Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim Shabbat Hazon/ July 17, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Are Fast Days for Mourning or Repentance?


Rabbi Judah Zoldan

Midrasha for Women

The only fast day in the calendar set by the Torah is the Day of Atonement.  Until the end of the First Temple period we no of no other fixed fast days in the year. [1]   However, we know that fast days were ordained to mark the destruction of the First Temple, from the attempt made to cancel them in the early days of the Second Temple.   When construction of the Second Temple was in full swing, [2] a delegation from Babylonia appeared before the prophet Zechariah and the priests in Jerusalem, inquiring, “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” (Zech. 7:3-4).  Zechariah’s immediate answer was, “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months all these seventy years, did you fast for my benefit? (Zech. 7:5).

His answer tells us two more things:   there was also a fast day in the seventh month, and this practice had been in existence for seventy years, since the destruction of the First Temple.   Zechariah proceeds to reprove them extensively for their lack of justice and morality, which brought about the destruction, while still holding high hopes for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.   At the end of his speech his gives a lengthy answer to the initial question of whether to continue fasting in the fifth month (Zech. 8:19):  “Thus said the Lord of Hosts:  The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.”

From this response it becomes clear that four fasts were added to the calendar, and that the day they will come when they will be canceled.  One other fixed fast day, the Fast of Esther, is obliquely alluded to in the Book of Esther (9:31):   “These days of Purim shall be observed at their proper time, as Mordechai the Jew – and now Queen Esther – has obligated them to do, and just as they have assumed for themselves and their descendants the obligation of the fasts with their lamentations.”

Fast days originating from popular initiative

Who established or enacted these new fixed fast days?   Our discussion focuses on Maimonides’ position on this question and on the commentaries on his remarks (Hilkhot Ta`anit 5:1-5):

There are certain days on which all Israel practice abstinence because of the hardships that befell them on those days, in order to awaken the heart and open the way to repentance, so that we remember our evil deeds and the deeds of our ancestors which were like our actions now, to the extent that it caused them and us these troubles, so that in remembering these things we will return to the good path, as it is said:   “and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” (Lev. 26:40).  And these are they:  the third of Tishre, … the tenth of Tevet, … the seventeenth of Tammuz, the ninth of Ab  These four fast days are explicitly mentioned in our tradition:  “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month” (Zech. 8:19)…  It is the Jewish custom to practice self-denial on the thirteenth of Adar in memory of the self-denial observed in the days of Haman, as it is written, “the obligation of the fasts with their lamentations” (Esther 9:31).

Rabbi Tzadok ha-Cohen of Lublin claims that the fast days over the destruction of the Temple were instituted by the people as a sort of popular initiative, and later were conferred validity and status by the prophet, as indeed appears to be the case from the order of the verses: [3]

“Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” (Zech. 7:3-4).   It appears that the Jews did so of their own accord, and accepted this as an obligation.  Later, it was agreed by the words of the prophet (and the men of the Great Assembly), as it is said:  “The fast of the fourth month …  shall become occasions for joy and gladness”(ibid., 5).

Maimonides draws a distinction between the fasts associated with the destruction of the Temple and the Fast of Esther, writing that the validity of the Fast of Esther is due only to the popular initiative, as stated precisely in the verse which he cites from the Book of Esther.  Celebration of the days of Purim was established by Mordechai and Esther:  “These days of Purim shall be observed at their proper time, as Mordechai the Jew – and now Queen Esther – has obligated them to do” (Esther 9:31); and the Fast of Esther was their initiative:  “as they have assumed for themselves and their descendants the obligation of the fasts with their lamentations” (loc. sit.).

The purpose of the fast days

Maimonides writes that the purpose of the fast days is to awaken repentance and to learn a moral lesson from the past in order that we improve our ways.   Rabbi Moses Sofer views these remarks of Maimonides as a surprising new insight.   He notes Maimonides’ remarks, cited above, and writes (Resp. Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, par. 208):

He has revealed to us something that we would never have thought of ourselves.   For we would not have thought that these fast days are for repentance, rather that they are for mourning and grief over the day on which evil befell us, just like our rejoicing on a day that good befell us… [4]    Be that as it may, the classical commentators on Maimonides did not tell us whence he deduced this.   Ostensibly, the reasoning is that otherwise one would have to justify the prophets instituting something the likes of which we do not have in the Torah.  We understand that establishing a day of rejoicing on a day that good happens, such as Hanukkah and Purim, can be from the Torah, on the basis of inference from the minor to the major:  “If for deliverance from bondage to Redemption, one recites songs [of praise] on Passover, then for deliverance from death to life, all the more so” ( Megillah 14a), and by inference from minor to major, it is from the Torah; but we have never seen the like of establishing an everlasting day of mourning for troubles that befell us.   Rather, we are forced to conclude that they were established for repentance, as it is written:   “and they shall confess their iniquity,” for fasting can facilitate repentance and atonement, and surely the prototype for this is the Day of Atonement.  Thus we conclude that Maimonides was correct.

