What are the Ingredients of Jewish Fast Days?

    June 2009            
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Fast Days, what for?

By Nachum Mohl

Judaism has many fast days but not all come for the same reason. There are basically three reasons for fast days and they all begin with an 'R' (for easy remembering): Regret (Hebrew: teshuva), Request (Hebrew: bakasha) and Remember (Hebrew: zichronot). While there are these three reasons for fasting, no specific fast is limited to just one reason; rather fasts are composed of a main reason and have also secondary reasons, as will be explained.

Undoubtedly the most well known fast is that of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a fast that is required by the Torah, "…on this day you shall atone for your sins…" Atonement requires regret for the sin that was done. Yom Kippur is also a day of judgment and therefore we also include in the day requests. When the High Priest would go into the holy Temple to offer sacrifices for atonement he would also request rain and the continuation of the reign of the tribe of Judah. We, too, make requests from G-d on this the holiest of days; still, the day is really dedicated to be a fast to atone for sins and hence requires regret. We see from this that although Yom Kippur is a day of regret, yet it has mixed within it requests too.

Another Torah proscribed fast is one that occurs when an enemy comes to make war with Israel. It is a positive commandment to fast and cry out to G-d for his mercy and help. This is obviously a fast whose main tenet is request for G-d's help and mercy. Yet inevitably in fasts like this, mention is made of regret, that we admit that we have sinned reasoning that it is because of our sins that misfortune has come to us. This is similar to the fasts that were decreed in years of drought. The main purpose of the fast is request, but alongside the request is regret.

It must be stressed, and can never be reiterated enough, that the main purpose of a fast is not just refraining from eating and drinking. Forgiveness of sin comes from the heart, that a person feels regret for his actions. The fast accompanies the regret; but with out the regret the fast is close to meaningless. True regret (again Hebrew: teshuva) is the main part of a fast day that comes to atone for sins. Even for a fast that comes to request help from G-d, a good part of the fast includes regret; therefore let us not be fooled into thinking just fasting by refraining from eating and drinking is enough; contemplation on our deeds and a resolve for spiritual improvement are requirement.

The fasts of Tisha B'av (the ninth of the month of Av), the seventeenth of Tamuz, the tenth of Tevet, the fast of Esther (the day before Purim), the fast of Gedalia (the day before Rosh Hashanah) fall into the third category, fasts of remembrances. On these days we fast mainly to remember the terrible tragedies that happened to our ancestors on these days. Yet even though these are fasts of remembrance we include in the prayers of the day petitions (requests) for help for us, and prayers of regret over sins committed.

We see the world of spirituality and physicality as a whole, meaning that there is an interaction between the two. Sin causes spiritual demise and spiritual demise causes physical sorrow. Therefore we use the opportunity of a fast to regain our spiritual cleansing and thereby increase our physical benefit. To fast for the sole purpose of gaining only in the purely physical sense is certainly not a reason to fast. A resolve to become closer to G-d is part of the purpose of all fasts.

Today when Israel and the Jews seem to be successful and growing both in spiritualism and wealth, it might seem like a time that we do not really need to fast. The reality is just the opposite. We are the lowest generation in spiritualism; we have little understanding of it. We are the spiritual midgets who sit on top of the spiritual giants of previous generations. Our ancestors, through their suffering in this long and hard exile have 'earned' credits for us, that we may be blessed with a life of plenty. But let us not deceive ourselves for if we do not take advantage of our G-d given wealth to seek the spiritual, we shall cause our children to wander again in a harsh exile. Therefore, even if we are currently experiencing good fortune, we should not separate from community and the public fasts.

We need to beseech G-d (request) that he grant both us and our children positive spiritual and physical conditions that will enable us to become better people. We who live in a generation of moral debasement and G-dlessness must realize that we are in deed far from G-d and therefore we must return to him (regret for sins). And we must use the public fast days to remember what the wickedness lurks within the hearts of the nations. We, the generation after the horrible holocaust, can never forget that if we do not walk in the way of G-d, He can bring the most terrible cruelties of the nations upon us.

May it be His will that we, the orphaned children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, shall return to our ancient lands, to worship with a whole heart the One G-d and see the final redemption through the leadership of the righteous messiah.


from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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