One week after Chanukah – a holiday that is celebrated by adding light night after night and by eating delicious fried food for eight days – comes the fast of Asara B’Tevet. In the northern hemisphere, where it is winter, Asara B’Tevet is the shortest fast day on the Jewish calendar. Starting when the sun rises and ending once dark, the fast of Asara B’Tevet, this year on December 14th, lasts only 11 hours and 24 minutes in Washington D.C., from where I write. Nonetheless, due to its timing, themes, and the way that many communities frame fast days, Asara B’Tevet can be challenging to observe.
Like the other two Temple-centric fast days on the Jewish calendar (Shiva Asar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’av), Asara B’Tevet is named for its date – the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet. The fast marks the onset of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE, which culminated in the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) 18 months later, in the month of Av. As we know from sources such as Eicha (the Book of Lamentations), this siege was brutal, depriving the residents of Jerusalem of basic necessities and forcing them into horrific situations. Asara B’Tevet is significant because it marks the onset of a period of tremendous suffering for the Jewish people.
Here, Asara B’Tevet occurs at the onset of winter, which is a difficult time for many people. The world is dark for more than half of the day, it is cold, and, especially during the pandemic, it may be hard to connect with others. Some people may experience the “winter blues”, where they feel a little more down than usual. Others may experience worsening depression. Adding a mournful day to this bleak backdrop can make an already challenging time worse for individuals who are struggling. Therefore, it is especially important for those who provide halakhic guidance to exercise caution and compassion if someone asks for advice on (not) fasting.
As a broad rule, rabbinic fasts such as Asara B’Tevet should be set aside for illness, even if the illness is not life threatening. Pregnant and nursing women may certainly eat on this day, particularly if fasting is already challenging for them. The same goes for people who are required to eat when taking certain prescription medications. In addition, those who are in recovery from an eating disorder, or who have had an eating disorder in the past, must certainly eat. This would apply to other serious food-related conditions, such as severe disordered eating or trauma connected to food. Of course, it is not possible for this article to address every circumstance under which a person should not fast. If one has a question we recommend first speaking with a health professional and then, if desired, with a halachic advisor.
If protecting your health requires you to eat on fast days, please know that you are doing the right thing. We believe that it is time to offer a new paradigm for people who need to eat on fast days. When leaders and community members assume that everyone can fast, and frame eating for health reasons as “not fasting”, those who are unable to fast may feel as though they are doing something wrong.
However, as the Mishna Berura 550:4 and other sages teach, if someone’s health will be compromised by fasting, that person is exempt and is “forbidden from being stringent upon themselves.” In other words, people for whom fasting is dangerous actually have a mitzvah to eat on a fast day. Their observance is not “less than” those who are fully healthy and able to fast; it is simply different, and both are equally valid ways of observing the day.
If you will be eating on Asara B’Tevet and you would like to find a way to connect to the themes of the day, here are some ideas. On days that commemorate destruction and brokenness, we can build, heal, and begin to fix what is broken. You might choose to help an organization that relieves suffering due to hunger or poverty. Or, you might choose to assist an organization that supports and strengthens Jewish communities. Perhaps you will reach out to someone who is struggling, and listen and be present with them. Whether you observe Asara B’Tevet by fasting or by eating for health reasons, we hope you find the day meaningful.
A Mitzvah to Eat is a new initiative in the Jewish community, offering communal and religious support for people with illnesses and health conditions. We bring conversations about health and fasting out into the open and make space for people who have a mitzvah to eat. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram.