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The Laws of Fasts - The Status of the Four Fasts Today

Rav David Brofsky
In memory of Yissachar Dov Shmuel bar Yakov Yehuda Illoway and Leah Ruth Illoway bat Natan Naso Jacobs z"l
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Last week, we discussed the purpose and function of the different fast days. We noted that 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. We also traced the historical origins and spiritual message of each fast.


This week, we will discuss the status of these fasts nowadays, and then begin our study of the laws specific to these fasts.


The Status of the 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 FirstTemple during the time of the SecondTemple?  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 SecondTemple 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 SecondTemple; nowadays, all the fasts are obligatory! If so, how is it possible that during the time of the SecondTemple, 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.


Waking up Early to Eat or Drink


As we mentioned above, in distinction from Tisha Be-av, the other three fast days do not begin the night before and include only the prohibitions of eating and drinking. One therefore begins the fast from alot ha-shachar (dawn) and concludes at tzeit ha-kokhavim (when three medium stars can be discerned in the sky). One should consult a reliable "luach" (chart) for these times. 


The Ramban (Torat Ha-adam, Inyan Aveilut Yeshana), however, maintains that, fundamentally, all four fasts are identical, i.e. they begin the night before, and one should observe the additional stringencies (washing, anointing, marital relation, wearing leather shoes) as well. However, since the fasts nowadays are only a "reshut," dependent upon the will of the people, he explains that the people only accepted upon themselves to fast during the day. Nevertheless, the date of the fast begins from the night before, and this may bear halakhic significance, as we shall see.


Some Acharonim (Shelah as cited by the Sha'ar Ha-Tziyun 550:9) suggest that those who are able should observe the entire fast; they should begin fasting the night before and observe the stringencies of a public fast day, except for not wearing leather shoes, which would be perceived as haughty. 


Assuming, however, that one does not begin fasting at sunset, until when may one eat the evening before the fast? The Talmud (Ta'anit 12a) teaches:


The Sages taught: Until when may he eat and drink? Until daybreak. These are the words of Rabbi… And the halakha is like Rabbi… Abaye said: They only said this [about being able to eat in the morning before a fast] when he did not finish [his meal], but if he finished it, he may not eat… Rava said: They only said this when he did not sleep, but if he slept, he may not eat…


The gemara cites a debate between Abaye and Rava. According to Abaye, once one concludes the evening meal, one may no longer eat. According to Rava, only after one falls asleep is one prohibited from eating again. The Rishonim debate whether this sleep refers to going to bed with the intent of waking up the next morning or even one who falls asleep before dinner! In any case, apparently, all agree that once one has had "hesech ha-da'at" from eating, he may no longer eat. Abaye and Rava, and consequently the Rishonim, discuss what type and extent of "hesech ha-da'at" prohibits one from eating. The halakha is in accordance with Rava. 


Some Rishonim explain this halakha based upon what we learned above. Fundamentally, the fast really begins the night before. However, since the people accepted upon themselves to be able to eat the night before, the fast begins once one no longer intends to eat. 


The Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 1:4) cited by the Rosh (Ta'anit 1:14, Tosafot ibid. 12b., Mordechai 626 etc.), adds that if one stipulated before going to sleep that he would wake up and eat, he may do so. 


The Rishonim debate whether one must make a stipulation in order to drink as well. The Mordechai (ibid.), Or Zarua (2:406), Kolbo (71) and others rule leniently, as one generally wakes up thirsty after sleeping and therefore has in mind to wake up and drink. The Rosh (Teshuvot 27:7), however, rules that one must also stipulate intention to drink water upon rising before daybreak. While R. Yosef Karo (564) rules stringently, the Rema rules that one need not stipulate intention to continue drinking. The Mishna Berura writes that one should preferably stipulate intention to continue drinking even upon rising in the middle of the night, but be-diavad, one who ordinarily drinks upon rising may still drink. 


