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The Five Pillars of Judaism – Fasting

BS”D

And onwards to the fourth pillar. As we can see from Amani’s walkthrough of the Pillars of Islam, the fourth pillar is fasting, Sawm in Arabic, being a duty upon the Muslim during the month of Ramadan. The Muslim fast is, as is seen, a fast which last a whole month, or maybe rather 29 to 30 days, since the Muslim calendar is based on the moon rather than the sun. The difference is that the months are slightly shorter, also leaving the year shorter than the solar calendar, which is what the West is following. Instead of a year of 365 days, the year is only 356 days, making the Ramadan, and fast, move eleven days a year.

The Jewish calendar is also a lunar calendar, that is, it also follows the moon, but rather than just letting the month move through the solar year, the Jewish calendar once in every second or third year, add an extra month, so the Jewish months will more or less always lie in the same seasons of the year. The reason for the difference between the two calendars, the Muslim and the Jewish, is that Judaism has a great focus on agriculture, making it necessary to keep the various festivals within the seasons, which isn’t the case in Islam (and here we have a difference in Judaism and Islam, though this doesn’t mean that agriculture is without importance in Islam, it just doesn’t put the same great emphasis on agriculture as Judaism does).

Back to the fast. Before I continue I need to point out that fast in Islam is not a constant fast, that is, the fast of Ramadan is “only” from sunrise till sunset, which can be hard enough, especially when it is every day for a month. Furthermore, the things being prohibited are eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations. That said I would rather encourage you to check out Amani’s post, since she – as always – explains it much better and in much greater detail than I do.

There are two Hebrew terms for fast, the one being the most used today is “Tzum,” being related to the Arabic Sawm, while the other, which normally is translated as “afflict,” is ‘Unah, meaning “torture,” or ‘Inah, “to torture.” Both words are found in the Hebrew Bible, in overlapping meanings, though with ‘Inah being somewhat more grave in tone than Tzum. That is, where Tzum merely reflects fasting, ‘Inah reflects pain and torture, which also includes fasting. I don’t remember well, so I have to check it out, but as far as I remember the ‘Unah is the fasting lasting from sunset to sunset, while the Tzum is only lasting from sunrise to sunset, having the ‘Unah becoming a torture in the end, while the Tzum is “merely” a shorter time abstaining from pleasures.

As said, the Hebrew word normally used for fast is tzum and is typically observed in context of regretting or boding for sin done, either personal or communal, mourning or in order to receive an answer on troubling questions, such as a weird dream or just general direction, becoming enlightened. There are five fasts in Judaism, the most important and extensive one being the one of Yom Kippur, followed in importance by the fast of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the month of Av), and then the Fast of Gedalyah, ‘Asara B’Tevet, and Tzum Tammuz. There are other minor fasts, but they are not always followed by the same level of observance as the greater fasts.

Fasts in Judaism always only last one day, but then – in difference from Islam – are absolute. The big fasts, such as the one of Yom Kippur, is observed from before sunset the first day until after sunset the next, that is, at least 25 hours. And it is a “total” fast, which means that no eating or drinking is allowed, as well as smoking, sexual relations, showering, sleeping comfortable, and other things making the time of the fast pleasurable. Most fasts are only lasting from sunrise to sunset though, being as short as five hours, depending on where in the world and what time of year one is fasting. And of course fasts should always be observed with prayers, and – preferable – charity.

I will take the advantage of already having mentioned them to go through the mentioned days of fast, starting with Yom Kippur:

Yom Kippur is the most holy and important day in Judaism, a day that calls for and enjoys observance even from secular people, who normally don’t spend much time thinking about their religion. Synagogues are completely full this day a year, streets being emptied for any traffic normally filling them (at least at places where there is greater Jewish communities). Yom Kippur is mentioned in WaYiqra (Leviticus) 16 and 23:27-32, and especially 16:29-31 and 23:27-32 is important here, since that mention that the people has to “afflict” themselves. The word used here is ‘Initem, reflecting the graveness and seriousness of the day.

The fast of Yom Kippur does not stand alone. It is a day of serious contemplation on one’s sin and asking for forgiveness for them, but this doesn’t only goes for the day itself, the Jew needs to be prepared for this day, a preparation which in fact starts already in the beginning of the previous month, being a time asking friends and other people for forgiveness for all the wrongdoings one may have done. Also charity should be given easily in this period, showing trust in God, and a will to put one’s ego aside. That done and prepared to Yom Kippur itself, the Jew will experience a day not only of intense fasting and abstaining from any pleasure, but also a day of prayer. The day is begun the evening before, with prayers for acceptance of release of all one’s promises given to God, which one didn’t keep to perfection, as well as the normal, though much extended, evening prayer, Ma’ariv. The next day there four more prayers, lasting – depending on the prayer leader/s – all day. The first, as is always the case, Shaharit, the morning prayer, followed by the Mussaf, the additional prayer, then Minhah, the afternoon prayer, and finally the Neilah, which is the prayer for forgiveness and being inscribed in the book of life. Most places there is a break between the Mussaf and the Minhah, but many places either skipping them or making them very short. The day ends with the closing of the ark, the room storing the Torah-scrolls, and after that people are praying the evening prayer for the new day, as well as a Kiddush for the passing from a holy time to a secular time.

