasts following the destruction of the Temple with no connection to affliction in the present. The national memory, stretching over thousands of years and uniting Am Yisrael of all generations, is what elevates the destruction from an historical event to a tangible reality in the consciousness of the Jewish People. It is this consciousness that represents the “time of distress” that entails the four fasts.

(Based on an address to the Rabbinical Council of America in Tamuz 5728 [1968]. First appeared in Hebrew in Daf Kesher 473.)




[1] We might draw a distinction between different types of fasts and specify that historical fasts arise from the sense of mourning over the events of the past, rather than from a reality in which we actually face affliction and distress. See the Ramban’s Torat Ha-Adam concerning mourning over the past, as well as R. Soloveitchik’s Shiurim Le-Zekher Abba Mari concerning public fasts. In any event, in Hilkhot Ta’aniot, the Rambam is quite clear in his assertion that it is distress and affliction that prompt fasting on both the individual level and the public level.

[2] This view is somewhat difficult to accept in light of the fact that there is not the slightest hint in the historical or halakhic literature attesting to the joyful celebration of these dates during the Second Temple period. According to Rashi, the “joy and gladness” are expressed merely as a prohibition against fasting or eulogizing on these days. If we accept this view, then it is not surprising that there is no documentation of the phenomenon.

[3] There are several sources that seem to contradict the view of the Rishonim who maintain that Tisha Be-Av was not observed during the Second Temple period. The beraita cited in Ta’anit 12a reads: “R. Eliezer ben Tzadok said: I am a descendant of Sena’ah of the tribe of Binyamin. Once, Tisha Be-Av fell on a Shabbat, and we postponed it until the day after Shabbat and we fasted but did not complete the fast because it was our festive day.” What does this mean? The “festive day” that R. Eliezar ben R. Tzadok claims as “ours” is the day when his family would offer the wood offering (as recorded in the mishna in Ta’anit 26a). Thus, we are certainly speaking of the period when the Temple still stood, and if this is the case, why would the rest of the community be fasting on Tisha Be-Av? See Tosafot ad loc. and the rather forced solution that they propose. According to the Rambam, on the other hand, this makes perfect sense; in his view, during the Second Temple period, they fasted on Tisha Be-Av. The same conclusion seems to be indicated by the simple meaning of the mishna in Rosh Ha-Shana: “For six new moons, the messengers go out [to announce Rosh Chodesh]: In Nissan, on account of Pesach; in Av, on account of the fast… And when the Temple stood, they used to go out also in Iyar, on account of Pesach Katan” – meaning that even during Temple times the messengers would go out “in Av on account of the fast.”

[4] First, the word “yamim” (days) or “mo’adim” (set times) is more precise than the word “zemanim” (times). Second, in proper Hebrew syntax, the verb “to fast” should precede the dates of the fast. Third, the words “and on the thirteenth of Adar” are “appended” to the end of the sentence in a rather inelegant way.

[5] Support for this explanation can be found in the Rambam’s formulation, “which brought these calamities upon them and upon us” (5:1).