by Rabbi Ethan Tucker
Already in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple, there was a fast in the tenth month, the month we now call Tevet. This fast is mentioned without a specific day of the month in Zekhariah 8:19. This seems to have been connected to the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem laid by the Babylonian king Nevukhadnetzar on the 10th day of the tenth month, an event and date reported in II Melakhim 25:1, Jeremiah 52:4, and Yehezkel 24:1.
[This connection is affirmed by R. Akiva in Tosefta Sotah 6:10. But in Tosefta Sotah 6:11, Rabbi preserves an alternate view that this fast refers to the 5th of Tevet, the date when the Babylonian exilic community heard of the destruction of the First Temple, as recorded in Yehezkel 33:21. See also Bavli Rosh Hashanah 18b. Nonetheless, R. Akiva’s view dominates all subsequent conversation and practice and the 10th of Tevet becomes the fast day marked by all subsequent generations.]
Zekhariah chapters 7 and 8 are largely devoted the question of whether the “fast of the fifth month”—known to us as Tish’a B’Av—remains relevant once the Second Temple has been rebuilt. After a group asks whether the fast should still be observed, lengthy prophecies are reported to Zechariah with two main points: 1) God was never that interested in the fast day in the first place and is equally uninterested in the question of its abrogation. God is mainly interested in the construction of a just society where the weak are protected and corruption is rooted out. 2) The four fast days (known to us as Tzom Gedaliah, Asara B’Tevet, Shiv’a Asar B’Tammuz and Tish’a B’Av) will be a time of rejoicing. Whether this is to take place in the present or in the future is left unclear.
Picking up on this answer, the Talmud Bavli on Rosh Hashanah 18a-b has a short sugya that tries to lay out a framework for these fast days and their potential status as days of rejoicing. The bottom line that emerges is this: 1) In a time of shalom, these days are ones of rejoicing (on which it would seem to be forbidden to fast). 2) In a time of shemad (persecution/suffering), these days are mandatory fast days. 3) In a time covered by neither of the above categories, three of these fasts are optional (though unclear if individuals or communities decide). Tish’a B’Av remains mandatory.
While early post-Talmudic sources affirm the optional nature of three of these fast days—including 17 Tammuz—later medieval sources begin to say that the Jewish community has accepted them upon themselves and they are thus mandatory, especially given that there are still Jewish communities under persecution. And so was the official status of these days in almost all Jewish communities until the 20th century.
The success of political Zionism as manifested in the founding of the State of Israel has raised serious questions with regard to the status of these fasts. Some have argued that the restoration of full Jewish political sovereignty over the land of Israel has returned us to category 1) and thus all of these fast days—including Tish’a B’Av—have been canceled and are now days of celebration. Others have maintained that while we might not describe ourselves as living in a time of shalom (for all the obvious reasons that political Zionism has not completely solved issues of Jewish sovereignty and independence and because of a great deal of ongoing persecution and war in the context of both the Jewish community and the global community beyond it), we certainly don’t live in a time of shemad, and the founding of the State of Israel is certainly significant enough to upend the medieval consensus for mandatory observance and return us to the purer optional status of category 3). Among those who take an optional stance, there are many who have advocated fasting half a day and breaking the fast after Minhah. Still others have argued that until some dramatic sign of shalom—on the messianic/apocalyptic order of magnitude of the rebuilding of a Third Temple or its equivalent—we remain with the medieval consensus that these days are fully mandatory.
I would add that the American Jewish experience of living in a free democratic society that is deeply different from many exilic communities Jews have found themselves in throughout the ages has also contributed to the sense that these fast days do not have the same power they have had at other points in time.
My own feeling is that the factors of the founding of the State of Israel and living as equals in American democracy are too significant to claim that we either live in a time of shemad or even in the world of medieval consensus that the Jewish people has clearly accepted these fasts upon themselves as unquestionably mandatory. It is hard to imagine that all of those medieval authorities would have lived through 1948 and 1967 unaffected. On the other hand, I am skittish about suggesting that with the creation of the State of Israel, shalom has arrived, and worry about running afoul of Zechariah’s call to prioritize the creation of a just and perfect society over the question of the celebratory abrogation of fast days.
