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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Fasting and Fast-Days
Fasting is usually defined as a withholding of all natural food from the body for a determined period voluntarily appointed for moral or religious ends. This institution has found wide acceptance in all religious systems, although its forms and motives vary with different creeds and nationalities.
The origin of fasting is disputed by various critics. Some (e.g., Herbert Spencer) are of the opinion that it arose from the custom of providing refreshments for the dead; others (e.g., W. R. Smith) that it was merely a preparation for the eating of the sacrificial meal; others, again (e.g., Smend), attribute the custom to a desire on the part of the worshipers to humble themselves before their God, so as to arouse His sympathy; while still others think that "it originated in the desire of primitive man to bring on at will certain abnormal nervous conditions favorable to those dreams which are supposed to give to the soul direct access to the objective realities of the spiritual world" (Tylor, cited in "Encyc. Brit." s.). The Rabbis compared fasting to sacrifice, and considered the affliction of one's body as the offering up of one's blood and fat upon the altar (Ber. 17a). Examples may be quoted from the Bible to corroborate these varying opinions.
In Biblical Times.
In olden times fasting was instituted as a sign of mourning (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12), or when danger threatened (2 Samuel 12:16; comp. 1 Kings 21:27), or when the seer was preparing himself for a divine revelation (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9,18; Daniel 9:3; comp. B. M. 85a). That individual fasting was common among the early Jews is evident from the provision made (Numbers 30:14) that a vow made by a woman "to afflict the soul" may under certain conditions be canceled by the husband. More frequent, however, were the occasional fasts instituted for the whole community, especially when the nation believed itself to be under divine displeasure (Judges xx, 26; 1 Samuel 7:6, where it is conjoined with the pouring out of water before the Lord; Jeremiah 36:9; Nehemiah 9:1), or when a great calamity befell the land (Joel 1:14, 2:12), as when pestilence raged or when drought set in; and sometimes also when an important act was about to be carried out by the officials of the land (1 Kings 21:12; comp. 1 Samuel 14:24). In Jonah 3:6-7 it may be seen with what rigor an official fast was observed, while in Isaiah 58:5 is given a description of a fast-day among the Jews. For the attitude of the Prophets and of the Rabbis toward fasting see see ABSTINENCE; ASCETICISM
List of Fast-Days.
Of regular fixed fast-days the Jewish calendar has comparatively few. Besides the Day of Atonement, which is the only fast-day prescribed by the Mosaic law (Leviticus 16:29; ATONEMENT, DAY OF), there were established after the Captivity four regular fast-days in commemoration of the various sad events that had befallen the nation during that period (Zechariah 8:19; comp. 7:3-5). These were the fast of the fourth month (Tammuz), of the fifth month (Ab), of the seventh month (Tishri), and of the tenth month (Ṭebet). According to some rabbis of the Talmud, these fasts were obligatory only when the nation was under oppression, but not when there was peace for Israel (R. H. 18b). In the Book of Esther an additional fast is recorded (9:31; comp. 4:3,16), which is commonly observed, in commemoration of the fast of Esther, on the thirteenth of Adar, although some used to fast three days—the first and second Mondays and the Thursday following Purim (Soferim 17:4, 21:2).
Many other fasts, in memory of certain troubles that befell Israel, were added in the course of time, a full list of which is given at the end of Megillat Ta'anit. These were not regarded as obligatory, and they found little acceptance among the people. The list, with a few changes as given in Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 580, 2, marked in parentheses, is as follows:
- First of Nisan: the sons of Aaron were destroyed in the Tabernacle.
- Tenth of Nisan: Miriam the prophetess died; the well that followed the Israelites in the wilderness disappeared.
- Twenty-sixth of Nisan: Joshua the son of Nun died.
- Tenth of Iyyar: Eli the high priest and his two sons died, and the Ark was captured by the Philistines.
- Twenty-ninth (twenty-eighth) of Iyyar: Samuel the prophet died.
- Twenty-third of Siwan: the Israelites ceased bringing the firstlings to Jerusalem in the days of Jeroboam.
- Twenty-fifth of Siwan: R. Simeon son of Gamaliel, R. Ishmael son of Elisha, and R. Ḥanina the superior ("segan") of the priests were executed.
- Twenty-seventh of Siwan: R. Ḥanina son of Teradion was burned while holding a scroll of the Torah.
- Seventeenth of Tammuz: the tablets were broken; the regular daily sacrifice ceased; Apostemus burned the Law, and introduced an idol into the holy place; the breaking into the city by the Romans (Ta'an. 28b).
- First of Ab: Aaron the high priest died.
- Ninth of Ab: it was decreed that Jews who went out of Egypt should not enter Palestine; the Temple was destroyed for the first and the second time; Bether was conquered, and Jerusalem plowed over with a plowshare (ib. 29a).
- Eighteenth of Ab: the western light was extinguished in the time of Ahaz.
- Seventh (seventeenth) of Elul: the spies died in a pestilence.
