By Zev Solomon
The purpose of fast days can be divided into three broad categories: Regret, Request and Remembrance. Each fast day has indeed all three of these three ingredients, but one of the three is generally the prominent feature and the other two are present, albeit in a minor role.
Of all the fast days that we Jews observe, only one is clearly mandated from the Torah and that is Yom Kippur. The main aspect of Yom Kippur is that of Regret (Hebrew: t'shuva) for sins that have been committed, as it is written, "On this day you shall be atoned from your sins
" Yom Kippur is also a day of judgment and we request from G-d that he grant us a good year and that he remember the good deeds of our ancestors.
Another type of fast is one that that comes during times of distress and danger as when a city is surrounded by enemies who desire to conquer it or perhaps a person suffers grave illness or there is a natural catastrophe such as a drought. The Rambam tells us that it is a mitzvah from the Torah to fast and call out to G-d that He save us from catastrophe. Here the main point is the request for G-d's help, yet since no catastrophe can happen to us unless there is a reason, we also express our regret from our sins and ask G-d to remember us for good.
The most common fasts that we are familiar with are the fasts that come to remember and commemorate the destruction of the Temple. These are the four fasts, the seventeenth of Tamuz, the Ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av), the Tenth of Teveth, and the T'zom Gedalia (which comes on the third of Tishre). These fast are Rabbinic in origin and come to make us remember the tragedies that befell our nation. They are like mourning for the destroyed Temple. In addition, we utilize these days as a show of regret for sins committed and as a request that the Temple be rebuilt quickly and speedily together with the ingathering of the exiles.
The Fast of Esther is another fast that is basically for remembrance. We remember the attempted destruction of the Jews by the evil Haman, but also we exploit the occasion of the fast to repent and request from G-d that he do good to us, His children.
There are lesser fast days, such as BeHaBub which is an acronym for Beit Hey Beit the second day of the week, the fifth day of the week and the following second day of the week. This is a fast that comes on the heels of Passover and Succoth, and begins on the month following the holidays on the first Monday in the new month. It is practiced by special individuals who feel that perhaps there was too much frivolous behavior during the Holidays. This fast is a means of atonement for any possible sins that may have been committed.
Another similar fast is Shovevim Tet, which is an acronym for the Torah portions of Shemot, Vi'erah, Bo, V'yeshlach, Yitro, Mishpatim, Trumah and Tetzaveh. It is the custom of pious men to fast on the Thursdays of the weeks when the above Torah portions are read. These are basically in the category of fasts of repentance for sins of the public, yet those who fast beseech G-d to aid those in need.
Another fast that is traditional for the individual is that of the Chatan and Chalah, the bride and groom, on the day of his wedding. These are traditional fasts for forgiveness of any sins which they might have committed in order that they may begin a new life together with no sin obscuring the good that awaits them. It is also customary to give either the Chatan or Chalah a special request that they may say on this their special day.
Still another type of individual fast day is that of a person who has sinned and wants to achieve atonement. It was the custom of many in past generations who had taken sin very seriously. They did not just fast, but afflicted themselves to increase the suffering. The various numbers of fasts for the different types of sins are listed in books on Mussar, ethical teachings. Today adding afflictions to personal fasts is extremely rare since our generation is one that looks for pleasures, not one that looks for suffering.
In addition, a person can vow a fast. If he/she is in personal difficulties in which fasting at that time is impossible, such as one who is running from an enemy, he may vow to fast if he is saved from this enemy. The vow is acceptable before G-d as if he fasted; however, he must be particular to fulfill the vow.
Fasting is used to reverse a heavenly decree such as a dream which is perceived as a bad omen from heaven. In this case a ta'anit cholem, a fast to prevent an evil decree from heaven is done. This can even be on the Shabbat; however, if one fasts on the Shabbat a ta'anit cholem then he must fast another fast as repentance for fasting on the Shabbat, a day of joy and pleasure.
The purpose of fasts is not merely to deprive oneself of food, but to reflect upon the reasons for the fasts, since nothing happens in this world by chance. Everything that happens only comes because G-d actively permits it to happen. Therefore if we experience distressful situations, we must utilize them to get closer to G-d.
from the July 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine