Five times during the course of the year, aside from the Biblically enjoined day of Yom Kippur, observant Jews the world over engage in fasting: Tzom Gedaliah, Asara b’Tevet, Ta’anit Esther, Shiv’ah Asar B’Tammuz and Tish’ah B’Av. On Ta’anit Esther, we limit our physical pleasure as Esther and the Jews of the time limited their joy as a result of their impending danger under Gentile dominion after losing their self-rule in their own land upon being exiled from their homeland; and on the other four fast days, we limit our physical pleasure as our joy was reduced when our ancestors lost their self-dominion in their own country when they were exiled from the Land of Israel.
To properly appreciate the loss commemorated in these fast days, we should first recognize the special character of the Land of Israel, as reflected in Jewish law. In fact, Jewish law sees the Land of Israel in such a significant light that just one’s leaving it is considered a serious issue that needs to be heavily weighed.
Our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a) that it is prohibited to “leave the Land of Israel for [even] Babylonia [at the time a major center of Torah study] and that R. Chanina instructed someone not to leave to perform the precept of yibbum. Moreover, R. Yochanan reluctantly agreed to allow R. Asi to leave the land in order to greet his mother – stressing that he should return (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 32a). Our Sages also instruct us (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 13a) not to leave the Land of Israel except under special circumstances, such as an opportunity to study Torah in a qualitatively better manner, to marry, or to adjudicate with a non-Jew. Tosafot (ad locum) opine that the aforementioned circumstances are the only ones that justify leaving the Land of Israel and only if one leaves temporarily. We also find (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 14) that our Sages permit leaving for the sake of livelihood, but not just for the sake of travel – even temporarily.
Based on Talmudic sources, the pre-eminent medieval luminary, R. Moshe ben Maimon, known as Rambam or Maimonides, officially sets down in his famous Halakhic magnum opus (Mishne Torah, Melakhim 5:9) that one is allowed to leave the Land of Israel temporarily only to marry, to study Torah, to adjudicate and to engage in commerce.
The consensus among contemporary Halakhic decisors (see for example Shevet Halevi 5:173 and Yechave Da’at5:57) seems to be that one may leave the Land of Israel temporarily for any significant purpose (no less important than commerce), the guidelines of which are somewhat unclear. Nevertheless, Magen Avraham (on Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 531:7) includes even seeing a friend. However, Shevet Halevi does not permit one’s leaving the Land of Israel for the purpose of seeing G-d’s wonders of nature.
Be it as it may, the presence of a descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Land of Israel is not to be taken lightly. One must cherish one’s time in our land and, therefore, not leave it at a whim. This is the special status of our land. This is the land our Father in Heaven bequeathed to us. Abraham was told (Bereshit 13:15), “For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever.” Isaac was told (Bereshit 26:3), “For to you and your offspring will I give these lands.” Jacob was told (Bereshit 35:12), “And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, to you will I give it and to your offspring after you.” This Land of Israel, the Jewish homeland, was a gift by our loving Father in Heaven. How can such a gift be taken lightly?
On top of its special status as a direct gift from G-d, this is a land uniquely rich and varied in its flora and fauna, its climate and terrain, its wildlife and vegetation to this very day, let alone the legendary lusciousness of its fruits and vegetables etc. as described in the Talmud and other Rabbinic sources. At the center of the beauty and uniqueness that characterized the Land of Israel, a land described by G-d Himself (Sh’mot 3:8 et al) as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” was the magnificent structure of the Bet HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, that was once central to Jewish life and pride. Imagine the tremendously beautiful scene that was once enjoyed by our ancestors in our homeland! And it was all lost! The little that we enjoy of the Land of Israel today is but a fraction of what was. As a result of our wrongdoing, our Father in Heaven rescinded His gift.
On our rabbinically mandated fast days, we limit our indulgence in physical pleasures in order to take the time to contemplate our loss and the hope for us to regain what once was. In fasting on these days, we are expressing our hungering for what was. As we express in our prayers daily, “May our eyes see Your return to Zion in compassion.” May we merit soon that our Father in Heaven revert our land, the Land of Israel, and our nation to what it once was.