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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The 17th of Tamuz
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The Minor Fasts and Their Laws

Did Jews fast over the destruction of the First Temple when the Second Temple stood? Must pregnant and nursing women abstain from eating and drinking on minor fasts? Rabbi Eliezer Melamed addresses these and other important questions.
Dedicated to the memory of
Hana Bat Haim
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1. The Status of Fast Days in Our Time
2. Regarding Minor Fast Days
3. The Parameters of the Minor Fasts
4. The Laws of the Minor Fasts
5. The Ill Are Exempt of Fasting
6. Pregnant and Nursing Women
7. Children and Newlyweds
8. "Aneinu"

1. The Status of Fast Days in Our Time
When, after the destruction of the First Temple, the Prophets introduced four commemorative fast days, they ruled that the nature of the observance of these days be similar to that of Yom Kippur, for, as a rule, the sages modeled their ordinances upon preexisting Torah commandments. Therefore, because the Day of Atonement lasts from nightfall to nightfall, the sages legislated that these four fasts be observed likewise. In addition, just as on Yom Kippur there are five prohibited activities (eating or drinking, wearing leather shoes, washing, anointing oneself with oil, and engaging in sexual relations), these same activities were forbidden on the four fasts. This practice was followed throughout the seventy years of Babylonian exile.

When Jews returned from Babylon in order to rebuild the Temple, the four fasts were discontinued and instead became days of joy and gladness, as it is written (Zechariah 8:19): "And the word of the Lord of hosts came to me saying, thus says the Lord of hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah; therefore love the truth and peace."

When, eventually, the Second Temple was destroyed, these fasts were once again observed, and this was the practice that was followed throughout all of the difficult years after the destruction of the Second Temple, years which saw the Bar Kochba uprising, and the destruction of Beitar and Judah. We see, then, that the observance of these fasts is dependent upon our national situation. During periods of evil decrees and religious persecution observing these fasts is obligatory; when, however, the Holy Temple is standing, the days of mourning become days of joy and gladness.

In an intermediate state, where, on the one hand, the Temple does not stand but, on the other, there are no difficult decrees upon us - as was the case in the time of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi - the observation of the fasts depends on the will of the people: If they so desire, they may fast; if not, they need not fast. But, with regard to the Ninth of Av, because of its many hardships, fasting is obligatory even in an intermediate state, and it is not left up to the people to choose (Rosh HaShannah 18b).

In practice, even in an intermediate state the people of Israel abstain from food and drink on all of these fast days. Therefore, today, all Jews are obligated to observe them, and this will continue to hold true until the restoration of the Temple, may it come speedily in our day. At that time, these fast days will be transformed into days of joy and gladness.

2. Regarding Minor Fast Days
Because the general status of fast days in our time is dependent upon the will of the Jewish people, the various laws of these days also depend on the Jewish people. When the Jewish people accepted upon themselves to fast on the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the Third of Tishrei, and the Tenth of Tevet, they did not take upon themselves to observe them in all of their original stringencies, like Yom Kippur. This is the principle difference between the three minor fasts and the Ninth of Av: the nature of Tisha B’Av was kept in accordance with the original ordinance. Hence, this fast lasts from nightfall to nightfall, and its prohibited activities include washing, anointing oneself with oil, wearing leather shoes, and sexual intercourse - like on Yom Kippur. The reason for this, as we have noted, is that this date commemorates numerous tragedies: both First and Second Temples were destroyed thereupon; Beitar, too, was destroyed and plowed over. For this reason, even in tranquil times we are obligated to observe a complete, stringent fast on the Ninth of Av.

The status, though, of the other fasts enacted as a result of the destruction of the Temple is more lenient. These fasts commence at daybreak, and though they include a prohibition against eating and drinking, one need not avoid bathing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and sexual intercourse.

Another difference is that on Tisha B’Av pregnant and nursing women - so long as they are not ill - are enjoined to fast. On the three minor fasts, though, even when they are not sick, they are exempted from fasting. The reason for this is that, from the outset, when the Jewish people took upon themselves to uphold this fast, they demonstrated leniency toward pregnant and nursing women (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 550:1-2).

3. The Parameters of the Minor Fasts
The minor fasts last from dawn ("Alote HaShachar") until the time when the stars come out. Dawn is understood as the moment when the first signs of sunlight become visible in the eastern sky. This is about seventy-two minutes before the sun rises.