It therefore seems to me that we are best described as living in category 3), where the fast days other than Tish’a B’Av are optional, and I personally do not feel that there is any formal obligation to fast on the other three fast days. So why do I fast and why does Yeshivat Hadar choose to observe these days as fast days in terms of our liturgy and our practice? There are, to my mind, two compelling reasons: First, there is much injustice and imperfection in the world in general, as well as in the sovereign Jewish state we are blessed with today. These days and their fasting ritual are a powerful way to trigger us to think about those issues. Second, Zekhariah tells us that these days will one day be ones of rejoicing. That means that they must be maintained on the calendar so that the Jewish people will remember them when history takes the turn that will enable us to see the world as one infused with shalom. I have personally committed to be among those that guard that calendrical space for the future and I think it is most appropriate for yoshvei beit hamidrash—those who spend the lion’s share of their time learning from the Jewish past and its application to the Jewish future to be among those who assume that road.
Those communities fasting on Asarah B’Tevet mark the day with the special Torah reading for fast days, both at Shaharit and at Minhah, and there is a special Haftarah at Minhah as well. Other distinctive features to the davening, such as avinu malkeinu, feature the themes of the day as well. Some include Selihot in the morning as well.
The fast is begun at dawn (5:45 AM in New York City). One who goes to sleep with the intention of waking up before that time to eat breakfast may do so. One who simply wakes up early not having intended to eat in the morning may not. The fast concludes at nightfall (5:04 PM in New York City; but see below for this year’s unusual Friday fast). No restrictions associated with 9 Av and Yom Kippur other than eating and drinking need be observed.
Friday: When Asarah B’Tevet falls on a Friday, tefillot are conducted exactly as they would be on any other day of the week, except that at Minhah, Avinu Malkeinu and Tahanun are omitted.
With respect to the conclusion of the fast, a dilemma emerges: Mishnah Megillah 1:3 clarifies that when 9 Av falls on Shabbat, it is pushed off to Sunday; this aversion to fasting on Shabbat would seem to extend to all other public fasts as well, with the exception of Yom Kippur. [Note an unusual claim in R. David Abudraham that if 10 Tevet fell on Shabbat, it would also be observed on Shabbat, but Rashi on Megillah 5a disagrees and Beit Yosef OH 550 rejects this view.] This flags a general tension between fasting and Shabbat that raises the question of how to deal with a Friday fast. Such a fast, if completed until nightfall, will extend into Shabbat. Should the fast be completed until nightfall, in keeping with the integrity of the day? Or does the sanctity of Shabbat allow for or even require truncating the fast in some way? And if so, is there any integrity to a fast day that is truncated before the end of the day?
Two core texts address this matter:
- Mishnah Ta’anit 2:10, R. Meir reports in the name of Rabban Gamliel that when Tish’a B’Av fell on a Friday—[this is no longer possible given current calendrical rules]—the fast would not be completed.
- Tosefta Ta’aniyot 2:7 also discusses the case of Tish’a B’Av falling on Friday. R. Yehudah says that a person eats and drinks a small amount before Shabbat so as not to enter into Shabbat in a state of fasting. [In the parallel in the Bavli, R. Yehudah says that he based his view on once seeing R. Akiva force himself to eat something before Shabbat when 9 Av fell on a Friday so as to show people that the law was like R. Yehudah.] R. Yose says the fast is completed even though it runs into Shabbat (which seems to mean that one fasts until nightfall). From the context in the Tosefta, this seems to be a debate spanning the full spectrum of possibility: R. Yehudah requires one to eat before Shabbat begins, but R. Yose also requires one to fast into Shabbat and not to cut the fast short.
In Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:14, 66ab, Rav is quoted as siding with R. Yose’s position in the Tosefta, and mandating the completion of the fast of Tish’a B’Av into the time of Shabbat. This view is also reflected in Bavli Eruvin 40b-41b, where both Rav and Ulla rule this way as well. [Rav is cited as explicitly rejecting Rabban Gamliel’s position. The Gemara states that R. Yose’s opinion over time gained dominance over that of Rabban Gamliel cited in the Mishnah.] The sugya there ends with a public ruling in the name of R. Huna that one completes the fast, which seems also to refer to siding with R. Yose over R. Yehudah with respect to Tish’a B’Av falling on a Friday.
On Eruvin 40b, Rabbah reports a question: does one who takes on an optional fast on a Friday complete the fast into Shabbat or do they cut it short in anticipation of Shabbat? [This question is answered clearly in the Yerushalmi: the fast is completed into Shabbat. But note the tradition recorded in Megillat Ta’anit that frowns on electively choosing to fast on Friday.] Rava appeals to the R. Yose’s position in the Tosefta above to resolve this question, assuming that the rule for an individual fast ought to be the same as for a public fast like 9 Av. From a historical perspective, it seems fairly clear that by Rabbah and Rava’s time, the question with regard to 9 Av had been definitively resolved. Therefore, Rabbah’s question seems to be entertaining the possibility that an elective fast might be treated more leniently, and the Gemara concludes that it cannot; it too must last until nightfall into Shabbat. Alternatively, it is possible that the question here is more radical: Do we follow R. Yehudah on individual fast days and actually forbid fasting into Shabbat, or do we permit individuals who want to to fast until nightfall on Friday night? Under this reading, the sugya’s conclusion would merely be that it is permissible to fast until nightfall, but by no means obligatory.