- Third of Tishri: Gedaliah and his associates were assassinated in Mizpah (2 Kings 25:25).
- Fifth of Tishri: twenty Israelites died, and Akiba was imprisoned and afterward executed.
- Seventh of Tishri: it was decreed that the Israelites should die by sword and by famine on account of the affair of the golden calf (see Meg. Ta'an. ad loc., ed. princeps, Mantua, 1514).
- Sixth (seventh) of Marḥeshwan: Nebuchadnezzar blinded King Zedekiah after he had slaughtered the latter's children in his presence.
- Seventh (twenty-eighth) of Kislew: Jehoiakim burned the scroll that Baruch wrote at the dictation of Jeremiah.
- Eighth of Ṭebet: the Torah was translated into Greek in the time of Ptolemy; there was darkness in the world for three days.
- Ninth of Ṭebet: incident not explained (death of Ezra, as mentioned in "Kol Bo").
- Tenth of Ṭebet: the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar began (2 Kings 25:1; Jeremiah 52:4).
- Eighth (fifth) of Shebaṭ: the righteous (elders) that were in the time of Joshua died.
- Twenty-third of Shebaṭ: the Israelites gathered to war with the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20).
- Seventh of Adar: Moses died.
- Ninth of Adar: the controversy between the house of Shammai and that of Hillel.
The Polish Jews are accustomed to fast on the twentieth of Siwan on account of the atrocities committed on that day in 1648 by the Cossacks. Some pious Jews also fast every Monday and Thursday in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, of the burning of the Torah, and of the desecration of God's name (comp. Luke 18:12). The first and second Mondays and the first Thursday of Iyyar and of Marḥeshwan, following the festivals of Passover and of Sukkot respectively, are recognized fasts in most Jewish communities, and were originally instituted to atone for the sins that might have been committed in the pursuit of pleasure during the holidays (Ḳid. 81a; Tos., s. "Soḳobo"; Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 492). The burial societies observe a fast-day preceding their annual feast held in the evening. In some places it is observed on the fifteenth of Kislew; in some on the seventh of Adar; while others have other days for its observance (see BURIAL SOCIETY). It is also customary to fast on the eve of New-Year's Day (Tan., Emor, s. "U-Leḳaḥtem"), while many fast during all the ten penitential days (Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 581, 2, Isserles' gloss). Some pious Jews fast every Friday, so as to partake of the Sabbath meal with a hearty appetite (ib. 249, 3). The anniversary of the death of one's father or mother ("Jahrzeit") and the day of one's marriage are also observed as fasts (Yoreh De'ah, 402, 11, Isserles' gloss; Eben ha-'Ezer, 61, 1, Isserles' gloss). The first-born fast on the eve of Passover in commemoration of the miracle which was performed in Egypt when all the Egyptian first-born were slain and those of the Israelites were saved.
Besides these fixed fast-days, the Synagogue frequently imposed a fast-day upon the community when great calamities threatened the people. This right of the Synagogue had its origin in the fasts described in the treatise Ta'anit as having been instituted in early times when rain was late in coming. If no rain fell on or before the seventeenth of Marḥeshwan, the learned and pious men of the community fasted three days—Monday, Thursday, and Monday. In the case of continued drought, three more fasts were proclaimed, and, lastly, seven fast-days on successive Mondays and Thursdays were instituted. These fasts were accompanied with many solemn ceremonies, such as the taking out of the Ark to the market-place, while the people covered themselves with sackcloth and placed ashes on their foreheads, and impressive sermons were delivered (Ta'an. 18a). Fast-days were subsequently instituted in case any misfortune befeil the people, as pestilence, famine, evil decrees by rulers, etc. (ib. 19a). Examples of the latter were the fasts instituted by the Russian rabbis during the anti-Jewish riots early in the eighth decade of the nineteenth century.
Private fasts were frequent among the Jews from earliest times (Judith 8:6; I Macc. 3:47; II Macc. 13:12). One may take it upon himself to fast on certain days, either in memory of certain events in his own life, or in expiation of his sins, or in time of trouble to arouse God's mercy (see VOWS). The Rabbis, however, did not encourage such abstinence Indeed, they positively forbade it in the case of a scholar, who through his fasting would be disturbed in his study; or of a teacher, who would thereby be prevented from doing his work faithfully; or of one pursued by robbers, who might become weak (Ta'an. 11a). In no case should one boast of his fasts to others, and even though he is asked he should try to evade the question, except when he has fasted in expiation of his sins; in this case acknowledgment may lead others to expiation likewise (Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 565, 6).
The fast undertaken in consequence of an evil dream has peculiar significance in Jewish law. While in general no fast is permitted on Sabbaths or holidays, the Talmud permitted one to be undertaken even on these days, provided it be complemented later by another fast (Ber. 31b). There are, however, various opinions among the later authorities regarding such a fast. Some think that it may be observed on a Sabbath only after an evil dream has occurred three times, while others are of the opinion that it is not possible to distinguish at present between good and evil dreams, and that therefore one should not fast at all on the Sabbath. The custom is to fast if one dreams of the burning of a scroll of the Law, or the Day of Atonement during Ne'ilah service, or the beams of his house falling, or his teeth dropping out. The custom of fasting on such occasions has, however, lapsed into desuetude, and, as in the cases cited above, is discouraged by the Rabbis (Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 288).