The fast lasts until the stars come out, i.e., when three medium-sized stars are discernable in the sky, for this sign indicates that night has arrived. Even if, as sometimes happens, the Tenth of Tevet occurs on a Friday, one must continue fasting until the stars come out, despite the fact that the fast carries over into the Sabbath (Shulchan Arukh 249:4).

A person who is on flight from the United States to Israel will experience a shortened fast; because he flies in the direction of the earth’s rotation, every hour of flight cuts down his fast by more than half an hour. If, on the other hand, one flies from Israel to the United States, his fast is lengthened, for he flies against the earth’s rotation, and every hour of flight adds more than half an hour to his fast. The rule is that the fast lasts from dawn until nightfall in the place where the person fasting is located (cf. Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:96).

And even though the fast begins from dawn, sometimes the prohibition against eating begins from the previous evening. For example, if, before the arrival of dawn, a person decides not to eat any more until the fast begins, he is seen as having accepted the fast upon himself, and it is now forbidden for him to eat. Therefore, if a person goes to bed in anticipation of the fast and then rises before dawn, it is forbidden for him to eat, for he diverted his thoughts from eating. However, if, before he went to bed, he made a mental condition that if he should rise before dawn he would eat something, then, when he does rise before dawn, it is permissible for him to eat, for he never accepted upon himself the fast.

All of the above applies to food, but concerning drink authorities are divided. According to "Rema," because many people are accustomed to drinking water after waking, even if one made no clear condition he is considered as if he had intended to drink when waking before dawn. According to the Shulchan Arukh, though, there is no difference between drinking and eating: One who made no mental condition to drink water upon waking before dawn is prohibited from doing so (Shulchan Arukh 564:1). In practice, one who wishes to drink water upon waking before starting to fast must make a mental condition beforehand. However, if for some reason one did not make such a condition, and he wakes up before dawn thirsty, he is permitted to drink (cf. Mishna Berura 564:6; Kaf HaChaim 10).

4. The Laws of the Minor Fasts
Ideally, one should not rinse out one’s mouth with water because there is a possibility that in the process some drops of water will be swallowed, but in order to eliminate bad breath or personal discomfort this is permissible. This is because one who does this does not actually intend to drink, but merely intends to wash out his mouth. Therefore, washing out the mouth on minor fasts is permissible for whoever will experience discomfort, but one should be very careful not to swallow any water. It is also permissible for one who will otherwise experience great discomfort to use toothpaste in order to clean out his mouth and eliminate bad breath.

On the Ninth of Av, which is a more major fast and on which even washing is forbidden, one must be more stringent in this regard. Therefore, unless it is not completely necessary, a person may not rinse out his mouth. However, a person who will experience extreme discomfort if he does not rinse out his mouth can, even on Tisha B’Av, rinse out his mouth and brush his teeth without toothpaste. On Yom Kippur, though, which is of biblical origin, there is no room whatsoever for leniency.

Question: Must one who inadvertently ate or drank on a fast day continue to fast?
Answer: Yes. The reason is that these days were established as fast days because of the tragedies which befell the Jewish people thereupon. Therefore, even if a person’s eating or drinking caused him to break the fast, and he will therefore not be able to recite the "Aneinu" prayer, the prohibition against eating and drinking remains intact. After all, violating one transgression does not make it permissible to violate another (Shulchan Arukh 568:1). Yet, there is no need to perform an additional fast to compensate for the broken one, for the obligation to fast is in effect only on the particular day instituted by the sages. And while it is true that there have been those who practiced taking upon themselves an additional fast in order to atone for their having eaten, this is not obligatory (Mishna Berura 564:8). As a rule, it is better to for one who wishes to repent to do more charity and study more Torah study.

In the case of one who forgot that he was fasting and, intending to drink water, pronounced the blessing, "Shehakol Nihye Bidvaro," and then remembered the fast, there are differing opinions among the authorities as to whether or not he should drink some of the water. Some say that because the prohibition against pronouncing a blessing in vain originates from the Torah, while the prohibition against drinking on a fast day is only rabbinic, it is best to drink some of the water. By doing this, he saves himself from pronouncing a blessing in vain. Others say that because most earlier authorities ("Rishonim") hold that the prohibition against blessing in vain is in fact rabbinic, it is better that he not drink at all. What’s more, one should not attempt to rectify one transgression by performing another. This is the opinion of most authorities.

