Every summer, we see a reemergence of the question: Do we need to continue to fast on Tisha B’Av and the other fast days. After all, these days were instituted in response to the destruction of the First and Second temples, and the subsequent exiles. And while it is true that the Third Temple has yet to be built, we have nonetheless been witness to the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel, and the Ingathering of the Exiles. Despite various setbacks, we have also seen tremendous progress in many areas of endeavor, including the tremendous growth of yeshiva learning and religious creativity that has taken place in the State of Israel. At what stage can we conclude that the Exile is indeed over, and that we no longer should have to torment ourselves with fasting?

Actually, this question is an ancient one, and it was first asked in a period somewhat parallel to our own. When the Jews began to return from the Babylonian exile, after the first destruction, they found themselves in Eretz Yisrael, seeming to reverse the process of destruction and exile. True, the Second Temple had not yet been rebuilt, but that was just a matter of time. How should they respond to their dramatic new situation? They addressed the question to the Prophet Zecharia, who in turn asked God Himself. In Chapter Seven we read:

In the fourth year of King Darius … the word of the Lord came to Zecharia … to address this inquiry … ‘Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month [a reference to Tisha B’Av] as I have been doing all these years?’ Thereupon the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me: ‘When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh [a reference to the Fast of Gedaliah] all these 70 years, did you fast for My benefit? And when you eat and drink, who but you does the eating, and who but you does the drinking?’ Look, this is the message that the Lord proclaimed through the earlier prophets, when Jerusalem and the towns about her were populated and tranquil, when the Negev and the Plain were peopled.”

The “answer” finally comes in Chapter Eight:

And the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me saying … The fast of the fourth month [the 17th of Tammuz], the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month [the Tenth of Tevet] shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love truth and peace.”

In other words, the answer was that someday not only would the fasts be canceled; they would in fact become holidays. When that would come to be is not clear. But in the meantime… to fast or not to fast? The answer is also unclear. All we have are veiled references to the people’s own fasting, to the earlier prophets, and to the importance of truth and peace. What we don’t seem to have is an answer to our question.

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b) has this to say about these verses:

These days are called fasts, but they are also called days of joy and gladness! When there is peace they are for joy and gladness, when not, they are fasts.

The Talmud then arrives at the conclusion that not every situation is black or white; there are also gray areas:

When there is peace, [fast days] are for joy and gladness; when there is government persecution they are fasts; when there is neither government persecution nor peace, if [the Jews] desire to fast, they should fast, and if not, they should not fast.

In other words, there are three situations. The optimal scenario — peace — transforms the fasts into holidays, while times of persecution require continued fasting. The gray areas, times that are hard to define, leave the decision in the hands of the Jewish people. (It is important to realize that it is a community decision, and not in the hands of the individual.)

Orthdox men pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall on Tisha B'Av (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Orthdox men pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Tisha B’Av (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The medieval commentators offer several interpretations of these various stages. The Ritva explains that they refer to the following realities:

Peace: We live in Eretz Yisrael, and the Temple has been built. The fasts are holidays.

Persecution: We are persecuted by other nations (i.e. we are not in the Land of Israel), and the Temple is destroyed. The fasts are obligatory fasts. 

Neither Peace nor Persecution: We are not being persecuted, and are in Land of Israel, but we don’t have the Temple. The community is to decide.

The third category would seem to be parallel to our current reality. We live in Land of Israel (and unlike those in the time of Zecharia, we have independence), but we do not yet have the Temple. To fast or not to fast? It’s up to us.

We haven’t made it

But what criteria can guide us in making such a weighty choice? I suggest we revisit to the words of Zecharia for the answer. The medieval commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak) all explain the answer in the following way: After the First Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people decided collectively to mark the event with a series of fast days. Upon returning from the Babylonian exile they asked God if they should continue to fast. The answer, these commentators explain, is the following: God states simply, “I am the wrong address for the question.” For God never commanded the people to fast. (The only fast day mandated by the Torah is Yom Kippur, which belongs in an entirely different category.)

What did He command? Well, the earlier prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, had preached against the evils prevalent during the First Temple period: idolatry, violence,  immorality, and social injustice, especially the oppression of the poor and weak in society. These evils, as well as the violations of religious ritual, such as that of Shabbat, led to the destruction of the Temple. During the Second Temple period, these transgressions were largely replaced by a different evil – sinat hinam, baseless hatred between Jews.

Zecharia sums it up pretty clearly: We should love truth and peace. Then, and only then, can the fast days turn into holidays. For, as the Mishnah Berurah points out, fasting is meant as a vehicle for teshuvah – repentance. The fast in itself is a meaningless, external act if it does not prompt sincere internal repentance as well. For this reason, God tells the people very clearly, “Don’t ask me about fasting — I don’t really care if you fast or not. I do, however, care if you repent for those sins that led to the destruction. If the fasting helps, fine; and if not, not; but it is not the main issue. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re ready to stop fasting.”

When we examine our society today and ask if the time has come to stop fasting, we need to be honest with ourselves. Have we truly corrected all of the evils that led to destruction and exile? Any honest person would have to say no. As a society, we’re still polarized and ravaged by hatred. A huge percentage of Israel’s population lives below the poverty line. To our shame, we’ve seen a profusion of racism and violence toward African migrants in Israel. We face growing amounts of domestic violence and child abuse. The degree of tolerance between religious groups is at an all-time low. And our observance of religious ritual, including Shabbat, leaves much to be desired.

Nothing to celebrate? A woman dressed up in a costume for the Jewish holiday of Purim, walks by a homeless man in downtown Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Nothing to celebrate? A woman dressed up in a costume for the Jewish holiday of Purim, walks by a homeless man in downtown Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In such a situation, we cannot honestly think that we “have made it.” We still have a long way to go before we can say we’ve create the kind of just society that the prophets demanded. The purpose of a fast is to inspire us to do teshuvah. If we, therefore, all make a personal effort to do our best to rectify society through bettering our interpersonal relations and helping the other — especially the poor and weak — then with God’s help we not only will merit to choose not to fast, but will in fact celebrate Tisha B’Av as a joyous holiday.

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