Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Pinhas 5765/ July 23, þ2 005

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,




The 17th of Tammuz (July 24)


Should We Fast on Sunday?


 Dr. Aviezer Yisraeli


Advisor to the Research Authority



The Four Fasts

When the First Temple was destroyed, four fast days were established:  in the fourth month (17th of Tammuz), the fifth month (9th of Ab), the seventh month (Fast of Gedaliah on the 3rd of Tishre), and in the tenth month (10th of Tevet).  All four are mentioned in the book of Zechariah, when the people who had returned to Zion after the Babylonian Exile (the Restoration Period) collectively asked the prophet, “Shall I weep … in the fifth month?” (Zech. 7:3).   Fasting on the ninth of Ab apparently was customary even when the Second Temple was built and functioning, for the mishnah in Rosh ha- Shanah (1, 3) tells of emissaries who would set out on the first of Ab (during the time of the Second Temple) to notify Jews in outlying areas about the new moon so that people would know about the fast day.  Indeed, Maimonides notes this anomaly in his commentary on the Mishnah.  The gemara distinguishes between the fast on the ninth of Ab and the other fasts, so far as observing them in times of relative tranquility, saying, “The ninth of Ab is different [i.e. the fast is obligatory], since the misfortunes were redoubled on that day” (Rosh ha-Shanah 18b).

Initially the halakhah established these fast days as a custom only, as Maimonides notes:  “It was customary for all Israel to practice abstinence at these times” (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5.5). Without providing substantiation, Magid Mishneh adds the following note:  “Now everyone follows the custom as noted by our teacher, and they [the fast days] are obligatory until such time as the Temple shall be built” (loc. sit.).

Should They Still Be Obligatory?

With the establishment of the State of Israel, and even more so after the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, the subject of fasting these four fast days came up again.  There is no question regarding the fast on the ninth of Ab because this day symbolizes the destruction of the Temple, which has not yet been rebuilt. Further, we have seen that even during the Second Temple period people fasted on this day and the gemara noted the special nature of this day, which had multiple tragedies.   We should, however, examine whether in our time one must fast on the other three days:  the 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Gedaliah and the tenth of Tevet.  The question has come up again, with the publication of Rabbi Joseph Tabori’s book, Mo’adei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, in which it is claimed that there is no substantial proof of these three fast days actually being observed during the Second Temple Period and the time of the amoraim in Babylonia.  Maimonides writes, “During the Second Temple fasting was not practiced either on the tenth of Tevet or the seventeenth of Tammuz except by those who wished to fast” (commentary on the Mishnah, Rosh ha-Shanah 1.3).  Radbaz also draws the same conclusion from the question brought by the people to Zechariah, which referred only to the fast in Ab, saying, “this means that they were not accustomed to observing the other fast days” (Part II, par. 672).

The source that makes the distinction when a fast is in force and when it is not is the Talmud, Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah 18b, which we cited partially above. The sugya relates to the verse in Zechariah 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.”  The gemara cites Rav Papa on this:

In peacetime, they [the fastdays] will be for joy and gladness; in time of a decree by the Empire, one fasts, but if there is no decree by the Empire but neither is there peace, then those who wish to fast do so and those who do not wish to fast need not fast.

A Time of Peace

Rashi was very definitive regarding the interpretation of the word “peace,” saying that when “pagans do not have the upper hand over Israel,” then “they [these days] will be for joy and gladness, eulogies and fasting being forbidden.”   The gemara does not make cancellation of the fasts contingent upon rebuilding the Temple , and Rashi’s interpretation is unequivocal that abrogation of these three fast days depends on the political circumstances of the people of Israel . And while the Maggid Mishneh makes abrogation of these fasts contingent on rebuilding the Temple , and Rabbi S.Y. Zevin in his book Mo’adim ba-Halakhah follows suit, both these sources do not base themselves on the plain sense of the talmudic text.

According to Rabbenu Hananel the state of peace with its attendant joy and happiness depends on the Temple standing, but not abrogation of the fast days.  He writes as follows:

In peacetime, that is, as long as the Temple exists, the fast days will be times of joy and happiness.   If there are harsh decrees of a foreign government, then there is to be fasting; if there is no decree but there is no peace, such as now, at the present time [my emphasis], those who wish to fast may fast, and those who wish not to fast need not fast.

Apparently, according to Rashi, Rabbi Hananel, and Maimonides, the gemara can also be interpreted to mean that a state of joy and happiness pertains only when the Temple exists and the people of Israel have political independence.  But whether or not the fast applies depends solely on political independence and whether there are harsh decrees against Israel.   Towards the end of the Second Temple period the Temple indeed still existed, but sovereignty was in the hands of the Romans and therefore there a state of peace did not exist according to Rashi’s definition.  Therefore they continued to fast on the ninth of Ab, and the other three fasts were observed only by those who so wished, as explained by Maimonides and Radbaz.

Rabbi Jacob son of Asher b. Jehiel [the Rosh] wrote in his law codex, the Tur ( Orah Hayyim 550):

In these days (14th-century Spain), when there is neither peace nor religious persecution (shmad), those who wish to may fast and those who do not wish to, need not fast.   What is meant by ‘there not being peace’ is that the Temple is in ruins, and by ‘there not being persecution’, in any community known to the Jews; then if most of the Jews so desire and agree not to fast, then they do not fast; and if most of the public so desires, they do fast.