5. The Ill Are Exempt of Fasting
When the Prophets and sages instituted these fasts they did so with healthy people in mind. They did not legislate these fasts for sick people. In this sense, Yom Kippur is different than other fasts. On Yom Kippur, even the sick are obligated to fast because it is of biblical origin, and therefore only if the illness is so serious that fasting will be life endangering is he exempt from fasting - for preserving life takes precedence over Torah commandments. But when the sickness is not dangerous, on Yom Kippur one must fast and on other fasts instituted by the sages one is exempt.

As a rule, one whose suffering and weakness prevent him from going about his life as usual and force him to lie in bed is considered sick from the point of view of Jewish law. For example, a person who has the flu, angina (choking inflammation), or a high temperature, is exempt from fasting.

While fasting, almost everybody experiences a head-ache and weakness, and it is easier for one to lie down in bed than to carry on as usual. Sometimes the suffering experienced during a fast is greater than that felt by one who is sick with the flu. All the same, these feelings are not considered "sickness" in a halakhic sense; they are the natural results of fasting which are bound to disappear a number of hours after the fast. Therefore, one who is sick to the point that he must lie in bed as a result of his sickness is exempt from fasting, but one who suffers as a result of the fast itself is not. One who suffers from fasting to the point where he is no longer merely "afflicted" in the normal sense of one who fasts but has entered the realm of one who is seriously ill, is exempt from fasting.

A weak or very old person who knows that he will be discomforted by the fast and fears that the fast will cause him to lose his strength and become sick is exempt from fasting. The same goes for a person who recovered from sickness and fears that fasting will cause his sickness to return (Kaf HaChaim 550:6; 554:31).

Any person who knows that if he fasts he is bound to become sick is exempt from fasting. For example, a person who suffers from an active ulcer or severe migraine is exempt because the fast will quite likely awaken the malady. A diabetic who takes insulin is exempt from fasting. Diabetics are even sometimes exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur. Those who suffer from kidney-stones and must therefore drink much water are exempt from fasting. A person with high blood pressure is not considered "ill" and is permitted to fast unless instructed otherwise by a doctor. Any time a question arises, one must ask a Rabbi or a Torah-observant doctor.

Torah authorities teach that one who is permitted to eat on a fast day should at any rate refrain from partaking in delicacies and eat only that which is necessary. Such a person, however, is permitted to eat a full meal and drink as much as he desires, and there is no need for him to eat small portions at set intervals as is the rule on Yom Kippur. Only on Yom Kippur, because it is biblically mandated and even the sick are obligated in its fulfillment, must one who is permitted to eat consume small portions of food at intervals in order to (technically) avoid breaking the fast. On rabbinically-ordained fasts, the ill are not obligated to fast, and therefore there is no need for them to eat in the manner indicated.

It is also important to point out that one who is chronically ill or must take medicine on a regular basis, viz., one who is on antibiotics, must continue taking medicine on fast days. If possible, such a person should take the medicine without drinking water. One who needs to drink water in order to swallow the medicine should mix something with the water in order to cause it to become bitter, thus making the water "unfit for drinking." This is the kind of water that should be used when taking medicine on a fast day.

6. Pregnant and Nursing Women
On Tisha B’Av pregnant and nursing women are also obligated to fast. Only the ill are exempt from fasting on the Ninth of Av; pregnant and nursing woman are considered healthy so long as they experience no unusual weakness. On minor fasts, though, pregnant and nursing women are exempt. The reason for this is as follows: Truly speaking, the Prophets instituted that these fast days be observed only in times of hardship. Today, however, we make a practice of observing these fasts even in the absence of harsh decrees, for the Jewish people have accepted this practice upon themselves until the construction of the Holy Temple. But, from the very outset, the practice has been that pregnant and nursing women do not fast because the fast is more difficult for them than other healthy people.

In the past, many pregnant and nursing Ashkenazic women were stringent upon themselves and observed even the minor fasts. It could be that the reason for this was that the Jews of Europe suffered from difficult decrees. At any rate, the accepted practice today, even among Ashkenazic women, is for pregnant and nursing women to refrain from observing the minor fasts. And even a woman who wishes to be stringent and to observe the fast - if she experiences difficulty during her fast, or if the fast causes her to have less milk, thus causing discomfort to the baby, it is best that she refrain from fasting.

From the moment that the woman begins to feel the weakness of pregnancy she is exempt from fasting.