"Tasting" and Brushing Teeth on a Ta'anit


What is considered "eating" or "drinking" on a ta'anit? The Talmud (Berakhot 14a) questions whether one who fasts must abstain only from "eating," or also from all "pleasure" to one's palate.


Ashian, the Tanna of the school of R. Ammi, inquired of R. Ammi: May one who is keeping a [voluntary] fast take a taste? Has he undertaken to abstain from eating and drinking, and this is really not such, or has he undertaken not to have any enjoyment, and this he obtains? He replied: He may taste, and there is no objection. It has been taught similarly: A mere taste does not require a blessing, and one who is keeping a [voluntary] fast may take a taste, and there is no objection. How much may he taste?  R. Ammi and R. Assi used to taste as much as a revi'it.


The Rishonim debate whether this passage refers to a private fast that an individual accepts upon himself or even a public fast day. 


On the one hand, Tosafot (14a s.v. oh dilma) derives from the gemara's language, "has he undertaken," that the passage refers to a private, voluntary fast. In this context the Rishonim discuss whether a "private fast," during which "tasting" is permitted, includes those fasts that are decreed upon the people in response to severe drought or only to a personal fast that an individual accepts upon himself. 


On the other hand, the Rosh (Ta'anit 1:15, in the name of R. Yehuda of Barcelona) and others explain that the Talmud permits tasting on all fast days, with the possible exception of Tisha Be-Av and Yom Kippur. On these days, tasting may violate the prohibition of "washing for pleasure," similar to dipping one's finger in water on Yom Kippur (Ritva, Ta'anit 12a), or it may be forbidden simply because these days are more stringent, as we see from the other "afflictions" observed on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be-Av (Korban Netanel, ibid.). Some (see Rivash 287, Biur Ha-Gra 567) suggest that since the three other minor fast days are dependent upon the community's will, they are considered to be a fast that people "accepted upon themselves," and we are therefore more lenient. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (567:1) rules that one who is fasting may taste up to a revi'it on all fasts except for Tisha Be-Av and Yom Kippur, as long as he expels the liquid from his mouth. In addition, he cites two opinions regarding whether one may taste a small amount each time, not totaling more than a revi'It because at that point he will have "benefited" from the liquid, or whether he may even taste a revi'it all at once, but no more lest he come to swallow, as his mouth can barely hold that quantity of liquid.  


            Interestingly, the Shulchan Arukh (567:3), two paragraphs later, cites the Terumat Ha-Deshen (158), who advises against rinsing out one's mouth on a fast day. The Terumat Ha-Deshen explains that since "tasting," in his opinion, is really only permitted on a private fast day, on communal fasts one should refrain from rinsing out one's mouth. The Magen Avraham (6) points out that a few paragraphs earlier, the Shulchan Arukh permitted tasting on communal fasts and it would therefore stand to reason that he would permit rinsing out one's mouth as well! 


Some Acharonim attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction. The Magen Avraham (6), for example, suggests that the latter statement, which prohibits washing out one's mouth, refers to rinsing with MORE than a revi'it. R. Mordecai Karmi (1749-1825), author of the Ma'amar Mordekhai commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, was so troubled by this contradiction that he argues that R. Yosef Karo must be referring in his later statement to Tisha Be-Av and Yom Kippur, while on an ordinary fast day, rinsing out one's mouth would be perfectly permitted! R. Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef, Moadim, 534) describes any attempt to resolve this problem as "sakanat derakhim," dangerous roads.


The Rema (567:1) adds that it is customary to be stringent and not allow tasting even on the other minor fast days. Seemingly, his ruling is more in line with the Terumat Ha-Deshen cited above.


However, in his earlier commentary to the Tur, the Darchei Moshe (567:2), he cites that the Maharil would wash out is mouth and then lean forward, so that water should not accidentally reach his throat. Apparently, he felt that even though one should not "taste" on the four fast days, one need not be concerned with washing out one's mouth. The Eliya Rabba (567:5) concurs. The Mishna Berura (11) also writes that in cases of discomfort, one may permit washing out one's mouth with water, as long as he is extra careful not to swallow any water; this is true even on Tisha Be-Av! Similarly, the Minchat Yitzchak (4:109) permits one to clean one's month, even with toothpaste, when necessary. Nowadays, it would seem that most people feel great discomfort when unable to brush their teeth in the morning. 


