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FAQ’s for those needing to eat on Minor Fasts and Tisha B’Av

This article was written for A Mitzvah to Eat. We support those who need to connect to fast days, mitzvot, or holidays differently to protect their health and save their lives. We empower individuals and communities with learning, prayers, and rituals to bring holiness to acts of pikuach nefesh (saving a life). Find out more at www.amitzvahtoeat.org, or on Facebook (page: A Mitzvah to Eat, and private group: A Mitzvah to Eat Community (Group)) and Instagram (@a_mitzvah_to_eat).

Frequently Asked Questions for those who must eat on minor fasts and Tisha B’av

*The answers to these questions are the collaborative opinions of our team, which includes rabbis and non-rabbis. We are sharing our opinions for informational purposes only. A Mitzvah to Eat is not intended to replace consultation with a medical professional, nor is it tailored to your specific body, background or interpretation of Jewish law. A Mitzvah to Eat does not assume any responsibility for actions taken by any person as a result of information shared through this platform.

What is a minor fast?

A minor fast is a fast that begins at dawn and ends at darkness. There are four minor fasts in the Jewish calendar. Three commemorate events in Jewish history and one commemorates a fast in Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther, read on Purim).

What is Tisha B’av?

Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, is a major fast, meaning it starts around sunset and lasts 25 hours, until darkness the next day. It commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago, and the loss and suffering for the Jewish people that the destruction caused. Some people use Tisha B’av as time to reflect on the sinat chinam, baseless hatred, that pulls us apart, and work towards lasting acceptance of ourselves and others.

Why might some people need to eat on fast days? Shouldn’t we all just push ourselves to do the mitzvah of fasting?

Fasting is a mitzvah for people who are able to fast without harm. However, there are multiple reasons that a person might find fasting harmful, including mental and physical health conditions, trauma, disabilities, and more. Those who are unable to safely fast have a mitzvah to eat. Pikuach nefesh, saving life and safeguarding health, is more important than almost every other mitzvah, including fasting.

Why did you group the minor fasts and Tisha B’av for these questions? I thought Tisha B’av was closer to Yom Kippur in seriousness.

While both Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur are major fasts (25 hours long), we see more commonalities between Tisha B’av and the minor fasts. Both Tisha B’av and the minor fasts were enacted in the Rabbinic period, around 2000 years ago. While Yom Kippur was mentioned in the Torah, Tisha B’av and the minor fasts were not.

Their commemoration is also more similar to each other than to Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is more about personal reflection and the returning to being our true selves in the coming year, while Tisha B’av and the minor fasts commemorate events in Jewish history/The Book of Esther.

Additionally, while those who need to eat normally on Yom Kippur absolutely should, some people eat in small amounts throughout the day. (We will discuss this concept (shuirim), including the messaging around it, closer to Yom Kippur.) While we have heard of an occasional rabbi who advises people to eat in shuirim on Tisha B’av, this is not common. Thus, another reason to group Tisha B’av with the minor fasts.

5) I need to eat on fast days. Should I eat differently on Tisha B’av and the minor fasts to mark the day? (i.e. eating foods I don’t like, not having dessert or snacks, drinking only water instead of having coffee, not enjoying the food)

We suggest eating as you would eat on a regular day, so not a fancy banquet (unless that is your normal way of eating!), but not the bare minimum either. The experience of eating should not embody deprivation- and that will look different to each person. Some people need snacks, desserts and/or coffee on a regular day. Many of us need to enjoy our food in order to eat it. The purpose of eating on a fast day is not to cause harm, so not eating what we need would undermine that purpose.

6) I don’t know whether I can fast or not. Is it true that on years when 17 b’Tammuz and Tisha B’av fall on Shabbat and then are pushed forward to the Sunday, there is more leeway for not fasting?

Answer: We want to be clear. When fasting is harmful, it is a mitzvah to eat. This includes Yom Kippur. We believe that mitzvot should not cause suffering. If they do, we need to offer support in observing the mitzvah differently.

That said, there are those who will choose to eat this year feeling strengthened by the fact that 17 b’Tammuz and Tisha B’av are one day later. However, we would like to teach this general principle, that can be applied regardless of the day that a fast falls on: safek nefashot lehakel – when there is the possibility of danger or harm, we choose the side of protecting life, no matter what.

7) I won’t be fasting this year. But, I really want to connect to my community and the meaning of the fast day. How do I do that if I am eating?

Answer: We always like to think about the themes of each fast day, and then find a way to connect from there. For example, 17 b’Tammuz is at the beginning of a period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, so you might think about how to create beginnings that bring people together rather than tear them apart. For more on how to connect to Tisha B’av, please see our upcoming anthology. In addition, please reach out via Facebook, Instagram, or our website, to be in community with others who also need to eat.

8) I have medication that I need to take everyday with food and water. Can I do this on a fast day? I am generally able to fast as long as I take my medicine.

Answer: Absolutely. Taking daily medications is a crucial part of taking care of your body and mind. Again, we believe that Jewish practices and mitzvot should not cause suffering or harm.

9) Do I have to hide the fact that I have to eat on Fast Days? (i.e, eating alone or secretly, not revealing to friends or on social media that you have to eat, etc.)

Answer: While of course you are welcome to choose the level of privacy you are comfortable with, we do not believe that anyone should have to hide the fact that they need to eat on fast days.

In the same way that those who can fast without harm have a mitzvah to fast, we have a mitzvah to eat, and we should all be able to respectfully co-exist. Those who need to eat can be aware that some people may find it harder to fast around someone who is eating, so they might ask others if it bothers them before eating in front of them. Likewise, those who can safely fast can be supportive of having designated eating rooms in shuls and know when someone eats or drinks in public, they have a reason that they need to do that.

10) Not everyone in my community is able to fast, and yet it’s common for people to wish each other an easy/meaningful fast or inquire how the fast went. Should we rethink how we address people both before and after fast days?

Definitely. The simplest option might be just to wish people a meaningful day or ask how their day was. Or perhaps ask how they are doing more generally, rather than connecting the question to fasting on the fast day.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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