As I sit here looking out to the Judean mountains, after having this week presided over a wedding in the hills of Judea, watching young boys and girls dancing and rejoicing, fulfilling the exact biblical prophecy of redemption found in the book of Jeremiah 33–I ask myself, should we still be fasting these minor fasts? I know I am not alone…
The institution of the four minor fast days was never mentioned in the Tanach. We learn about them only from the famous verse in Zechariah (8:19) which teaches that there will be a time when the four fasts (the fast of the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 10th–which translates into 17th of Tammuz, 9th of Av, Tzom Gedaliah and 10th Tevet) will become holidays of great joy and happiness.
The prophecy of Zechariah is given as an answer to a question posed by the Jews who returned to Israel from Babylon in the 6th century to begin rebuilding the second Temple–should we still be ‘crying’ on the 5th month? God’s answer is no!
Remarkable! There was never a command to fast and yet Jews fasted during those four days which signify the process of the destruction of the mikdash. They felt the need to commemorate the day when Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem; they recognized that three and a half years later in Tammuz the walls were breached and three weeks after the temple was burned. finally months later Gedaliah was murdered representing the final remnant of Jewish governance and the completion of exile. For these reasons people fasted and mourned on these days–while they were in exile. But upon returning to the land EVEN BEFORE REBUILDING THE MIKDASH they felt that it would be strange to be fasting while in the process of redemption! They asked the prophet and he concurred!
Rav melamed writes in peninei Halacha that when the Jews came back TO BUILD the Temple the fast days were rescinded–for hundreds of years! Only after the destruction of the second Mikdash were they reinstituted.
The Gemara in Rosh Hashana addresses this question and at the conclusion, Rav Papa suggests an unusual Halakhic ruling:
When there is peace then the days of fasting become joyous
When there is persecution–fasting
But when there is no lasting peace but no persecution–those who want to fast should fast, those who do not want to, need not!
The idea that the Gemara would leave it for us to decide if we feel the need to fast is fascinating, we don’t find this in other areas of Halacha. Why here? I believe the answer relates to the core of what it means to feel redemption. Apparently, it is a very personal experience. For some, like Rav Pappa living in Babylonia in the 4th century in tranquility, with social and economic liberty as well as the capacity to raise children in a rich Torah environment–while it was not redemption per se, it was certainly not reminiscent of the horrors of the ‘churban’ (destruction) and therefore I assume he did not fast. For others, who yearned for the rebuilding of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty the fast and the exile it represented was still part and parcel of their existence.
And what of us? Rabbi Melamed writes that today the minhag Yisrael (accepted practice) is to fast these fasts until the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash. And so I did, but I have to wonder. When Rav Pappa suggested people decide for themselves he was living in exile, removed from the Holy Land, removed from Jewish soverignty. What would he think of us today, living in the hills of Judea, with Jews returning to Israel from all corners of the world and living in relative peace and tranquility? Would he continue to say ‘each person decide for themselves’ or would he say to us ‘wake up and realize the miracle of the redemption!’
Would Zechariah tell us to keep fasting or would he compare our lives directly to the lives of the Jews in his time, who, upon returning to Israel began the process of restoring Jewish nationhood, building up a Jewish majority, and starting a spiritual renaissance?