Fasting in Judaism
Fasting for Jews means completely abstaining from food and drink, including water. Traditionally observant Jews fast six days of the year. With the exception of Yom Kippur, fasting is never permitted on Shabbat, for the commandment of keeping Shabbat is biblically ordained and overrides the later rabbinically instituted fast days. (The fast of the 10th of Teveth would also override the Sabbath, but the current calendar system prevents this from ever occurring.)
Yom Kippur is considered to be the most important day of the Jewish year and fasting as a means of repentance is expected of every Jewish man or woman above the age of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah respectively. It is so important to fast on this day, that only those who would be put in mortal danger by fasting are exempt, such as the ill or frail (endangering a life is against a core principle of Judaism). Those that do eat on this day are encouraged to eat as little as possible at a time and to avoid a full meal. For some, fasting on Yom Kippur is considered more important than the prayers of this holy day. If one fasts, even if one is at home in bed, one is considered as having participated in the full religious service.
The second major day of fasting is Tisha B’Av, the day approximately 2500 years ago on which the Babylonians destroyed the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem, as well as on which the Romans destroyed the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago, and the Jews were banished from their homeland. Tisha B’Av ends a three-week mourning period beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz. This is also the day when observant Jews remember the many tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people, including the Holocaust. The atmosphere of this fast is serious and deeply sad (in contrast to Yom Kippur which is a day of atonement).
Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur are the major fasts and are observed from sunset to the following day’s dusk. The remaining four fasts are considered minor and fasting is only observed from sunrise to dusk. Both men and women are expected to observe them, but a rabbi may give a dispensation if the fast represents too much of a hardship to a sick or weak person, or pregnant or nursing woman.
The four other public but minor fast days are:
- The Fast of Gedaliah on the day after Rosh Hashana
- The Fast of the 10th of Tevet
- The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz
- The Fast of Esther, which takes place immediately before Purim
There are other minor fast days, but these are not universally observed, and they include:
- “Bahab,” (literally an acronym for “Monday, Thursday, Monday”) the first two Mondays and first Thursday of the months Marcheshvan and Iyar (postponed by a week if Monday is the first of the month)
- “Yom Kippur Katan,” (literally “Little Yom Kippur”) the day before every Rosh Chodesh, moved back to Thursday if that day is Saturday
- The Fast of the Firstborn, on the day before Passover, which applies only to first-born sons; this obligation is usually avoided by participating in a siyum and ritual meal that takes precedence over fasting.
It is an Ashkenazic tradition for a bride and groom to fast on their wedding day before the ceremony as the day represents a personal Yom Kippur. In some congregations, repentance prayers that are said on Yom Kippur service are included by the bride and groom in their private prayers before the wedding ceremony.
Aside from these official days of fasting, Jews may take upon themselves personal or communal fasts, often to seek repentance in the face of tragedy or some impending calamity. For example, a fast is sometimes observed if a sefer torah is dropped. The length of the fast varies, and some Jews will reduce the length of the fast through tzedakah, or charitable acts. Mondays and Thursdays are considered especially auspicious days for fasting. Traditionally, one also fasted upon awakening from an unexpected bad dream although this tradition is rarely kept nowadays. In the time of the Talmud, drought seems to have been a particularly frequent inspiration for fasts. In modern times as well the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has occasionally declared fasts in periods of drought.
Judaism views three essential potential purposes of fasting, and a combination of some or all of these could apply to any given fast. One purpose in fasting is the achievement of atonement for sins and omissions in divine service. Fasting is not considered the primary means of acquiring atonement; rather, sincere regret for and rectification of a wrongdoing is key (see Isaiah, 58:1-13, which appropriately is read as the haftarah on Yom Kippur).
Nevertheless, fasting is conducive to atonement, for it tends to precipitate contrition (see Joel, 2:12-18). This is why the Bible requires fasting (literally self affliction) on Yom Kippur (see Leviticus, 23:27, 29,32; Numbers, 29:7; Tractate Yoma, 8:1; ibid. (Babylonian Talmud), 81a). Because, according to the Hebrew Bible, hardship and calamitous circumstances can occur as a result of wrongdoing (see, for example, Leviticus, 26:14-41), fasting is often undertaken by the community or by individuals to achieve atonement and avert catastrophe (see, for example, Esther 4:3,16; Jonah 3:7). Most of the Talmud’s Tractate Ta’anit (“Fast[s]”) is dedicated to the protocol involved in declaring and observing fast days.
The second purpose in fasting is commemorative mourning. Indeed, most communal fast days that are set permanently in the Jewish calendar fulfill this purpose. These fasts include: Tisha B’Av, Seventeenth of Tammuz, Tenth of Tevet (all of the three dedicated to mourning the loss of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem), and the Fast of Gedaliah. The purpose of a fast of mourning is the demonstration that those fasting are impacted by and distraught over earlier loss. This serves to heighten appreciation of that which was lost. This is in line with Isaiah (66:10), who indicates that mourning over a loss leads to increased happiness upon return of the loss:
Be glad with Jerusalem, and exult in her, all those who love her; rejoice with her in celebration, all those [who were] mourners over her.
The third purpose in fasting is commemorative gratitude. Since food and drink are corporeal needs, abstinence from them serves to provide a unique opportunity for focus on the spiritual. Indeed, the Midrash explains that fasting can potentially elevate one to the exalted level of the Mal’achay HaShareyt (ministering angels) (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, 46). This dedication is considered appropriate gratitude to God for providing salvation. Additionally, by refraining from such basic physical indulgence, one can more greatly appreciate the dependence of humanity on God, leading to appreciation of God’s beneficence in sustaining His creations. Indeed, Jewish philosophy considers this appreciation one of the fundamental reasons for which God endowed mankind with such basic physical needs as food and drink. This is seen from the text of the blessing customarily recited after consuming snacks or drinks:
You, Eternal One, are the Source of all blessing, our God, King of the universe, Creator of many souls, who gave needs for to all who You created, to give life through [fulfilling those needs] to every living soul. Blessed is the Life-giver to the universe.