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Chapter 7: The Minor Fasts

2. The Laws of the Minor Fasts

since we no longer suffer from harsh decrees and religious persecution, and, on the other hand, the Holy Temple is still in ruins, the status of the minor fasts currently depends on the will of the Jewish people.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Cheshvan 12 5782

As we have learned, since we no longer suffer from harsh decrees and religious persecution, and, on the other hand, the Holy Temple is still in ruins, the status of the minor fasts currently depends on the will of the Jewish people. Just as the very obligation to fast depends on Israel’s desire, so do the other laws of the fast. And when the Jews accepted upon themselves to fast during these “intermediate” periods, they did not agree to treat these fasts as strictly as they treat Yom Kippur. This is the fundamental difference between the three minor fasts and Tisha Be-Av. Because so many hardships befell us on the ninth of Av, we are obligated to fast on that day even during an intermediate period, and its laws remain as originally established. This means that the fast lasts for an entire 24-hour day and includes prohibitions on bathing, applying ointments, wearing shoes, and engaging in sexual relations, just like on Yom Kippur.

However, the laws of the other fasts that were instituted as a result of the destruction of the Temple are more lenient. We fast only during the daytime and we are only prohibited from eating and drinking; we need not refrain from bathing, anointing ourselves, wearing shoes, or engaging in sexual relations.

Another difference is that pregnant and nursing women must fast on Tisha Be-Av. Only illness renders one exempt. On the three minor fasts, however, even pregnant and nursing women who are not ill are exempt from fasting, because when the Jewish people originally accepted upon themselves to fast on these days, they were lenient with regard to pregnant and nursing women, exempting them from fasting (sa 550:1-2).[2]

Preferably, one should be stringent and refrain from bathing in hot water during a minor fast, but one may bathe in lukewarm water for purposes of cleanliness. It is also inappropriate to cut one’s hair, listen to joyous music, or shop for things that make one happy during the fast.[3]

[2] During periods of harsh decrees, must we treat all the fast days like Tisha Be-Av? It would seem that, according to the Gemara (rh 18b, quoted above), during periods of harsh decrees, like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmelnytsky Uprising, and the Holocaust, the Jews were obligated to fast on the three minor fasts as they did on Tisha Be-Av. However, as far as we know, no Rishonim mention that this was practiced. Even Ramban, who writes, in Torat Ha-adam (p. 243, Chavel edition), that the Jews accepted all the fasts upon themselves in practice, adding, “All the more so in our generation, for due to our sins, Israel’s hardships have proliferated, and there is no peace; therefore, everyone must fast,” nevertheless did not write that one needs to fast from the night before. On the contrary, he concludes, “Go see what the people do.” Apparently, he means to say that it is customary to treat them like minor fasts. This is the ruling in sa 550:2. Perhaps the reason for this is that after the harsh decrees that followed the destruction of the Second Temple ceased, the obligation to fast on the three minor fasts were nullified, and the obligation became dependent on the nation’s will. The people only accepted upon themselves to fast during the day, and since this is all that they accepted, the original institution remained null. Thus, even if there are new decrees, the fast applies only during the daytime. The Vilna Gaon offers a similar explanation in his commentary on Shulĥan Arukh, saying that R. Yehuda Ha-nasi eliminated the more stringent elements of the three fasts when he saw that Israel’s hardships were eased.

However, some maintain that we must observe full-day fasts whenever there is a period of harsh decrees and religious persecution. This seems to be the simple understanding of the matter as explained by Ramban and the other poskim. That is, whenever there are harsh decrees, the obligation to fast returns to its original status, and the three minor fasts take on the laws of Tisha Be-Av. Tashbetz 2:271 concurs, but states that if the persecution affects only part of the Jewish people, only those affected must fast from the night before. Sometimes, though, even they are exempt from the stricter fast, since the persecution itself prevents them from fasting.

