It is easy to get excited about the biblical calendar when holidays like Sukkot, Shavuot and Pesach commemorate joyful events in the history of God's people and foreshadow our Messiah. But Scripture, and history, tell us that not every event is a joyful one.
Certain days and times have been marked by Jewish tradition as solemn days—days for mourning, supplication, introspection, repentance and fasting. These days, though not joyous, are also part of our heritage as the Master's disciples.
Furthermore, the fast days are not simply empty rabbinic tradition. Fasting is a biblical response to severe circumstances and has been taken very seriously by prophets and kings alike. Fasting is a cry to which the Father responds, when it is done with a truly contrite heart.
The Torah specifically commands only one fast day: Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement. Actually, the text does not explicitly mention fasting, but commands the children of Israel to 'afflict their souls,' (v'einitem et nafshoteichem).1 The word for 'soul' (nefesh) is a word of several meanings. While it sometimes refers to the eternal, non-physical part of a human, it is quite often a general term for an entire person. Specifically, it is a common reference to the seat of the appetite, as we find numerous passages that refer to a nefesh eating or being affected by food, especially in the book of Leviticus.2 In several other passages "afflicting the soul" is related to fasting, for example, when David declares, "I have afflicted my soul with fasting" (inneti va-tsum nafshi).3 Therefore, this phrase has historically been interpreted as a command to fast, certainly as early as the First Century, when Luke referred to the day simply as "the fast."4
Zechariah's Fast Days
The Hebrew Scriptures mention other regular fast days. One example is found in Zechariah:
Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying, "Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.'" (Zechariah 8:19)
Thus it is clear that in Zechariah's day, there was a regular cycle of fasts, which included a fast on the fourth month (Tammuz), the fifth month (Av), the seventh month (Tishrei), and the tenth month (Tevet). These fasts began at times of Israel's distress and they continue to be observed even to this day. Let's examine the background of these four fasts.
Fast of Gedaliah
Zechariah mentions a fast in the seventh month. Known as the Fast of Gedaliah, it is observed on the third day of the Hebrew month Tishrei. It mourns the assassination of the governor of Judea in the days of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. When traitors killed Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the remnant of Jewish autonomy was lost, thousands of Jews were killed, and the rest were exiled.5
Gedaliah bears some interesting similarities to our Master, Yeshua. According to some, Gedaliah, considered a good ruler and a tzaddik (a righteous person), was actually of the Davidic line, since it was customary in Babylon to appoint relatives of the kings as governors. If so, he would have been the last Davidic ruler over the House of Judah. Gedaliah was betrayed by one of his friends, Ishmael son of Nethaniah (who was certainly of the royal line6), just after they were "eating bread together."7>
According to some authorities, Gedaliah's death actually occurred on the first of Tishrei (at the holiday meal), but the fast was postponed until the third day in honor of the festival of Rosh HaShanah. Thus both Gedaliah and Yeshua were killed on biblical holy days and are memorialized the third day after. Rosh HaShanah is particularly significant because it foreshadows the Messiah's future coming, when He will establish His everlasting Kingdom on Earth. Thus, David's royal line will pick up where it left off. As it is written, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah."8
The Sages remark that we fast to commemorate both the destruction of the Temple (see below) and the death of Gedaliah. This indicates that "the death of the righteous (tzaddik) is put on a level with the burning of the House of our God."9 This echoes Yeshua's words, which also compared His death to the destruction of the Temple.10
Fast of Tevet
The fast on the tenth of Tevet marks the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar's siege against Jerusalem.11 Little or no actual destruction occurred on this day. But it was the beginning of complete destruction, ultimately resulting in the demolition of the Temple. The real tragedy on this day was not the loss of life or property, but the people's failure to come before God in repentance. This day was a day of warning by the Holy One—one that the people did not heed.
Therefore, according to Rambam,12 on this day we fast to awaken our souls to repentance, turning from our evil deeds to good. This teaching certainly carries a fitting message for our generation.
Fast of Tammuz
The 17th of Tammuz is a dark day of intense grief and the beginning of a three-week mourning period. This fast marks the fall of Jerusalem.
In First Temple times this occurred on the ninth of Tammuz, which is when the fast was originally observed. In Second Temple times, the Holy City fell into Roman hands on the 17th, so the Sages decided to observe them both on the same day in order to awaken our sense of loss and to spur us to repentance.
Traditional calculations find that this is also the day that Moses, when he descended from the mountain, found the Israelites engaged in idolatry and broke the Torah tablets.13 We find the consequences of this sin reverberating throughout the generations. According to the Mishnah,14 the continual offering in the First Temple was stopped due to lack of sheep, and one year later, on the ninth, the walls were breeched. In 70 CE, the walls were breeched again. On this day, before the Great Revolt, the Roman general Apostamos burned a Torah scroll. And when the evil king Manasseh set up an idolatrous image in the Temple,15 it is also traditionally linked to this date.
The three weeks of mourning culminate in a heavy, solemn day: the ninth of Av. On this day in 586 BCE, the first Temple was destroyed by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and his army. One hundred thousand Jews were killed and millions were exiled. (Perhaps this happened as a result of the sin of a previous generation. It is traditionally believed that it was the ninth of Av when the Israelites believed the evil report of the spies.16) On this very same day in 70 CE, the Romans, led by Titus, set the second Temple ablaze. This time about two million Jews were put to death and approximately one million more were exiled.
In the year 135 CE, the final fight against the Romans—the Bar Kochba revolt—was crushed by Hadrian. The last Jewish holdout, the city of Betar, was captured. In this rebellion, a wedge was forced between the believers and the rest of the Jewish community.
Exactly one year later to the day, the Temple area was plowed under and Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city. Jews were no longer allowed access.
On this day in 1095, Pope Urban II began the first Crusade. In 1290, Jews were expelled from England. In 1492, the Spanish Inquisition culminated in the expulsion of the Jews. In 1914, World War One began.
The ninth of Av is the most tragic day in all of Jewish history. The fast lasts for 24 hours, other rites of mourning are employed, and the book of Lamentations is read in the synagogue.
When the Bridegroom Is with Them
Tradition holds that it is forbidden for a tzaddik to fast, since food sustains his soul, which (unlike ours) is holy.17 The disciples, while the Master was on earth, were criticized for not fasting.18 Perhaps they were experiencing a fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy that the Fast of Tammuz, the Fast of Av, the Fast of Gedaliah, and the Fast of Tevet would become days of joy in the time of the Messiah's reign. Should we, who submit our lives to Messiah's kingship even now, also be fasting? Yes, since the Master's first coming was momentary. As He responded:
Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.19
Today, we are in exile. The Messiah is not with us. But when He comes, the ones who mourn in Zion will be comforted;20 the ones who are weeping now will be laughing.21
- Leviticus 23:27-32
- For example, see Leviticus 7:18-27; 11:43-44; 17:15. See also Proverbs 23:2-3 and Psalm 107:9
- Psalm 35:13. See also Psalm 69:10 and Isaiah 58:3
- Acts 27:9
- The story can be found in 2 Kings 25:22-26 (short version) and Jeremiah 40-41 (long version).
- Jeremiah 41:1
- Genesis 49:10
- Rosh HaShanah 18b
- John 2:19
- 2 Kings 25:1
- Hilchot Taanit 5
- Exodus 32:19; Taanit 26b; Yoma 4b
- Taanit 26b
- 2 Kings 21:7
- Sotah 35a
- Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, §50, Likutei MoHaran
- Matthew 9:14-15
- ibid. Halachah forbids fasting in the presence of a bridegroom.
- Isaiah 61:2; Matthew 5:4
- Luke 6:21