Starving for God: Jewish Fast Days

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And now, the post:


Dear Josep,

The 17th of the Jewish month of Tamuz falls on this coming Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the period we call “the Three Weeks,” which culminate in the major fast of Tisha B’Av, the day the Temples were destroyed. But I’ll get to that in a later post. The 17th is observed as a minor fast day. But this year the fast will be observed the following day–the 18th–because we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat. (Yom Kippur is the only exception to this rule.)

Virtually every religion on earth has some tradition of fasting. For Jews and Muslims, this means refraining from partaking in any kind of food or drink during the day. For Catholics, and other Christians who practice fasting, it is a lot more, shall we say, open to interpretation. At most, it means going without food, but not water. And it usually means reducing one’s intake or refraining from certain types of foods, generally food that has been historically considered high-class or festive such as meat, dairy, eggs, and the like.

Well, while I’m wasting away without food or water on a sweltering summer day while my kids run hyper circles around me and destroy the house, I will think of you, dear Catholics, and your self-imposed temporary veganism, and I will shed a tear. (That’s a whole drop of water that could have been in my cells. You should be deeply moved.)

our hearts bleed

fasting

Ahem. Now that I’ve got that out of my system:

Why Fast at All?

Why is it that so many religions have this tradition of reducing or refraining from eating or drinking? I think at its most basic, this is pretty simple to explain: eating and drinking are some of our very basic animal needs, but free will was given to humans by God, and fasting is using that free will to distance ourselves from our animal nature, therefore bringing us closer to our spirituality and to God.

Now, if you’ve been really paying attention all these years I’ve been gabbing at you about Judaism, you will be asking, “Wait. Aren’t you always saying that Judaism is all about sanctifying the mundane and channeling our basic human needs for a higher, holier spiritual purpose–in direct opposition to other religious concepts of distancing ourselves from the mundane?” 10 points to Ravenclaw1! You are absolutely right. In Judaism, the way we normally relate to the basic animal needs of eating and drinking, is to sanctify them–be that by using them to celebrate the Sabbath, a holiday, a mitzvah (such as a wedding or circumcision ceremony), etc., or by simply reciting a blessing over the food.

Why do we fast, then?

So the thing is, in Judaism, fasting is less about spiritual uplifting, and more about expressing grief, sadness and regret. You know how when you’re really stressed out or depressed, you can’t bring yourself to eat anything? That’s what fasting means to us. Fasting is what we do as an expression of communal grieving, or to express the regret that is essential to the process of repentance. That isn’t to say that we don’t believe in fasting as a means to spiritually cleanse ourselves and/or bring ourselves closer to God the way it is done in other religions; it’s more of an “and” than an “either/or”.

The Jewish Fast Days

As I have mentioned before, there are two major fasts on the Jewish calendar. They are Yom Kippur, and Tisha B’Av. Both of these fast days are entire blog posts in and of themselves, so I’m not going to get into too much detail here; I’ll focus on the aspect of fasting.

Yom Kippur, which means “Day of Atonement,” is unique among the Jewish fasts in that is the only Biblically proscribed fast, and also the only fast day that is also a holiday. It occurs on the 10th of Tishrei, the 10th day of the Jewish year, and it is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). The purpose of Yom Kippur is to atone for all the sins we have committed over the year. God commands us to refrain from five things–eating and drinking, sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes, and anointing ourselves with oil. The Torah says specifically that the purpose of this abstinence is to “cause ourselves to suffer.” If we do this on Yom Kippur, He promises, and sincerely repent for our sins, He will “wipe the slate clean.”

The other fasts on the Jewish calendar are all rabbinic.

Tisha B’Av, the other major fast day, is the day both Temples were destroyed, and has generally been a particularly, shall we say, unlucky day for the Jewish people. We’ll get into that in a later post.

The Fast of Gedalya, a minor fast which falls the day after Rosh Hashana, mourns the assassination of the leader of Judah after the destruction of the first Temple, killed by another Jew due to political disputes. If not for this murder, there may have been a hope of maintaining a significant and continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel even under Babylonian occupation. The murder signified the nail in the coffin of the first Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land.

The 10th of Tevet, which falls soon after Chanukah, was the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple a few hundred years before the common era. (The exact date of the destruction is under dispute.)

The Fast of Esther, which takes place the day before Purim, commemorates the fast that Queen Esther of Persia fasted as she planned to risk her life to visit King Ahashverosh and ask him to spare the Jews.

The 17th of Tamuz commemorates the Roman breach of the walls of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Major vs. Minor Fasts

There are several differences between major and minor fasts:

1) Duration: Major fasts begin at sundown and end at nightfall the following day, meaning they last 25 hours. Minor fasts begin at daybreak and end at nightfall the same day, so they usually last somewhere between 14-18 hours (longer in the summer, obviously).

2) Restrictions: On minor fasts, we are only prohibited to eat and drink. On major fasts, we are also prohibited from the other four “afflictions” of Yom Kippur–sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes (considered to be a luxury back in the day), and anointing ourselves with oils or perfume. On Tisha B’Av, since it is a day of mourning, we also have some restrictions to do with mourning–on which I’ll elaborate in later posts.

