1. The Purpose of Fast Days
2. The Fasts
3. The Tenth of Tevet 4. Idolatry in Our Own Day
5. Eating and Drinking Before Dawn (Amud HaShachar)
6. Reciting Aneinu 7. The Priestly Blessing
8. Those Exempt from Fasting The Purpose of Fast Days
Rambam explains that the main purpose of fast days is to awaken our hearts so that we recall the events which led to the institution of these days (Hilkhot Taaniyot 5:1):
"There are days on which the entire people of Israel fasts because of the tribulations which occurred thereon, in order to stir the hearts and clear the path to repentance. This serves as a reminder of our evil ways and of the behavior of our forefathers which was like our behavior now, such that it brought these tribulations upon them and us. Recalling these matters causes us to return to the path of good and to improve our ways, as it is written, 'And they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, etc.' (Leviticus 26:40)."
And in 5:5 he writes, "And the entire people of Israel is accustomed to fast on these occasions."
Fast days are a time for self-examination, for each of us on a personal level. It is a time to realize that our transgressions and the transgressions of our forefathers brought about these tribulations. This causes a person to improve his ways and to repent wholeheartedly. And even the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 58:4) says, "A day for a man to afflict his soul, is it to bow down his head as a bulrush?"
Therefore, it is fitting to read the Book of Psalms or books of Mussar (ethics) on public fast days, for such study softens the heart and awakens us to repentance. It is also advisable to learn the laws of repentance, for man has a natural tendency to judge himself favorably, but when he studies the laws of repentance he will see just how many transgressions he is guilty of and he will be made aware of his shortcomings and will repent.
One should not see fast days as an opportunity to rest or to take field trips. One should even refrain from taking the opportunity to perform permissible acts such as showering or cutting one's hair. And if a person spends the fast indifferently and does not give any consideration to the events which caused the institution of the day, and does not repent, he has not properly fulfilled his obligation. The Fasts
Rambam continues (ibid. 2):
"And these are [the days]: the Third of Tishrei (the day on which Gedaliah ben Achikam was killed and the final ember of Israel was extinguished, causing the onset of the exile); the Tenth of Tevet (the day on which the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar the Wicked, came upon Jerusalem and placed it under siege and distress); the Seventeenth of Tammuz (five events took place thereupon: the Tablets of the Covenant were broken, the daily offering was discontinued in the First Temple, the walls of the Second Temple were breached, Apostomus the Wicked burned the Torah and erected an idol in the Temple)." The Tenth of Tevet
Rambam explains that the destruction of the second Temple is considered more severe than that of the first. Yet, if this is the case, why do we commemorate the Tenth of Tevet which relates to the First Temple?
Both Lechem Mishneh and Magid Mishneh address this question at length. Tashbatz points out that in the verse from which we derive our fasts - "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 . . . " (Ezekiel 8:19) - no explicit dates are mentioned. That is, it is not written "the Ninth of Av," or "the Seventeenth of Tammuz," or "the Tenth of Tevet," and while the sages have the power to change dates within these months, they are unable to change the months themselves. Therefore we continue to commemorate the siege of the First Temple on the Tenth of Tevet.
The King of Babylonia placed Jerusalem under siege from the Tenth of Tevet until the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and this afforded an opportunity to repent. However, the people did not repent. In fact, Midrash Eikha tells us that the people wanted to adjure the angels that the Temple not be destroyed. What did the Almighty do? He changed the names and roles of the angels. In other words, the evil inclination very great at that time. Idolatry in Our Own Day
The Talmud relates that the sages deliberated over the question of whether or not King Menashe would have a portion in the World to Come. One of the sages said that he would not. Menashe came to him in a dream and said, "Who told you that I have no portion in the World to Come?" Then Menashe asked him a question: "What part of the bread is one supposed to cut?" The sage did not know the answer. So Menashe answered, "In the place where it is well baked." Because Menashe taught him this law the sage said, "tomorrow in the study hall I will expound this law and I will announce that it was taught by 'our colleague Menashe.'" Menashe responded, "Am I your colleague?" The sage asked, "How could you worship idolatry?" Menashe said, "If you had lived at my time you would have grabbed hold of my robe and run after me [to practice idolatry]." This was the state of things until Ezra the Scribe came and did away completely with idolatry (see Sanhedrin 101-2).
In our generation, too, the evil inclination presses us to practice idolatry, i.e., to be proud and greedy. A person who seeks out honor or riches is as if blind. Eating and Drinking Before Dawn (Amud HaShachar)
The Tenth of Tevet is the shortest of all fasts. It begins at 5:15 a.m. and ends at 5:08 p.m. (according to the Jerusalem skyline.
