Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Pinehas 5769/ July 11, 2009

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,



Zechariah's Answer


Dr. Tova Ganzel


Midrasha for Women and Department of Bible


The fast of the 17th of Tammuz, which falls on Thursday, July 9, is one of the group of fast days mourning the destruction of Jerusalem.   Today, when there is no Temple, it seems natural that we continue to fast on these dates, but what did people do in the period of the Restoration, shivat Zion, when the Second Temple was built?  Did the people continue fasting over the destruction of the First Temple?   This question is dealt with in chapters 7-8 of the book of Zechariah.

On the fourth of Kislev, in the fourth year of the reign of King Darius, when the people were building the Second Temple, the priests and levites were asked whether one should continue mourning on the ninth of Ab:   “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” (Zech. 7:3).   Zechariah brings G-d’s response to the common people and priests, but his answer is oblique:   “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months all these seventy years, did you fast for my benefit?   And when you eat and drink, who but you does the eating, and who but you does the drinking?”  (Zech. 7:5-6).

The Lord’s response as presented by the prophet is surprising, because it mentions in addition to the fast on the ninth of Ab (in the fifth month) the fast of Gedaliah (in the seventh month).   This last fast was established because of the murder of Gedaliah son of Ahikam (Jer. 41:16), and is not directly related to the destruction of the Temple.   Had the prophet intended to include in his answer those fasts that are related to the Temple, he should have added the tenth of Tevet and the 17th of Tammuz. 

Secondly, the prophet's response does not provide a clear answer to the people’s question.  The prophet adds that fasting during the seventy years that had passed since the destruction of the Temple was not for the Lord, and that He was not the reason for fasting. The representatives of the people who asked are the ones who now eat and drink because of their indifferent attitude towards the destruction.   After another lengthy prophecy (Zech. 7:8-14; 8:1-17) Zechariah receives an additional prophecy, also in answer to the people’s original question (Zech. 8:18-19):

And the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me, saying, 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.

A Marked Change

These verses provide the people with a clearer answer to their question.  Here the prophet also mentions the rest of the fast days that were established in regard to the destruction of the Temple – the fast of  the fourth month (17th of Tammuz) and the fast of the tenth month (10th of Tevet), and brings the people tidings that in the future all these days will become days of joy.   This answer implies that, even when the Temple is standing, one should continue to observe the fasts as established until a marked change takes place in the people.

What connection is there between the two prophecies, what change is required of the nation, and how are Zechariah’s words to be understood in the light of that era?

Those were disappointing days for the Jews who had returned to Judea following the Cyrus declaration in 538 B.C.E.  The returning exiles had envisioned the fulfillment of the prophets’ vision and had hoped to find a land of plentiful water, with abundant produce and easy livelihood (Haggai 1-2).  Presumably it seemed to them that the Second Temple would be speedily rebuilt, perhaps miraculously, and that the vision of the prophets about the importance of the Temple for all nations would be realized before their very eyes.

That was not the case.  Many of the exiles did not return to the land, notwithstanding Cyrus’ declaration.  A severe drought struck the land and its yield was poor.  Coping with the difficulties of daily life led to many delays in building the Temple, and the people began to doubt whether construction of the Temple was indeed the realization of the words of the prophets.   The people’s question and the prophet’s response about canceling the fasts should be understood in this context.   Through their question about the continued observance of the fast on the ninth of Ab the people were asking the prophet how one should understand the historical and spiritual reality of their day.  For the people asking the question, canceling the fast meant that the reality was indeed changing and that the Temple which they had begun to rebuild marked the beginning of fulfillment of the prophecies of consolation and redemption.

Hence, the prophet’s response deals with the spiritual and historical difficulties being faced by the people, aside from the question of the fast day.  The Lord’s first response specifically mentions the fast of Gedaliah, commemorating an event that took place after the destruction of the Temple, and to this the prophecies between the first and the second response are related.   In these passages the prophet describes the social conditions of the country before destruction of the Temple (Zech. 7:9-12):

Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another.   Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; and do not plot evil against one another. – But they refused to pay heed.  They presented a balky back and turned a deaf ear.  They hardened their hearts like adamant against heeding the instruction and admonition that the Lord of Hosts sent to them by His spirit through the earlier prophets.

Change of Events or Change of Attitude

While the people’s question about canceling the fast of the ninth of Ab stemmed from the renewed possibility of offering sacrifices in the Temple that was being rebuilt, the Lord’s response specifically emphasized societal matters, first by mentioning the fast of the seventh month, which unlike the other fasts was established in the wake of an assassination that actually took place after the destruction of the Temple, and later by describing the Lord’s anger at the people for not mending their ways as a society in the wake of the prophets’ admonishments:  “and a terrible wrath issued from the Lord of Hosts.  Even as He called and they would not listen, ‘So,’ said the Lord of Hosts, ‘let them call and I will not listen’” (Zech. 7:12-13).  Therefore, in His response, the Lord connected discontinuation of the fast days and fulfillment of the prophecies of consolation, for which the people yearned, directly with a change in the behavior of society.   These things would come to pass when the people mend their ways and learn to shun the social wrongs that the Lord hates (Zech. 8:16-17):

These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.  And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.

After society improves itself the fast days would be cancelled and a new reality would dawn, utterly different from the reality in which they lived at the moment.  In this new reality the streets of Jerusalem would be full of vitality:  “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age.   And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares” (Zech. 8:4-5); the people would return to their land en masse:  “I will rescue My people from the lands of the east and from the lands of the west, and I will bring them home to dwell in Jerusalem” (Zech. 8:7-8);   the land would be bountiful:   “The vine shall produce its fruit, the ground shall produce its yield, and the skies shall provide their moisture.   I will bestow all these things upon the remnant of this people” (Zech. 8:12), and the Temple will tower loftily in the eyes of all nations:  “The many peoples and the multitude of nations shall come to seek the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord” (Zech. 8:22).

 Through his complicated answer to the people, Zechariah tries to bring them to understand that a spiritual uplift accompanied by material prosperity cannot be achieved by technical cancellation of days of fasting and mourning.   Spiritual growth, the essence of the redemption for which we long to this day, can come about only in the wake of a marked change in the ways of the people, including their treatment of one another.



Illustration:  According to the Mishnah, Taanit 4.6, five calamities befell our ancestors on the 17th of Tammuz, including Moses’ smashing of the Tablets of the Covenant.