When the Temple was still standing there was an extensive sacrificial ceremony, which is being reflected in the prayers, the prayers taking the place of the sacrifices after the destruction (and most like already before in the Diaspora), where two goats were taken for the ritual, the one being sacrificed and its blood put on the other goat, which then was send out in the wilderness, symbolizing the sins of Israel being send away. Since that only could be performed in the Temple, there is today done no such ritual (maybe the Samarians have a like ritual, I’m not sure, but it could be interesting to find out).

The next fast I wanted to explain is the one of Tisha B’Av, but since I already wrote a post, some time ago, I’d rather direct you there.

So skipping the fast of Tisha B’Av I’m hurrying onwards to the Fast of Gedalyah, being observed the day after Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year, lasting from sunrise till after sunset. Gedalyah was the governor of Yehudah during the Babylonian reign. Though most Jews were taken captive and brought to Babylon, some still remained, and for these Gedalyah acted as a governor. The Ammonite king wasn’t very satisfied with Gedalyah being governor of Yehudah, so he convinced the Jew Yishma’el ben Netanyah, who was a descendant of King David, to bring some men and kill Gedalyah. Gedalyah, who was warned about Yishma’el ben Netanyah’s plans he refused to believe it, being overtaken and killed by Yishma’el and his men in the city of Mitzpa. The accounts can be read shortly in 2 Kings 25:25-26.

The fast is observed with some additional prayers as well as a Torah-reading.

The fourth fast is the fast of ‘Asarah b’Tevet, the tenth of Tevet, traditionally being related to the Babylonian king’s, Nebuchadnezer II, siege of Jerusalem, which eventually lead to the destruction of the first Temple, which is mentioned in 2 Kings 25:1-4. It is an easy fast, being observed from sunrise till after sunset, including additional prayers and Torah-reading.

The fifth and last is the fast of Shiv’ah ‘Asar b’Tammuz, the seventeenth of Tammuz, which introduces a period until Tisha B’Av, which is considered a period of mourning because of the Romans breaching the walls of Jerusalem, which eventually lead to the destruction of the second Temple. In the three weeks between the two days it is prohibited to shave, having the hair cut, listening to music, marrying and perform other acts of joys, in commemoration of the Roman slaughter of Jews in these three weeks.

It is also considered an easy fast, going from sunrise till after sunset, adding some additional prayers and Torah-reading. This one I also have written a post about, which you can read here.

I have only given few details, covering the most general, all of the fasts having quite many details, which I think is needed to study in order to get a good understanding of the fast in Judaism, but I wanted to keep it somewhat brief introduction to fast in Judaism. Fasts, it has to be said, don’t have to be observed communal, but can also be taken volunteering privately.

17th of Tammuz

This is a minor fast, which begins by dawn the coming Tuesday.. Make sure to check your local times, to be sure when..

On this day we commemorate five tragedies:

  1. Moshe Rabenu (A”S) broke the first tablets of stone, when seeing the dancing around the gold calf..
  2. The daily Tamid (the daily offering) ceased to be brought in the Beyt HaMiqdash..
  3. The walls of Jerusalem was breached, leading to the destruction of the Beyt HaMiqdash three weeks later..
  4. The Roman leader Apostomus (Y”S) burned a Sefer Torah, prior to the rebellion of Bar Kochba..
  5. An idol was erected in the Beyt HaMiqdash..

This day begins the three weeks until Tisha B’Av, three weeks where we shouldn’t be too joyful, as well as we’re not supposed to buy new clothes or eat fruits that we haven’t eaten before in this season (since Rosh HaShanah), since we’re not supposed to say the blessing of “Shehehiyanu” in this period.. Weddings are not celebrated in this period.. The tradition is furthermore not to eat meat in this period.. Neither do we shave or get our hair cut in this period..

The reason is found in the fact, that while Jerusalem was under siege of the Romans, it wasn’t possible to bring good or new food to the defenders and people living in the city, as well as new clothes wasn’t bought (of obvious reason)..

The day itself is a minor day of fast, and is often overseen, but it introduce three weeks leading to Tisha B’Av (the ninth day in the month of Av), where the tradition says that many sad things happened, for example the destruction of both the first and the second Beyt HaMiqdash (the Temple), the expulsion of the Jews in England in 1290 and in Spain in 1492, just as well as the first World War started on this day (the first of August 1914, where Germany declared war against Russia)..

Personally this period, the two days included, is a period of sorrow and repentance, but also to a certain degree of joy.. Even though this is a sad period with many tragedies (it’s noteworthy to consider the fact, that the war against Hizbullah took place in this period, with many civilians killed) and we should look deeply within us selves, the period also witnesses of the great hand of HaShem, always ensuring the survival and existence of the Jewish People.. No matter how much the nations of the world has tried to exterminate us, HaShem has kept his hand over us, and made sure that today, 3,300 years after we received Torah at Har Sinay, 3,300 years since the first attempts to destroy us by the hands of the Egyptians and ‘Amaleq (Y”S), we’re still here, and as long as we follow Moshe Rabenu (A”S), instead of following the example of Korah, Dathan and Aviram, we will continue to exist, BE”H..