One Who "Forgot" the Fast


In numerous contexts, the following question arises: What if one forgot that a certain food was prohibited, for any host of reasons, and already said the berakha recited before eating the food? On the one hand, the food, for whatever reason, is prohibited, and therefore one certainly does not want to eat it. On the other hand, one may not recite God's name in vain, even in a blessing, and one might therefore wish to eat the food so that the blessing should not be for naught. This question might be asked regarding one who recites a blessing on non-kosher, or questionably kosher food, one who recites the berakha on cheese after eating meat, one who says the blessing on a food which he took a vow not to eat, or, of interest to us, one who recites a berakha on food on a fast day. To answer this question, we must determine both the origin of the prohibition of reciting a berakha le-vatala (a blessing in vain), as well as the level of the prohibition of the food in question, and then assess which concern should prevail. 


The Rishonim debate the origin of the prohibition of reciting a berakha le-vatala. The gemara (Berakhot 33a) teaches, "Whoever says a blessing which is not necessary transgresses the command of 'You shall not take God's name in vain' (Shemot 20:6)." The gemara elsewhere (Temura 4a) also asserts that one who utters God's name in vain violates "and you should fear the Lord your God" (Devarim 6:13). Most Rishonim (Tosafot, Rosh Ha-Shana 33a; Rabbeinu Tam cited by Rosh, Kiddushin 1:49; Chinukh, mitzva 430, etc.) maintain that the gemara should not be taken literally and that the prohibition is mi-derabannan. The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:15), and consequently the Shulchan Arukh (215:4), however, imply that the prohibition may be mi-deorayta


Seemingly, according to the Rambam, one might be inclined to taste a small bit of the food in order not to recite a berakha in vain. According to the Tosafot, however, one might suggest that one should not eat, especially on the four fasts whose origin may be "mi-divrei kabala" (of prophetic origin), and therefore one should rather simply say "barukh shem kavod…" upon concluding the blessing. 


R. Ovadia Yosef (Yabi'a Omer, Yoreh De'ah 2:5:6-8) rules in accordance with the Rambam cited above. He therefore concludes that one should taste and swallow a bit of food in order to avoid the unnecessary blessing, and one may still be considered to be fasting. Alternatively, the Sefer Piskei Teshuvot (568) cites a number of Acharonim, including those who conclude that although one should NOT eat the food, it may be recommended to at least taste the food, without swallowing, thereby avoiding the question of a berakha le-vatalah according to a number of opinions. The Sha'arei Teshuva (568:1) discusses this issue as well.  


One who began the blessing, however, and did not finish it should simply conclude "lamdeini chukekha" (Tehillim 119:12). See Shulchan Arukh 206:6 regarding one who already began to recite an unnecessary berakha


One who completely forgot about the fast and ate, even one who ate so much that he would be unable to recite "aneinu" in the Shemona Esrei, as we will discuss next week, should still continue fasting the rest of the day. Furthermore, one need not make up the fast. The Maharil, however, cited by the Mishna Berura (568:8), instructed one who ate to make up the fast in order to attain atonement. 


Those Who are Exempt from Fasting


On Yom Kippur, all are obligated to fast, unless fasting may endanger one's life (pikuach nefesh). In such a situation, one should preferably eat or drink in small measurements (shiurim). On the minor ta'aniyot, however, certain people are fundamentally exempt from fasting. 