A woman is considered a "nursing mother" so long as she nurses her child. Even if the child has begun receiving regular food, so long as the mother continues to nurse, she is exempt from fasting. There are authorities who take a lenient stance and say that any woman that has given birth need not fast for twenty-four months after birth, for the exemption is not dependent upon the nursing but upon the difficulty of birth, the recovery from which takes twenty-four months. In practice, most authorities take a more stringent stance and say that any woman who has stopped nursing must fast even on the minor fast days, and this is the accepted practice. If, though, a woman wants to be lenient, there are a number of important authorities that she can rely upon.

7. Children and Newlyweds
Children who have not yet reached the age at which they are responsible for their Torah obligations (a boy at age thirteen; a girl at age twelve) are exempt from observing those fasts instituted by the sages. Parents need not even educate them to fast for a number of hours. Only regarding Yom Kippur, which originates from the Torah, did the sages rule that children must be educated to fast before reaching the relevant ages, despite the discomfort involved. Regarding fasts enacted by the sages, the rabbis did not rule that children must fast before the age of commandment observance. The custom is to feed them simple foods in order to educate them to mourn together with the rest of the community (Mishna Berura 550:5). Healthy, older children who decide on their own that they wish to fast until noon should be commended, but they should not fast the entire day (Rama MiPano 111; cf. Kaf HaChaim 554:23).

Even though a newly-married couple is commanded to be joyful during the seven days after their wedding and it is therefore forbidden for them to observe a personal fast during this period, they must participate in public fast days. The reason for this is that the power of the community is greater than that of the individual, and therefore communal mourning takes precedence over individual joy. In addition, the bride and groom are bound by a special commandment to remember the Temple’s destruction. It is thus written (Psalms 137:5-6): "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem..If I set not Jerusalem above my greatest joy" (Ritba).

The same rule applies to the central figures in a "Brit Mila" ceremony - i.e., the father, the "godfather" ("Sandak") and the ritual circumcisor, must fast. This is also true in the case of a "Pidyon HaBen" ("Redemption of the Firstborn Boy") ceremony; if it falls on a public fast day, it is forbidden for the father to eat.

If, though, one of these fast days falls on a Sabbath, and, as a result, the fast is postponed to Sunday, a more lenient line is followed, and all of the above celebrants are permitted, after the noontime prayers, to hold a festive meal. In practice, though, the accepted custom is to hold the event in the late afternoon and then to eat the festive meal in the evening after the stars have come out.

8. "Aneinu"
The sages instituted the addition of a special blessing to the Amida prayer on fast days - "Aneinu." But only the leader of the prayer service, when praying the repetition of the morning and afternoon prayers, pronounces it in the form of a separate blessing (between the "Goel Yisrael" and "Refaeinu" prayers). All of this depends on there being at least six people in the prayer congregation who are fasting.

An individual, however, does not add a separate blessing to his prayer; he inserts "Aneinu" into the "Shomea Tefilla" blessing (Taanit 13b). There are different customs regarding in which prayer service an individual adds the "Aneinu." Some say that it should be added in all three prayer services of the fast day - even in the evening, before one actually begins fasting, for the day as a whole is referred to as a fast day. This is the custom of Yemenite Jews. Sephardic Jews follow the custom of reciting "Aneinu" while fasting. Therefore, on the minor fasts, an individual inserts "Aneinu" during the morning and afternoon prayers; on the Ninth of Av, during the evening prayer as well (Rabbi Z. Girondi, Kaf HaChaim 565, s.v."Tov"). Ashkenazic Jews recite Aneinu during the afternoon prayers only. The reason for this is that there exists a possibility that a person might become weak and not succeed in completing the fast, and if this happens then his having referred to this as the "day of our fast" would be a lie. Therefore "Aneinu" is recited by the individual in the afternoon prayer alone, for it is safe to assume that one who has come this far will succeed in completing the fast (Rema 565:3, in accordance with the Geonim and Rashi).

One who ate or drank during the fast: if it was less than "Kezayit" (an olive’s bulk) of food, or "Kimlo Logmav" (a cheekful) of liquid that was consumed, "Aneinu" may be recited, for, technically, this is not seen as a break in the fast. If more than this amount was eaten, because the fast was broken, one may not recite "Aneinu."

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The biblical verses in the above article were taken from The Jerusalem Bible (Koren) and the JPS Holy Scriptures.

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