by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – June 29, 2010

Five times during the year, other than the Biblical day of atonement Yom Kippur, the people of Israel are encouraged to fast: Tzom Gedaliah, Asara be-Tevet, Ta’anit Esther, Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz and Tish’ah be-Av.  On these days, except Tish’ah be-Av, we fast during the daytime hours, from dawn until the stars appear, whereas we fast the entire day of Tish’ah be-Av, from one evening to the next, as on Yom Kippur.  If one of these fasts occurs on the Sabbath, it is deferred to the next day, except Ta’anit Esther which is advanced to the preceding Thursday for if it were deferred to the next day it would conflict with Purim.

In fasting on these days, we consciously deprive ourselves of some physical pleasure in order to be able to greater contemplate, empathize with, delve into, and appreciate the losses and troubles which befell our ancestors years ago and which continue to befall us to this day.

The fast of Tzom Gedaliah dates back to the sixth century BCE.  After the destruction of the first Bet HaMikdash (Temple) in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah ben Achikam to be the governor of the remaining Jewish community in Judah.  But in the beginning of the month of Tishre, Yishmael ben Netaniah and his colleagues, jealous of Gedaliah’s authority, assassinated Gedaliah and, as a result, led to the exile of the Jews still remaining in our homeland, the Land of Israel, as is recounted in Yirmiyahu, chap. 41.

Asara be-Tevet marks the day in which Nebuchadnezzar and his armies reached and laid siege to our holy capital, Jerusalem, as is reported in Yechezkel 24:1-2.

Ta’anit Esther on the 13th day of Adar commemorates the fasts observed by the Jews during the period of the Persian king Xerxes, known as Ahasuerus, in which the evil Haman sought to destroy the entire people of Israel as is related in the Book of Esther.

Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz marks the day in which Moses descended from heaven to find that the very same children of Israel who experienced the miraculous events surrounding their exodus from Egypt regressed into the worship of a golden calf and, consequently, Moses threw down and shattered the Tablets comprising the Ten Commandments (Sh’mot 31:18-32:19).  And in later years, on Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz, Roman legions breached the walls of Jerusalem.

The Talmud informs us, “Five things occurred to our fathers…on Tish’ah be-Av:…It was decreed against our fathers [who followed the evil report of the Israelite spies] that they should not enter into the Land [of Israel], and the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, and Betar was captured [in the second century], and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed up [after the first Temple’s destruction]” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 26a-b).  To remind us of the great losses incurred on Tish’ah be-Av and feel the concurrent sorrow, we practice deprivation as those practiced on Yom Kippur, such as not wearing leather shoes, and we read in the evening and morning of Tish’ah be-Av the Book of Eikhah in which the prophet Jeremiah begins: “How does the city sit solitary that was full of people; she has become as a widow she that was great among the nations, princess among the provinces has become a tributary.  She weeps sore in the night and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among her lovers; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her [and] have become her enemies.  Judah has gone into exile out of affliction and out of great servitude; she dwells among the nations; she finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her within the straits” (Eikhah 1:1-3).

As in the time of Gedaliah, we continue to see bitter conflict among Jewish groups and the caustic vilification of learned and pious leaders and individuals among us, serving only to our own detriment.  As on Asara be-Tevet, jealous Jew-hating Arab legions laid siege to Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence for the State of Israel, and, to this day, Arab terrorists continue to surround us with attack after attack.  As in the time of Esther and Mordekhai, the cursed dictator of Nazi Germany, Adolph Hitler, attempted to destroy the Jewish people and erase their existence from before his eyes, a desire that continues to be rampant among our Arab neighbors.  As on Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz, we continue to see multitudes of our people forsaking the true G-d and His demands; and as on Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz, the aforementioned Arab legions entered Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence and expelled numerous Jewish residents in addition to Jews who were previously forced to flee from the resting place of our forefathers and foremothers, Hebron, as well as other towns – places where we have yet to have regained residence as we once did.  And as on Tish’ah be-Av, Jewish places of worship, places of study and burial sites continue to be desecrated and devastated to this very day, and when Jerusalem was under Arab dominion, the holy city was completely torn up only to be rebuilt after the Jews recaptured Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and since then to be ripped apart on numerous occasions by murderous Arab attacks.

Through observing these fasts, we find time to contemplate and appreciate that which we have lost and concurrently that which we still have and which we are at liberty to build upon and preserve – our Jewish heritage and our people.  Let us take the opportunity to think wisely and act appropriately.  And, eventually, “Thus says the L-rd of hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth month [Shiv’ah Asar be-Tammuz], and the fast of the fifth [Tish’ah be-Av], and the fast of the seventh [Tzom Gedaliah], and the fast of the tenth [Asara be-Tevet] shall become, for the house of Judah, joy and gladness” (Zechariah 8:19).

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