Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Down with Judaism’s downer days

Tisha B’Av is two weeks from tomorrow, although it will be marked one day later this year. That is because, unlike Yom Kippur, neither Tisha B’Av nor any other public fast (there are four others) may be observed on a Shabbat. The reason why opens the door to a serious question about fasts in general: Other than on Yom Kippur, should we be fasting at all?

The reason for not delaying the Yom Kippur fast is a simple one. The Torah commands the observance of Yom Kippur on the tenth day of the seventh month, meaning on Tishrei 10. Besides, the day itself is considered a Shabbat. (See Leviticus 23:32.)

It also could be argued that Yom Kippur is not a fast day in the sense that the other five annual fasts are. Liturgically, in fact, it contains elements found only on festival days — elements that would be totally inappropriate on the other five fast days. The Torah, in fact, does not refer to Yom Kippur as a fast day. Rather, it is a day to “afflict your souls,” or “exercise self-denial,” depending on how you choose to define “v’initem et nafshoteichem.” (See Leviticus 23:27 and 32.)

This phrase has been taken to include a number of activities, not just fasting, and certainly not fasting for the purpose of mourning. Whether any of these are what the Torah had in mind is open to speculation, if for no other reason than that the Yom Kippur of the Torah is a cultic observance involving specific rituals to be performed by the High Priest within the sacred precincts. It is through those rituals alone that atonement is achieved.

There also is serious evidence that Yom Kippur afternoons were not only festive occasions, but were something akin to Al Capp’s mythical Sadie Hawkins Day, in which young women went out in search of husbands. As the Talmud explains (see Mishnah Ta-anit 4:8):

“Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no more joyous days in Israel than the 15th of Av [known colloquially as Tu B’Av] and Yom Hakippurim. On these days, the daughters of Israel went out dressed in [borrowed and ritually cleaned] white clothing….[They] would go out and dance in the vineyards [where the young men awaited them]. And what is it that they said [as they danced]? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself….Don’t set your eyes upon beauty; rather, set your eyes upon family. For grace is false and beauty is vain; a woman who fears, the Lord she will be praised.’”

Nevertheless, that Yom Kippur was a day of fasting even in biblical times can be seen in Isaiah 58, where it is assumed with good reason that Yom Kippur is being referenced. Yet there is no question that fasting per se is not mentioned in the Torah in connection to Yom Kippur, or any other day.

The Torah knows nothing about mourning past calamities, either. The lifestyle it prescribes celebrates life; it does not burden life by establishing memorials to the catastrophes of yesteryear.

We celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, but we pass over the catastrophes that befell Israel in Egypt, and especially the horrific mass murder of the newborn male children. We celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, but ignore the murderous attack Amalek launched against Israel on the way to Sinai — an attack that targeted the elderly, the infirm, and the very young.

The Torah does not memorialize catastrophes. They will not be forgotten because they are on record, and that is enough. Move on.

Fasting was practiced in biblical times, of course. There are several biblical examples of private fasts, such as when David sought to convince God to spare his and Bathsheba’s firstborn. (See II Samuel 12:22–23.) Fasting also occurred following calamities, but these were of the moment only. (See Judges 20:26, I Samuel 7:6 and 14:24, and II Chronicles 20:3.)

And, of course, there were fasts meant to thwart calamities, the most famous of which were the spontaneous fasts that broke throughout Persia after Haman’s plot was revealed, and the three-day fast Esther ordered in Shushan before she approached the king. (See Esther 4:3 and 16.)

There is nothing in the Book of Esther, however, that ordains a permanent annual fast in commemoration.

That the three other minor fasts and Tisha B’Av were ordained by the prophets is also questionable.

Yes, the prophet Zechariah (see 8:19) talks of the “fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth,” but this reference is problematic. It would seem to confirm that the three minor fasts — the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the Third of Tishrei (the Fast of Gedaliah), and the Tenth of Tevet — as well as Tisha B’Av were ordained by some authority during biblical times, but not necessarily the prophets. Zechariah, however, did not characterize these fasts in any way, and he did not provide specific dates for their observance.

The biblical texts that are cited to support prophetic initiation of the fasts do provide specific dates, but these are at odds with when we observe three of them. If the walls of Jerusalem were breached on the 17th of Tammuz, there is no biblical record of that. The First Temple was supposed to have been destroyed on the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av), but the biblical record puts the destruction on the seventh of Av (see II Kings 25.:8-9) or the tenth (see Jeremiah 52:12). We know Gedaliah was killed in Tishrei, but not on what day. (See II Kings 25 and Jeremiah 41.)

Differing dates aside, none of these texts refer to fasts being observed or proclaimed.

For reasons far beyond the destruction of the Temple, Tisha B’Av is much too important to be ignored or tossed aside. The “minor fasts,” however, need to be re-examined, as do the mourning-like rituals between Passover and Shavuot, and of the Three Weeks. These color Judaism as being obsessed with tragedy and death.

Yes, there is a reason the Torah avoids mention of fasting, much less ordains such fasts. Judaism is about reaffirming life, not dwelling on death and destruction.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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