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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Why Do We Fast?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on July 30, 2015)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Devarim, Va'Etchanan, Talmud, Moed, Taanit

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Why do we fast? The general understanding is that it acts as a spur for teshuvah, repentance. This explanation works for the fast days examined in the Talmudic tractate of Ta’anit – fasting during times of drought, locust, and the like – but what about the fast days that commemorate tragic historical events? Even though, at first blush, these would not seem to be about repentance, Rambam makes the connection:

There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to stir the hearts and to open the pathways of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which is similar to our present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve [our conduct], as Scripture [Vayikra, 26:40] states: “And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors.”

According to Rambam, then, we carry the burden of our ancestors’ sins because we continue in their sinful ways. Fast days such as Tisha B’Av are meant to remind us that we have also sinned, and perhaps more pointedly, that the current broken state of affairs exists as a result of our continuation of their sinful ways.

This is quite a heavy burden to bear, and if truth be told, it is often hard for me to connect my own sins and my own need to repent to these tragic historical events. In fact, almost no mention is made of the issue of repentance through all of tractate Ta’anit, and even the issue of sin plays a much smaller role than we might imagine. If not repentance, what is the purpose of fasting?

One simple answer is that fasting is a way of giving concrete, external expression to our inner state of misery or, alternatively, of fostering such a state if it is lacking. If we feel the tragic losses of the past we will want to give expression to that feeling, and if we don’t, we need to work harder to do so. Like many mitzvot, fasting both reflects and helps to create our religious reality.

Seen from this perspective, it is perhaps easier to relate to the fasting of Tisha B’Av, for we can all understand the importance of feeling the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. Still, given our current reality – a powerful State of Israel and a Jerusalem that is larger and more prosperous than it has been at any point in history – it is often hard to feel this sense of tragedy and loss even with fasting. It is probably for this reason that we often turn to the Holocaust in our afternoon programming on Tisha B’Av. For many people the idea of a Temple is too abstract – for some even conflictual – to truly feel loss for its absence.

Perhaps, as Rabbi David Silber taught at this year’s Tisha B’Av learning at Drisha, this is part of the reason we say Kinot. It helps us identify what we have lost, what we are mourning for. The speech together with the ritual of fasting make real our loss and our suffering. Once we know what we are looking for, it is not hard to find what we have lost: The attacks on our brothers and sisters in recent times remind us that we, as a people, are still the target of hateful, murderous anti-Semitism. The growing BDS movement, the spread of a virulent anti-Israel and, at times, anti-Jewish culture on college campuses, and the looming possibility of a nuclear Iran remind us that we cannot take our physical security and prosperity for granted. Even our spiritual center, the Torah and all it stands for, is at risk of being burned by the fires of religious extremism.

Our fasting brings these messages home and transforms these thoughts into concrete reality. But there is more to fasting than this. A close reading of the mishnayot in Ta’anit shows that more intense fasting is not done in times of drought due to the lack of rain per se. If after many fasts it still has not rained, a more intense series of fasts is enacted, not because “rain has not fallen” but because the people “have not been answered.” There is a play on words here. The “ta’anit” is in response to the fact that “lo na’anu,” they have not been answered. The two words derive from the same Hebrew root. The message is clear: we fast so that we will be answered. Indeed, the liturgy for these fasts, perhaps some of our very earliest liturgy, is all about a cry to be answered: “Aneinu, aneinu,” “answer us, O Lord, answer us.”

In fasting and in prayer, what we are primarily looking for is connection. Why, God, do you seem to be ignoring us? What has happened to our relationship? It is this distance from God that we read about Parashat Va’Etchanan. In the passage that we read on Tisha B’Av, the Torah relates how our sins will eventually drive us from the land. It tells of the loss of land and nationhood, and of all these symbolize. To be exiled from God’s land is to be existentially distanced from God. What response will bring us back? Not repentance per se, but our seeking out God, our desire to draw close once again:

But if from there you shall seek the Lord thy God, you shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things are come upon you, even in the latter days, if you turn, v’shavta, to the Lord your God, and shall be obedient unto His voice (Devarim, 4:29-30).

Repentance certainly is necessary; we must be obedient to God’s voice, for how else can we expect to merit the relationship? However, it does not start with repentance but with seeking, with seeking and with returning, v’shavta, the original meaning of the word teshuvah.

And so it is with fasting. The people who are suffering from a drought do not need to find ways to feel the tragedy of the ruined crops. They need to realize that God is not answering them and give expression to this and call out to God. They have to say, “God, look how miserable we are. We feel your distance. Please draw close. Please answer us.”

Tisha B’Av is a time when we work to realize and give expression to our sense of misery over God’s distance. We remember a time when God’s presence was felt daily on a national level. We remember that, certainly in times of hardship but also in times of prosperity, God’s presence can be and needs to be felt more in our lives.

Ultimately, Tisha B’Av gives way to the 15th of Av. The last mishna in Taanit relates that there never were more joyous days in Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. According to some scholars, the significance of the 15th of Av lies in its position as a counterbalance to the 9th of Av. The 15th of Av was the date when many families who returned to land of Israel for the rebuilding of the Second Temple donated wood for the altar, distinguishing themselves in their dedication and self-sacrifice for the Temple. And Yom Kippur is the day when the High Priest enters into the innermost chamber of the Temple and the Temple is cleansed so that God may continue to dwell among the people. These two days are the opposite of the fast days. They celebrate God’s closeness to the people. They celebrate how, through actions both practical and ritual, we have sought out God and how this has brought God into our lives on a national and personal level.

As we prepare to move from the 15th of Av to the month of Elul, a month devoted to drawing close to God, let us all work, each in his or her own way, to do all we can to bring God into our lives and to help realize God’s presence in the Jewish people, in Israel, and in the Temple which is our Torah.