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Minor Fast Days - A New Way to Look at and Practice an Ancient Custom

12/23/2020 01:23:06 PM


While this Friday December 25th is known as Christmas, this year Christmas coincides with a Jewish day of Remembrance and a minor Jewish fast day. The tenth of Tevet is a minor fast day which commemorates when Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King, began his siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. 18 months later on the 9th of Av, in 586 BCE, the First Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. This minor fast day that we observe this week on the 25th of December in many ways commemorates the beginning of the end for the first Jewish commonwealth.

There are many different types of fast days in Judaism. Minor fasts are fasts that begin at sunrise and end by sunset. They are observed by not consuming food. There are four minor fasts in Judaism. Three of these fasts commemorate events that led up to the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The last one is the fast of Esther which commemorates the fast that Esther underwent before she went to go visit King Achashverosh to save the Jews.

According to the Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashanah 18B:

Rav Pappa said that this is what [Judaism] is saying [in regards to observance of minor fast days]: When there is peace in the world and the Temple is standing, these days will be times of joy and gladness; when there is persecution and troubles for the Jewish people, they are days of fasting; and when there is no persecution but still no peace, neither particular troubles nor consolation for Israel, the halakha is as follows: If people wish, they fast, and if they wish, they do not fast.  

For many, if not most, Reform Jews minor fast days are a non-issue.  The reason for their observance does not resonate with most of us and they have been mostly forgotten as days where anything needs to be observed at all.  However, even though we do not observe these days any more, their effect on the Jewish psyche still has ramifications for us today.

The loss of the Temple was a tragic thing.  The loss of life is something worthy of remembering and perhaps even mourning to this day.  However, the loss of life is not what the minor fast days around the loss of the first Temple ask us to remember. They really ask us to remember, and to feel sad about, the loss of the temple in Jerusalem.

The temple in Jerusalem centered all of Jewish life around the practice of animal and grain sacrifices. However, with the destruction of the temple this paved the way for Judaism to evolve. It paved the way for things like personal prayer, individualized and empowered spirituality, as well as Rabbinic Judaism and post-modern enlightenment Judaism.

In many ways while the loss of the temple was tragic it could also be seen as a moment of growth from tragedy for the Jewish people.

The message that minor fast days can send today does not have to be one of abject sadness.  They also do not need to be expressed through the practice of fasting.   These days our calendar has demarcated, for remembering the destruction of the first Temple can become that mark, the adaptability and strength of Jews. They can become days where we look at the Jewish response to sadness. Whereas some cultures may lament over destruction, Jews respond to the tragic through creation. We see rubble and we choose to build.

Therefore, perhaps as Reform Jews we need to revisit these forgotten minor fast days.  Perhaps they can still serve an important spiritual function for us.  In place of a narrative of sadness and persecution which fasting implies, these days could come to mean and come to be days of reflection. These day like the 10th of Tevet could come to be days of appreciation, days of gratitude, for all that we have and for all that we have built throughout our history. Perhaps these minor fast days can become days where we pause to give ourselves perspective over tragedy and victory and to wrestle with that dichotomy.

Tue, January 26 2021 13 Shevat 5781