Shlah, Masekhet Ta’anit, Ner Mitzva §6 states that it would have been appropriate to be stringent and treat all three minor fasts like Tisha Be-Av, but we do not impose an enactment upon the people unless they can bear it. Therefore, the Sages ruled stringently only with regard to Tisha Be-Av. Sefer Ha-pardes (a work attributed to Rashi) indicates that an individual who feels that he can tolerate it should fast from nightfall on all the fasts. He concludes that it is good to be stringent only in the area of eating, while it is unnecessary to observe the other afflictive prohibitions; and if one wishes to be stringent, he should do so in private, to avoid religious exhibitionism (yuhara). ma and many other Aĥaronim mention this ruling. Apparently, they understood that since evil decrees existed in their times, it was appropriate to be stringent on the three minor fasts, but the masses did not conduct themselves in this manner. Therefore, individuals who are capable of being stringent should do so. The reason Sefer Ha-pardes ruled leniently regarding the other restrictions is that their status is more lenient from the start. After all, many poskim maintain that these restrictions are not forbidden by Torah law even on Yom Kippur. ma and mb 550:6 state that the only area in which one should not be stringent is wearing shoes, because it would look ridiculous to walk around without shoes when everyone else is wearing shoes. This implies that it is good to be stringent about washing, anointing oneself, and the like. I believe that their reasoning is based on the fact that there were so many harsh decrees, as I wrote above; sht ad loc. 9 concurs.

In any event, nowadays, since the establishment of the State of Israel, there seems to be no reason whatsoever to be stringent. We are obligated to fast regardless of the nation’s will only when there are harsh decrees, according to Ramban, or religious persecutions, according to Tashbetz and Tur. But if there are no such torments, all agree that there is no obligation to fast in the manner of Tisha Be-Av on the three minor fasts. Even if we interpret Shlah to mean that the Jewish people would have accepted the three minor fasts as full-day fasts if they were able to do so even during an intermediate period, which depends on Israel’s will, and therefore individuals should fast the entire day, there is still no room whatsoever to be stringent in modern-day Israel, where – thank God – we are not even subservient to the nations of the world. After all, Rashi maintains that the fasts are completely nullified when we are free from the yoke of the nations. While most Rishonim disagree with Rashi (see n. 1 above), if Rashi considers a situation joyous, it cannot possibly be a day on which fasting is completely obligatory. Therefore, there is no room to be stringent by fasting from the night before and observing the other restrictions on the three minor fasts as we do on Tisha Be-Av.

[3] sa 550:2 rules that one may bathe on the minor fasts. Most poskim agree, and the halakha follows their opinion. Tosafot (Ta’anit 13a, s.v. “ve-khol”) quotes Raavya as saying that one may even bathe in hot water, adding that his father R. Yoel prohibits the use of hot water. Several other Rishonim and Aĥaronim mention this stringency. Two possible explanations can be given for this stringency. 1) The Sages introduced it at a time of harsh decrees; if so, there is no room to adopt it nowadays, as explained in the previous note. 2) It was enacted in order to ensure that the three minor fasts are not more lenient than the Nine Days, on which we do not bathe due to our mourning over the destruction of the Temple. This reason is mentioned in bhl 551:2, s.v. “me-Rosh Ĥodesh” and sht 550:8 in the name of Eliya Rabba, Ateret Zahav, and Pri Megadim. One who wishes to be stringent in this matter should observe all the customs of the Nine Days, which include not listening to joyous music, not cutting one’s hair, and not reciting She-heĥeyanu if possible, le-khtatĥila (see below 8:7; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 551:209). There is no custom to refrain from doing laundry (perhaps because it is a custom of mourning that is only meaningful if it is observed for an extended period of time and it has no significance if it is observed for just one day). It is appropriate to avoid large celebrations like dances, even on the night of a fast. Regarding weddings, however, there are varying opinions. Since weddings involve the fulfillment of a mitzva, they may be permitted on the night of a fast. Nonetheless, on the night of 17 Tamuz, one should follow the more stringent opinion, because the Three Weeks begin then and it is not fortuitous to hold such events during that period (below ch. 8 n. 1). Some authorities prohibit washing even in cold water on the minor fasts. In practice, however, it seems that even one who wants to be stringent in general may be lenient and wash in lukewarm water, as one may be lenient on this issue even during the Nine Days (see below 8:19). It is a mitzva to bathe in hot water in honor of Shabbat (sa 260:1); therefore, if one of the minor fasts falls out on a Friday, one should bathe in hot water. 

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