This is what the LORD Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.” — Zechariah 8:19
Fasting in Judaism has been a longstanding practice, in some instances tied to the observance of key festivals and holy days, but also as a communal response to tragedies and a call to repentance. References to fasting can be found in the books of Samuel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Psalms, and more. It was quite natural in ancient times for people to fast as part of their service to God. Spontaneous personal and communal fasts were also common.
Six official days, however, are also mentioned in the Bible as a time for fasting. So what are these fast days and why were they established to be observed for generations to come?
The first and most paramount of all fast days is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Of all the fast days, this day alone was prescribed by God in the Bible. In Leviticus 16:29 we are commanded to “deny yourselves” on Yom Kippur. This included eating or drinking, washing or bathing, marital relations, wearing leather shoes, and applying luxurious oils. As the name of the day would suggest, denying ourselves is part of the process of attaining atonement on Yom Kippur. This is a fast of repentance, and appropriately, the day is spent mostly in prayer and introspection.
Yom Kippur is considered a major fast day, and in Judaism, it has only one other counterpart — the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av. This fast commemorates the monumental events of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem — both of which occurred hundreds of years apart on the same exact day.
A Fast of Mourning
In truth, this day was destined to be a day of calamity as, according to Jewish tradition, it was on this day that the 12 spies sent by Moses to see the Promised Land returned to the Israelites with a bad report, causing the people’s hearts to turn away from God. Because of that, God barred that generation from entering the Promised Land and sent them back into the desert to wander for another 40 years.
Both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on this day as well as a host of other Jewish tragedies throughout history: the defeat of Bar Kochba’s revolt, thus ending Jewish resistance to the Romans (135 CE); the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the onset of the Spanish Inquisition (1492); and more recently, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camps (1942).
Like Yom Kippur, we refrain from the same five activities, and also like Yom Kippur, the fast begins at dusk and ends at nightfall the following day. The fast of Tisha B’Av, however, is one of mourning and sadness. In his book, How Firm a Foundation, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein writes: “We are to vicariously feel the depth of grief and sadness that has marked this date throughout history. For we, too, are mourners on Tisha B’Av; we too, ‘let tears stream down like a torrent day and night’ over the fall of Jerusalem, the ‘daughter of Zion’ (Lamentations 2:18).”
Minor Fast Days
Three of the four minor fasts are also related to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. In the book of Zechariah, the prophet referred to them by the Hebrew months in which they fall: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful . . .” The fourth month is Tammuz, and on the 17th day of that month, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, allowing the enemy to enter. It took three weeks of fighting, but in the fifth month, on the ninth of Av, the First Temple was destroyed.
The seventh month is Tishrei, and on the third day of that month, we observe the Fast of Gedaliah. After the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple, they appointed a righteous Jew, Gedaliah, to govern the Jewish people. However, provoked by a foreign king, a prince of Judah assassinated Gedaliah. This led the Babylonians to exile the Jews remaining in the Holy Land, and the land sat barren for the next 52 years. The tenth month is Tevet, and on the tenth day of that month, the Babylonians first set a siege around Jerusalem, which essentially marked the beginning of the end for the Jewish community at that time.
On the minor fast days, we only refrain from eating and drinking. In addition, they are observed from dawn until dusk and do not begin the night before as with major fast days.
Other Communal Fasts
Another communal fast day on the Jewish calendar is the Fast of Esther. This day recalls the three days that Esther and the Jews fasted before she approach King Xerxes in order to save the Jews from the wicked Haman. The fast is observed the day before Purim, the holiday that celebrates the events in the book of Esther. It was on this day that the Jews again fasted as they defended themselves against their enemies. Both events are remembered during the Fast of Esther because it was thanks to Esther and her cousin, Mordecai, that a royal decree was issued allowing the Jews to mobilize and defend themselves from attacks.
As this is not one of the four fast days specifically mentioned by the prophets, it is observed with greater leniency than the other fast days. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, as well as others of generally weak health (who would suffer by fasting) are not required to participate.
Finally, one other fast applies only to all firstborn males. It is called the Fast of the Firstborn and is observed the day before Passover. On this day, we remember that while God caused all the Egyptian firstborn males to perish during the tenth and final plague, He saved the firstborn Israelites.
All these fast days commemorate events that are of utmost importance in Judaism, which is why they are observed annually. However, as the verse in Zechariah explains, these days can — and will — become days of joy. Even though fast days may recall tragic events, they are not intended, in and of themselves, to be tragic. Rather, they are days of opportunity — when we can become closer to God, right our wrongs, and rectify events of the past.