A sick person, for example, even if his illness does not pose any danger to his life (choleh she-ein bo sakanah), as well as an elderly person who is weak and may become sick if he fasts, should not fast (Mishna Berura 554:11, Chayyei Adam 135:2). A sick person does not need to estimate whether or not his condition will become dangerous; as long as he is sick, he is exempt from fasting (Shulchan Arukh 554:4). Furthermore, one who is recovering from a sickness and fears that fasting may cause him to become sick again or, alternatively, one who fears that by fasting one will become sick may eat and drink. For example, one who suffers from diabetes, severe migraine headaches, or kidney stones may eat or drink in order to prevent the onset of the condition. However, even those who must eat on a minor fast day should not indulge on meat and wine, but rather eat and drink only what is necessary for their health. 


One who must continue to take medications on a fast day, such as antibiotics, or one who suffers from a chronic condition but is not presently sick and therefore must fast, should try to swallow his medicines without water. Some suggest that one who is unable to swallow medicines without water should mix a bit of water with a bitter substance and take the medicine with that water (Piskei Teshuvot 554:8). Swallowing a pill with a bit of mouthwash should also suffice. R. Dr. Abraham S. Abraham, in his work on halakha and medicine, Nishmat Avraham (5:554:1), cites R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l and R. Yehoshua Neuwirth, who permit one who is unable to swallow medicines with water to drink a bit of water with them. 


The Acharonim discuss whether one who must eat or drink on the minor fast days should eat or drink in small measurements (shiurim), as they should on Yom Kippur. The Be'ur Halakha (554:6, citing the Pitchei Olam), the Marcheshet (1:14), and others writes that one should eat or drink in shiurim. The Avnei Nezer (54), Arukh Ha-Shulchan (554:7), Shevet Ha-Levi (4:56), Tzitz Eliezer (10:25:16), and others disagree, and rule that one need not eat or drink in shiurim on one of the minor fasts. 


The Nishmat Avraham (4:554:1), however, cites in the name of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that a healthy person who eats or drinks in order to avoid becoming sick should eat or drink in shiurim. Furthermore, a sick person who wishes to receive an aliya on the fast day should eat or drink in shiurim


Similarly, some suggest that one who is sick should preferably delay eating or drinking in order to fast for a few hours. Once again, the custom is not in accordance with this view.


Pregnant and nursing women are obligated to fast on Tisha Be-Av, as we will discuss. However, on the three other minor fasts, and certainly on Ta'anit Esther, they are exempt from fasting (Shulchan Arukh 554:5, 550:1). The Rema records that, in Ashkenazic communities, pregnant women customarily fasted. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (550:1) writes that pregnant women are permitted to fast, although if they are in great discomfort they may eat, even if the fast poses no danger to the mother or the fetus. Elsewhere (554:7), he records that they are accustomed to fast, unless they are "weak and close to becoming sick."  It is customary nowadays for pregnant and nursing women not to fast on these days. 


The Acharonim discuss whether we consider a woman pregnant, in this context, from the time at which the pregnancy is noticeable, usually around three months into the pregnancy, from forty days since conception, or, if the woman feels weak, even earlier. 


While a "nursing mother" would seem to refer to one who is actually nursing, some Acharonim, such as R. Shalom Mordechai Schwadron (1835-1911), in his Da'at Torah (550), and R. Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Da'at 1:35) exempt women from fasting during the entire 24 months after birth, identified by the Talmud (Nida 9a) as the time necessary for a women to fully recover from birth. 


Interestingly, some authorities (see Piskei Teshuvot 550:1) sought to exempt all women during their child-bearing years from fasting on the three minor fasts, as well as Ta'anit Esther. This ruling seems difficult to rely upon under normal circumstances.


Must children abstain from eating on the minor fast days? Regarding Yom Kippur, as we shall see, the Talmud (Yoma 82) discusses the age at which a child should begin to fast, and for how long.  The Mishna Berura (550:5) writes that while children are not obligated to fast, even for a few hours, they should be taught to eat only simple foods necessary to maintain their health. He repeats that children are exempt from fasting in his Be'ur Halakha (550:1). Rabbi Menachem Azariah da Fano (1548-1620), known as the Rema Mi-Fano (111), praises the custom to train children not to eat for a few hours on the minor fasts. 


Next week we will continue our study of the laws of the fast days.

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