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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Why Do We Fast?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on July 26, 2023)
Topics: 3 Week/9 Days/Tisha B'Av, Sefer Devarim, Torah, Va'Etchanan

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As we enter into Tisha b’Av, our minds and hearts are directed towards the current turmoil that is roiling Israel and tearing at the very fabric of Israeli society. Whatever one thinks about the substantive issues relating to the changes in the judicial system, and wherever one is tempted to point the blame, we should all be able to recognize the tragic disunity and deep damage—in terms of the society, economy, military preparedness, and international relations—that recent weeks and months have brought about.

Tisha b’Av is a day that not only our Temple was destroyed, but our nationhood as well. And at the root of this destruction was sinat chinam, was our choosing to prioritize in-fighting and ideological rigidity over national unity and working together for the better good. Let us pray that on this Tisha b’Av we can learn to take that message to heart, and that we can devote ourselves—with God’s help—to mend the tears in our societal fabric and to find a way that we can move forward, together. Not by giving up on our beliefs or values, but by understanding that the only way that we will succeed as a nation and as a people is if we can find a way—in the words of Rav Kook—to replace sinat chinam with ahavat chinam.

Originally published July 2015

Why fast? General understanding is it acts as a spur for teshuvah, repentance. This explanation works for fast days in the Tractate Ta’anit—fasting during drought, locusts, and the like—but what about fast days of tragic historical events? Even though these seem to not 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.”

We carry the burden of our ancestors’ sins because we continue their sinful ways. Fast days such as Tisha B’Av remind us the current broken state of affairs exists as result of our continuation of their sinful ways.

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

One simple answer is 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.

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

Perhaps, as Rabbi David Silber taught at Drisha, this is part of the reason we say Kinot. It helps identify what we have lost and are mourning for. Speech with the ritual of fasting make real loss and suffering. Once we know what we are looking for, it is not hard to find what we lost: Recent attacks remind us we, as a people, are still the target of hateful, murderous anti-Semitism. Spreading anti-Israel and, at times, anti-Jewish culture on college campuses, and a looming possibility of a nuclear Iran remind us to not take physical security and prosperity for granted. Even our spiritual center, Torah and all it stands for, is at risk of being burned by fires of religious extremism.

Fasting brings these messages home and transforms thoughts into reality. But there is more. Close reading mishnayot in Ta’anit shows more intense fasting is not done due to lack of rain per se. If has not rained after many fasts, a more intense series is enacted, not because “rain has not fallen” but because the people “have not been answered.” There is a play on words: “ta’anit” is in response to “lo na’anu,” they have not been answered. The two words are from the same Hebrew root. The message is clear: we fast to be answered. The Liturgy on these fasts is a cry to be answered: “Aneinu, aneinu,” “answer us, O Lord, answer us.”

In fasting and prayer, we are primarily looking for connection. Why, God, do you seem to be ignoring us? What has happened to our relationship? It is this distance from God we read about in Vaetchanan. In the passage read on Tisha B’Av, the Torah relates how sins will 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 is necessary; we must obey God’s voice, for how else can we merit the relationship? However, it does not start with repentance but seeking and returning, v’shavta, the original meaning of the word teshuvah.

So it is with fasting. People suffering from drought do not need to find ways to feel the tragedy of ruined crops. They need to realize God is not answering and call out: ”God, look how miserable we are. We feel your distance. Please draw close. Please answer us.”

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

Tisha B’Av gives way to Tu B’Av. The last mishna in Taanit relates there never were more joyous days than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. Tu B’Av was the date many families returning to the land to rebuild the Second Temple donated wood for the altar, distinguishing themselves in dedication and self-sacrifice for the Temple. Yom Kippur is the day the High Priest enters into the innermost chamber and the Temple is cleansed so God continues to dwell among the people. These two days are the opposite of fast days. They celebrate God’s closeness. They celebrate how, through actions practical and ritual, we sought out God and how this has brought God into our lives on a national and personal level.

As we prepare to move from Tu B’Av to 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 help realize God’s presence in the Jewish people, in Israel, and in the Temple which is our Torah.