Simple intuition says that the reason for the fast days would be mourning over what had happened, but there is no precedent in the Torah for adding days to the calendar for grievous events that happened to the Jewish people.  The only model from which we can learn about fixed days of fasting in the calendar is the Day of Atonement, whose purpose is repentance. That is where Maimonides got his idea. Indeed, Maimonides also writes about ad-hoc days of fasting whose purpose is to stir people to repent (Hilkhot Ta`aniyot 1.1-2):

It is a positive commandment from the Torah to cry out and blow blasts on the horns over any hardship that befalls the community, … and this is one of the ways of repentance, for when hardship befalls the community, and they cry out and blow horns over it, everyone becomes aware that trouble has befallen them because of their wicked deeds. [5]

Many place in Scripture stress that the purpose of fasting is to stir people to repent (Isaiah 58:7; Jonah 2:12; Ps. 69:11, and elsewhere).  Therefore, it is unclear why the Hatam Sofer should be surprised.  Nevertheless, there is something to his argument regarding the aspect of mourning on a fast day, certainly with respect to the ninth of Ab.   There is a certain parallel in the Talmud, and following that, also in the ruling by Maimonides, between mourning practices and the customs observed on the ninth of Ab.

The rabbis taught:   All the commandments observed during mourning are observed on the ninth of Ab:   it is forbidden [to eat and drink], to anoint oneself, to wear shoes, engage in marital relations, and to read the Torah, Prophets or Writings, to study Mishnah and Talmud, Midrash, halakhot and legends (Ta`anit 30a).

Rafram bar Papa, citing Rav Hisda, said:  In all that pertains to bereavement, such as the ninth of Ab and mourning one may not [bathe], be it with hot or cold water, … and when they said one may not bathe, that refers to the entire body, but one may wash one’s hands and face (loc. sit. 13a).

Maimonides draws a parallel between the rules of the ninth of Ab, the Day of Atonement, and customs of mourning, in several respects (Hilkhot   Ta`aniyot 5.7-11):

The eve of the ninth of Ab is observed like its day in every respect.  One eats while it is still fully day, and at dusk eating is forbidden as on the Day of Atonement  the devout of yore were wont to do thus:   on the eve of the ninth of Ab they would bring each person, alone, salted bread soaked in water, and sit and eat it between the oven and the stove, drinking a flask of water with it, in consternation, desolation and lamentation, like someone whose deceased lay before him,… and it is forbidden to bathe, be it with hot water or cold, and even to put a single finger in water, nor may one anoint oneself or partake of the pleasure of wearing shoes, or engaging in marital relations, as on the Day of Atonement  Talmudic scholars do not greet one another on the ninth of Ab, rather they sit moaning and sighing, like mourners. [6]

The prohibition against eating and drinking only applies to fast days such as the ninth of Ab and the Day of Atonement.  The prohibitions against anointing oneself, wearing shoes, and engaging in conjugal relations apply both to fasts and to customs of mourning; hence there is room to wonder, as did the Hatam Sofer, whether their purpose is mourning or repentance. [7]

The discussion of whether the purpose of the fast is repentance or mourning is indicative of the difference between the attitude of the people to fasts that they themselves initiated and the response given by the prophet Zechariah.  Their initiative stemmed from a desire to express grief and mourning over the destruction and catastrophes that had befallen the people, and therefore, once they had begun building the Second Temple, mourning was no longer in order and hence it seemed appropriate to cancel the fasts.   But Zechariah taught the people that the purpose of the fast was not only to express grief and mourning over what had happened, but to awaken to repentance, to ponder the history of the past and learn how to avoid having the same hardship befall them again.


[1] Ad hoc fasts because of specific events are recorded:  Judges 20:26, I Sam. 7:6; II Sam. 12:16; Jer. 36:6-9; Jonah 1:14; Ps. 35:13; Esther 4:3, 16; Dan. 9:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Neh. 9:1; I Chron. 10:12, and elsewhere, however these are not fixed fast dates, observed yearly on a specific date.

[2] This question was asked in the fourth year of Darius’ reign (Zech. 7:1).   Construction of the Temple began in the second year of his reign (Ezra 4:22; Hag. 2:10-18), and was finished in the sixth year (Ezra 6:15).

[3] Meshiv Tzedek, Jerusalem 2005, par. 41.

[4] Rabbi Yom-Tov Heller Lipman, Tosefot Yom Tov, Mishnah Ta`anit 4.1, for example, emphasizes that the point of the fasts is mourning:   Ne`ilah was instituted on all the fast days that were set for prayer, but the four fast days were set for none other than mourning, and Ne’ilah was not instituted on them.”

[5] Maimonides also said this in his introduction to Pirkei Avot, Shemonah Perakim, Shilat ed., Jerusalem 1992, ch. 4, p. 238.

[6] This distinction is made in general also in Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah ( Ta`anit 4.6):  “You should know that all the practices of mourning are also observed on the ninth of Ab, and the practices of mourning shall be explained to you in their appropriate place.   The law concerning a fast day is the same as the laws of fasting on the Day of Atonement, i.e., one may not bathe, anoint oneself, engage in conjugal relations, or wear shoes, and the sanctified day is extended at the expense of the weekday.”

[7] Rabbi Isaac Ze’ev Soloveichik discusses Maimonides’ distinction at length in Hiddushei Maran R. I. Z. Ha-Levi al ha-Rambam, Jerusalem 1976, p. 20:  “Indeed, two laws apply to the ninth of Ab, one is the laws of fast days, the other, customs of mourning.”  In this regard also see the remarks by his nephew, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, Shi`urim le-Zekher Abba Mari, Part I, Jerusalem 2003, pp. 104-106.  Elsewhere, Rabbi J. D. Soloveichik sees an element of repentance in the laws of mourning (“Ha-Rav she-Hotamo Kedushah ve-Ahavah,” Divrei Haggut ve-Ha`arakhah, Jerusalem 1982, p. 199), and in the laws of the Day of Atonement an element of mourning (“Seder ha- Avodah shel Yom ha- Kippurim,” Divrei Hashkafah, Jerusaelm 1995, pp. 171-173).