All Jewish fasts begin at sunrise and end with the appearance of the first stars of the evening, except those of the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Ab, which last "from even till even." There is no special ritual for the ordinary fast-days. The Law is taken out and the lesson from Exodus is read which treats of the thirteen qualities of mercy and of God's forgiveness at the supplication of the pious (Exodus 32:11-14, 34:1-10). The same passages are read both at the morning and at the afternoon services, while at the latter the Hafṭarah is also read from Isaiah 55:6-56:8. The Sephardim do not read the Hafṭarah on the afternoon of anyfast-day except the Ninth of Ab (see AB, NINTH DAY OF). In the 'Amidah the prayer beginning with "'Anenu" is inserted, and in the morning service special seliḥot are provided for the various fasts.
The giving of charity on a fast-day, especially the distribution of food necessary for the evening meal (Sanh. 35a, and Rashi ad loc.), was much encouraged, in accordance with the rabbinic saying that "the reward of the fast-day is in the amount of charity distributed" (Ber. 6b).
Relation to Sabbath.
The only fixed fast-day that may be celebrated on a Sabbath is the Day of Atonement; all the others, if they fall on a Sabbath, are postponed until the following day. Private or public occasional fasts can not be held on any of the holidays, or on a new moon, or on any of the minor festivals (see FESTIVALS), or during the month of Nisan, or on the week-days of the festivals. The Megillat Ta'anit enumerates many days of the year upon which no fast may be held, but the later Rabbis declare that one is not bound by these laws, and that therefore fasts may be instituted on any day except those mentioned (R. H. 19b). On a Sabbath it is forbidden to go without food until midday (Yer. Ta'an. 3:11), except when one is accustomed to eat late in the day and would injure himself by changing his custom (Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 288, 1, 2).
Except in regard to the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Ab, the command to fast applies only to food and drink; all other acts, such as washing the body or anointing, are permitted. It is forbidden, however, to indulge in any unnecessary pleasures on these days: one should meditate on the significance of the fast and examine his own sins (ib. 568, 12). Even those who are permitted to eat, as pregnant or nursing women, should not have regular meals, but should take only as much food as is necessary, so that all may participate in the common sorrow (ib. 554, 5).
The first nine days of Ab, and, with some, the period from the seventeenth of Tammuz to the tenth of Ab, are regarded as partial fasts, the eating of meat and the drinking of wine alone being forbidden.
- Maimonides, Yad, Ta'aniyyot, -;
- Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 562-580;
- Lampronti, Paḥad Yiẓḥaḳ, Berlin, 1887;
- Hastings, Dict. Bible;
- Hamburger, R. B. T.;
- Nowack, Hebräische Archäologie, Leipsic, 1894;
- Smend, Alttestamentliche Religionsgeschichte, ib. 1893;
- W. R. Smith, Rel. of Sem. London, 1894;
- Monteflore, Hibbert Lectures, London, 1897;
- Oehler, Theologie des Alten Testaments, Stuttgart, 1891;
- Dembitz, Jewish Services in Synagogue and Home, Philadelphia, 1898.
Fasting, which had no place in the oldest ritual practises of Islam, dates from the Medinian period of Mohammed's career. The idea of fasting was not a spontaneous growth, but was adopted from the Jewish custom. Consequently the terms "ṣam" and "ṣiyam" had their original meanings altered to agree with the Hebrew "ẓaum."
According to tradition, Mohammed at first introduced only one fast-day, similar to the Jewish Day of Atonement, and called it "'ASHURA," which is identical with the Judæo-Aramaic word "'asor" (10th of Tishri). Soon, however, he abandoned it (together with other customs borrowed from the Jewish ritual), and replaced it by an institution which he distinctly stated was adopted from an older custom ("O true believers, a fast is ordained unto you as it was ordained unto those before you, that ye may fear"; Koran, sura 2:179). Instead of distributing a number of fast-days through the year, he appointed the month of Ramaḍan to form a continuous period of fasting, the fast to be kept from sunrise to sunset. To this he attached the following regulations, partly following, partly altering Jewish customs: Eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse were permitted during the night "until you can distinguish a white thread from a black thread in the dawn; then keep the fast until night; do not mix with the women, but retire to the places of worship" (ib. 5:183). It is easily seen that most of these regulations are borrowed from the Day of Atonement in its rabbinic interpretation. Tradition has preserved the following saying, attributed to Mohammed: "The breath of a fasting man is pleasanter to Allah than the odor of musk."
- Geiger, Was Hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume Aufgenommen?
- Hirschfeld, New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the Koran.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Fasting and Fast-Days'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/f/fasting-and-fast-days.html. 1901.