Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, is the second most important fast day in the Jewish calendar, after Yom Kipur. All other so-called “minor fasts” run from dawn to dusk, like Ramadan. Unlike Ramadan, which lasts for a month, we have many fewer fast days, but we also have these two in the year that run for longer, over 24 hours. I would be interested to see a study as to the comparative impact, physical and mental of a month-long daytime fast as opposed to the four obligatory rabbinic fasts (leaving out the mystical and ascetic options).
I used not to understand how ordinary mortals could go about their daily business on minor fasts without the necessary fuel. I find it hard to concentrate when I fast. I feel weak. It’s not the food I miss as much as the liquid. If I could drink, I’d have no problem. I wonder if it isn’t the fact that they are normal working days that affects me psychologically. I am not a multitasker.
The spiritual function of fasts, I believe, is to encourage self-analysis. But if you are feeling physically weak it’s difficult. Though you might argue that at least you cannot get easily caught up in your daily, demanding physical tasks as a distraction. Surely fasting merely as an endurance test has no spiritual value, any more than doing it to diet has. On the contrary, it seems to me it is more likely to cause delusion.
Yet the fact is that I am able to handle Yom Kipur without too much difficulty. Is it just that psychologically I know I have to because it is so important religiously, whereas on the other days, because I know they are less important, my body tries persuading me I should not try or perhaps give up halfway through? Even if all the empirical evidence is that I CAN do it? Perhaps it’s autosuggestion trying to undermine me.
I have no doubt that this is why the rabbis said (Eiruvin 21b) that keeping a rabbinic command is even greater than keeping one from the Torah. One is inevitably inclined to want to treat what the rabbis say less strictly (they are, after all, only human) than something coming from a Higher Authority! What this indicates is a perfectly natural human tendency to seek the easy way out.
We who are religious seem much better at keeping the little things than we are at keeping the big ones. We are more inclined to bother about strictness in matters of food than we are in matters of personal relations. Yet if one were to weigh up the number of what we would call moral and ethical statements in the Torah, they by far outweigh the ritual ones (with the exception of two areas that are no longer applicable–sacrifice and priestly purity).
There are different traditions that seek to explain Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the two Temples, two Jewish states and Jerusalem. One is the collapse of the moral order. This is what the Prophets during the First Temple period focus on. The other is the collapse of the political order, and this emerges more from the destruction of the Second Temple in the Talmud in Gitin 55/56, which we study on Tisha B’Av. In both Temple periods, the actual rituals were being carried out all the time. But something fundamental, a moral compass, was missing.
I suggest it was and is the inability or the reluctance we have to go beyond our comfort zones. Someone who is ritually particular and disciplined finds it difficult to know when to bend the law towards humanity. Whereas someone who focusses on the broader human scheme of things finds it difficult to focus on the smaller, more mundane practices and community obligations.
This is typical of all humans. It is true that many of us are weak and we like immediate gratification. But if our vanity is at stake it is a strong factor in selecting the foods we know are better for us and minimizing those we know are not. It’s vanity that may drive us to find time for hours in a gym or on a yoga mat. And our vanity usually puts the needs of self before the needs of others. It is vanity to focus externality rather than internality.
If Yom Kipur takes us out of our comfort zone for spiritual matters, I suggest Tisha B’Av should take us out of our comfort zone on political issues. So much suffering and death in almost every generation has come from making the wrong political decisions. This has been as true (dare I say it) of our greatest rabbis as it has of ordinary simple folk. But unless we are prepared to step outside of ourselves every now and then, however difficult, we will never get a different perspective on our own limitations.
Experience tells me we may enter a fast with the best of intentions. But by the end it is all dissipated in the rush to eat!