3) Strictness: Yom Kippur is the strictest of them all–in fact, the punishment the Torah lists for eating on Yom Kippur is even more severe than that of breaking Shabbat. As a rule, every Jew above the “age of mitzvot” (twelve for a girl, thirteen for a boy) is required to fast. But obviously, if fasting would put one’s life in danger, one may not fast. People who must eat and/or drink, by doctor’s orders, if possible, do so in small amounts at fixed intervals (less than “a cheekful” (around 30ml) of liquid and a matchbox-full of food every 4-9 minutes); this allows them to technically “fast” according to the guidelines of the Sages. If they can’t do this, they eat and drink normally. All Jews (barring children and those with a doctor’s order not to fast) must fast on Tisha B’Av, too; but if one has a medical reason not to fast or to break the fast, he eats and/or drinks normally, since it is a rabbinic fast and therefore less severe. Pregnant and nursing women, as a general rule, are required to fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, but one should always speak to a doctor and a rabbi she trusts before fasting to get specific guidelines for when and how to eat and/or drink if she starts to feel unwell.

On minor fasts, on the other hand, anyone who is ill, pregnant, or nursing is automatically exempt, and if someone starts to feel ill or weak enough that s/he must lie down during the fast, s/he is allowed to break it.

Isn’t Fasting Torture?

This is such a First World Problem. Thank God that in our day and age people have no idea what it might be like to go an entire day without eating or drinking.

Everybody experiences fasting differently; some people are hardly affected at all, and some people are totally incapacitated by it. Most people feel kind of weak and shaky by afternoon, maybe a little dizzy; some people get headaches. Many people feel a kind of adrenaline rush towards the end of the fast, where suddenly they feel more energetic and kind of light-headed; the mood during Ne’ilah, the last prayer on Yom Kippur, often reflects this.

For most people, me included, it’s not exactly fun, but it’s not all that bad, either.

Breaking the Fast

Contrasting with Ramadan, there is no special meal on which Jews break their fasts. On Yom Kippur, the festive meal is actually eaten before the fast. On Tisha B’Av we also have a symbolic “last meal” before the fast, sitting on the floor with some bread and salt (symbolizing the poverty of our ancestors under siege), and a hard boiled egg with ashes on it, to symbolize our hope for the rebuilding of the Temple out of the ashes.

So when the fast ends, we simply eat and drink normally. In Israel there are always articles going around before Yom Kippur about what to eat before the fast (lots of “light” protein, like fish or chicken, and “slow carbs” like whole grains that take longer to digest) and after the fast. After going a full day without eating and drinking, it is recommended (from a medical standpoint) to start with some juice or other sweet drink to rehydrate and get your blood sugar back up, accompanied with a light snack like cake or crackers; then, after a little while, to have a bigger meal. Many synagogues offer some drinks and cakes to congregants after the services on Yom Kippur.

Okay, so, what is so very terrible about the destruction of the Temple, that we designate four fasts, including a major one, to mourn for it?

Stay tuned, and you shall have the answer. 😉

Love,

Daniella


1. In the category of Ridiculous and Insignificant Non-Sequiturs on Which I Offer a Far Too Detailed Explanation:

In the course of writing this letter, I wanted to use the phrase “10 points to [Hogwarts House name]” to express my approval for a hypothetical good question. But I realized that, though from knowing Josep I was fairly confident he would identify with Ravenclaw, I had never discussed the matter with him. Now, I have an established tradition of sending Josep random, bizarre questions out of the blue, but this one surpassed them all. And to my shock and horror, he responded that he has never read Harry Potter. Thus, I was forced to conduct an emergency Sorting in the Hat’s absence:

sortinghat combined

So, if you, too,  suffer from this grievous, gaping hole in your general knowledge, behold, an explanation: in the Harry Potter books, the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are divided into four competing “houses”. Students are sorted into one of the houses according to their dominant character traits by an animate hat called the Sorting Hat. (The traits listed in my message to Josep above correspond to the houses as follows: 1. Gryffindor, 2. Ravenclaw, 3. Hufflepuff and 4. Slytherin.) Teachers can award points to a student’s house as a reward for good behavior, or take away points to punish bad behavior.

Thus: “10 points to [Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin]” is a phrase that expresses approval or celebration of achievement, especially in an academic setting.

Why am I telling you all this on a blog about Judaism and Israel? BECAUSE YOU SHOULD KNOW, THAT’S WHY. Now go read Harry Potter, you Philistine. (…In Josep’s defense, my husband, too, has this grievous, gaping hole in his general knowledge. I will forever hold this against both of them. 😛 )

(So there’s the longer answer I promised, Josep. 😉 Aren’t you glad you’ve wasted everybody’s time on this silly footnote?!)↩

3 thoughts on “Starving for God: Jewish Fast Days

  1. Not everyone agrees that pregnant and nursing women get a blanket exemption for minor fasts. I was told that if it is not too difficult for me (I usually don’t have too much trouble fasting), that I should still fast on minor fast days, even when pregnant or nursing.

  2. It is SO bizarre for me you linking Fasting holidays with a book about children with magical powers 🙂 Yeah, I have really NO idea what is Harry Potter about. But alas, I keep living my life fully! hehehehe… (not really, but…)

    1. You THINK you’re living your life fully… 😛

      …Yes, there is really, truly, literally no connection at all between Jewish fast days and Harry Potter. This is what happens when I am too self-conscious about my cultural references!

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