In contrast to others, the Tur understands the Talmud to be saying that a necessary condition for a state of peace is that the Temple be standing.  Be that as it may, even in exile and without political independence, the fast depends only on the wishes of the community.

An Extreme View

Rabbi (R. Judah the Prince) was definitely outspoken in his position regarding abrogation of mourning on the 17th of Tammuz.  In Tractate Megillah (5b) we find that “Rabbi … bathed in   Sepphoris publicly on the 17th of Tammuz,” to show that bathing is permitted on this day.  Did he also abolish the fast?  According to Tosefot, it is presumed that he did not abolish the fast, but in the opinion of Rabbi Jacob Emdin, he did cancel the fast.   R. Emdin based himself on the opinion of the Sages in Ta’anit 10b, that if someone does eat on a fast day, at least he should not be seen in public to be enjoying himself:  “And since he permitted bathing”, deduced R. Emdin, then all the more so eating and drinking, which everyone needs, he clearly permitted.”  Rabbi Jacob went on to explain:  “Since Rabbi lived in the time of Antoninus, and enjoyed peace everywhere [the Talmud relates that the two were friends], therefore he showed publicly that even pleasures are permitted, because fasting is not called for.”   One should bear in mind that in 200 C.E. we are dealing with a period of only partial autonomy, not full political independence.

Support for the approach of Rabbi Jacob Emdin can be found in the responsa of Tashbetz [Shimon b. Tzemah Duran] (Part II, par. 271, s.v. ain safek).   According to Tashbetz, the four fasts were established by the prophets, upon the destruction of the First Temple, and have applied since then.  The prophets’ regulation did not distinguish between the severity of the fast on the ninth of Ab and the other three fasts.   This is what he writes:   “Rabbi bathed publicly in Sepphoris on the 17th of Tammuz,” which is to say that he permitted something which had been forbidden by custom; and the same applies to the other restrictions.  Furthermore, Tashbetz says, in the days of the tannaim there were times of decrees against the Jews and times without decrees, and the obligation to fast applied only in the times when there were decrees.   He adds that when there were decrees in the Land of Israel there were no decrees in Babylonia and therefore there was no obligation to observe a day of abstinence in Babylonia. [1]

The gemara (Megillah 5b) recounts how Rabbi “wished to do away with the ninth of Ab, but they did go along with him.”  This passage is also found in the Jerusalem Talmud.  In the Babylonian Talmud it is recounted by Rabbi Eleazar, and in the Jerusalem Talmud by Rabbi Abba bar Zavda.   In both places a colleague of the rabbi who presents the story responds, “That is not how it was; rather, it was a question of the ninth of Ab falling on the Sabbath [Rabbi wished to cancel the fast in that year alone, since it had already been postponed to Sunday], and the Sages did not go along him.”

Tosafot (loc. sit., s.v. u-bikkesh) are surprised at the idea that Rabbi sought to cancel the fast of the ninth of Ab altogether for two reasons.   First, because of the saying in Tractate Ta’anit that whoever eats or drinks on the ninth of Ab will not see Jerusalem comforted.  Second, because of the principle that one bet din cannot overrule the decision of another bet din unless it is greater in wisdom and numbers. If the Sages established that the ninth of Ab is a fast day, how could Rabbi cancel what they had established?  The first reason applies only to the fast of the ninth of Ab, but the second reason holds also for the other three fasts; hence one must ask how Rabbi could cancel them.

The Original Custom

An answer can be found in the commentary Korban ha-Edah on the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Megillah (1, 4):  “Rabbi sought to do away with the ninth of Ab.”  “It would seem that he wished to do away with it entirely; for if there is neither oppression nor peace, then fasting is practiced only if one desires to.  That being the case, this is not a cancellation of the ruling of the bet din that established the fast of the ninth of Ab, since this stipulation was made from the outset.”  In other words, the cancellation of the fast by Rabbi was valid since it was not cancellation of a regulation established by a previous rabbinical court (bet din), insofar as the regulation was made conditional from the outset, and if the stipulated conditions do not pertain, then the cancellation is in effect.

Therefore, insofar as the obligation to fast originates with the prophets (Mishnah Berurah, Orah Hayyim 549), it follows that the conditions for canceling the fast of the month of Tammuz in time of peace were stipulated by the prophets, and according to the interpretation of Rashi and others, peace means political independence; and what authority do we have that can match up to the words of the prophets?

Thus it follows that even in times of partial autonomy, the three minor fasts were not observed.   Since the destruction of the Temple the Jewish people had not enjoyed political independence, and apparently, the ancient literature did not anticipate that there would ever be political independence without the coming of the Messiah.Therefore they did not interpret the gemara according to its plain sense, as Rashi did.   Today, now that we have political independence, it seems there is no reason to make fasting obligatory on these days, both according to the approach of those who say that the State of Israel is the beginning of our Redemption and according to the approach of those who have reservations about this statement.  The fact is that Israel has political independence and that pagan powers do not rule over Israel, nor are there decrees against the Jews; therefore, in my humble opinion, it seems that Rashi’s words should be applied to the 17th of Tammuz, and “fasting and eulogizing should be forbidden.”

[1] Tabori cites the remark by the geonim (p. 403):  “Therefore, for the three fasts if someone does not wish to fast, it makes no difference.”