Ben Ish Chai writes: "One who has not slept on the eve of the day before Rosh HaShannah can continue eating until dawn (Amud HaShachar), but one who has slept is not permitted to eat after awaking, and such a person is only permitted to continue drinking until dawn" (Nitzavim 1).
Only on the Ninth of Av and Yom Kippur do the fasts last from evening to evening, but on the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the other fasts, the fasting begins at dawn.
It is permissible to eat during the evening before the fast until dawn so long as one does not sleep a proper sleep, but if a person sleeps a proper sleep, it is forbidden to eat or drink upon awaking.
And if, before going to sleep, a person makes a condition that if he rises before dawn he will eat or drink, the general ruling is that it is permissible to eat or drink. However, according to the Kabbalah, even if one makes a condition, after waking drinking is permitted and eating is forbidden, and if one suspects that he will not be able to fast if he does not eat before dawn, then it is permissible to eat even according to the Kabbalah.
Mishnah Berurah says that because we are accustomed to rising and drinking each morning no condition is necessary (the source of this ruling is Taanit 12a; see also Shulchan Arukh 564 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc. 1, Kaf HaChaim ad. loc. 7-9, and Ben Ish Chai, Nitzavim 1). Reciting "Aneinu"
According to Rambam (Hilchot Taaniyot 1:12) and Rashi, on the eve of the fast we recite Aneinu in the evening prayers, even though we continue to eat, but on the evening following the fast we do not say Aneinu, even though one is permitted to eat after this prayer. This is also the position taken by the Shulchan Arukh. In our day, there are a number of ethnic communities which indeed follow this ruling (some Yemenite Jews follow the position of Rambam, and Tunisian Jews follow the Gerba tradition. See also Shulchan Arukh 565:3).
In practice, the custom of Sephardic Jews is that both the congregation and the prayer leader say Aneinu in the morning and afternoon services. The custom of Ashkenazi Jews, on the other hand, is that individuals recite Aneinu only during the afternoon prayers, but the prayer leader recites it during both the morning and afternoon services. The Priestly Blessing
Rema writes that the Kohenim do not bless the congregation during the afternoon service on fast days. In the land of Israel a number a things have changed, and one of them is that even those who who accept the ruling Rema bless the congregation during the afternoon service on fast days.
Chazon Ish advanced the novel ruling that it is permissible for Kohenim to bless the congregation even during the early afternoon prayer service (Mincha Gedola), and therefore Kohenim who do bless the congregation during the early afternoon service are not without sufficient grounds for such. Those Exempt from Fasting
The question arises, are these fasts based upon a received tradition or upon rabbinic enactment? The practical difference is that if they are based upon a tradition their status is more extreme and there is no room for leniency, but if they are of rabbinic origin it is permissible to be lenient in the case of the ill.
Rambam holds that the Ninth of Av and the Seventeenth of Tammuz are based upon a tradition, however the Shulchan Arukh holds differently, and therefore one should not behave with leniency.
There was a custom in Babylonia that women would not fast on the Seventeenth of Tammuz because the days of summer were long and very hot, but they would fast on the Tenth of Tevet.
In practice, pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as the elderly and the weak are all exempt from fasting, and they should not even begin fasting. However, they should only eat according to necessity and they should not partake of delicacies. One who is healthy, though, should not deviate from the behavior of the larger community. Such a person should fast, for whoever takes part in the suffering of the community merits seeing the consolation of the community (See Shulchan Arukh 550:1 and 554:5).
I am always asked the question, how does one define "weak"? Being "weak" depends upon each individual's knowledge of himself, for a person knows himself better than others know him, and he must therefore decide for himself.
A boy under the age of thirteen years and one day, and a girl under the age of twelve years and one day are exempt from fasting. If a person wants to accustom his children to fast, he can have them fast for a number of hours, i.e., he can have them delay their meal for half an hour or an hour, but no more than this. At any rate, they should be educated towards seeing fast days as an occasion for self -examination and repentance, and they should not be given treats and candy to eat, nor meat, but only that food which is necessary for their physical wellbeing (see Kaf HaChaim 550:9, 554:23).
There are those who permit the bride and groom, as well as a ritual circumcisor, a Sandak (the one who holds the baby on his lap as it is being ritually circumcised), and the father of the baby to refrain from fasting on the grounds that this is a holiday for them. However, this is only true when a fast is not held on its proper date; if the fast is observed in its proper time, these individuals must fast like everybody else.
I once saw a respectable individual eating ice cream in public on the Seventeenth of Tammuz. I asked him if he had forgotten that it is a fast day. He explained that he was aware of the fast but that because he did not feel well he was not fasting. So I said to him that if he is going to eat, he should eat in private and only eat those foods which are necessary for his physical wellbeing.
Some of the biblical verses in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).