A number of positions emerge from this material in the rishonim:
1) Tosafot on Eruvin 41b explain R. Yose according to the latter reading above: it is permitted to fast into Friday night, but even he agrees that it is not obligatory. Moreover, they extend this reading into the core holding on 9 Av. Therefore, there is never an obligation to complete a fast on Friday and it may be broken before Shabbat. Ri is reported to have publicly broken his fast before the onset of Shabbat one year when 10 Tevet fell on a Friday. This view does not specify how early one can break the fast; it would seem to be an allowance to eat enough sufficiently in advance of Shabbat (i.e. not just 30 seconds before), so that one does not enter Shabbat feeling ravenous.
2) Maharam of Rothenberg adopts a softer version of the above: one who has accepted Shabbat early, as one who prays Arvit before it is dark, may eat before nightfall when it is a fast day on Friday. One could thus begin Shabbat as early as P’lag Haminhah (just under 1 hour before sunset in the winter in New York City, 3:32 PM this year) and then eat right after Arvit. [This reflects Maharil’s tradition regarding Maharam; the version of Maharam reported in Tashbetz Katan may be slightly stricter, possibly advocating waiting until at least sunset. See Bah OH 249.]
3) Ra’avad (cited in Rashba and many others) ruled that the requirement to complete the fast was only to forbid eating before Shabbat (as Ri did), but once the sun has set, one may break the fast immediately and not wait until nightfall, since it is Shabbat and one may not fast on Shabbat. [See also Tosafot Avodah Zarah 34a for a possible antecedent to this view.] He does not explicitly address the case of one who accepts Shabbat early, but it seems he is stricter than the second view above.
4) Ra’aviah holds (along with others) that one must complete all fasts, private and public, until nightfall, even if they fall out on a Friday.
Rosh, though he accepts Maharam’s position in principle, rules that one who does not mentally note that one will end the fast early has an obligation to complete the fast into Shabbat and until nightfall. This is essentially an adoption of Maharam’s view as an option to be exercised, with Ra’aviah’s position serving as the default.
Two positions emerge that attempt to distinguish between private and public fasts: Maharil Responsa #157 reports his own practice as following Maharam for elective fasts and following Ra’aviah for public fasts. But he is explicit that he thinks either option is valid to choose for either. R. Yeroham is stricter: He thinks that one may not exercise Maharam as an option for a public fast day and must complete it until nightfall.
Rema endorses a purer version of Maharam that prefers but does not require advance acceptance and recommends eating before nightfall, but then reports Maharil’s personal practice as the common standard for public fasts (essentially following R. Yeroham). Shulhan Arukh rules like Rosh, requiring explicit acceptance of a truncated fast in order to eat after Arvit and before nightfall. Kaf Hahayim is clear that one may use this mechanism for a public fast as well, though R. Ovadiah Yosef reads R. Yeroham into the Shulhan Arukh here and claims that, according to the Shulhan Arukh, public fasts must always be completed until nightfall (even though he rules that elective fasts may be ended immediately after Arvit.
In our own time, it would seem that the answer to this question will be determined by how one regards the status of 10 Tevet in our day. Obviously, those who view the fast today as elective and choose not to fast (or those who view it as forbidden to fast) will not do so. But among those who do fast, there are two basic possibilities:
1) Those who consider 10 Tevet to be fully obligatory should fast until nightfall, following Maharil as reflected in Rema, though there is room for those with no tradition in this regard to follow Rosh as reflected in Kaf Hahayim’s interpretation of the Shulhan Arukh. The latter view allows one to state on Thursday afternoon that one only intends to fast until the end of Arvit on Friday night and then one may eat even before nightfall, as early as Plag Haminhah. But if one forgot to state this explicitly on Thursday, one should complete the fast until nightfall.
2) Those who consider 10 Tevet as elective, but choose to fast, should state on Thursday afternoon that they only intend to fast until the end of Arvit on Friday night and then may eat even before nightfall. According to Rema, it is desirable to eat before nightfall in this case, and even if one forgot to commit to this on Thursday, one may/should still end the fast after Arvit, as early as Plag Haminhah. [There are other sources that explore the possibility of a half-day fast on elective fasts; see SA OH 562. That could potentially be employed here as well, but that is beyond the scope of this post.]