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On Fasting


Let me come clean. I hate mourning and I hate fasting. I had enough of being sad during the Omer period that ran from Pesach to Shavuot. Now we’re in the Three Weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av (the Ninth Day of Av), commemorating the destruction of two Temples and our amazing capacity as a people to self-destruct. Even so we still always rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. No weddings, no parties, no wine or meat, no public festivities (and I’ll come to the other inconveniences later).

The Bible only has one fast day altogether–Yom Kippur. Even that wasn’t a sad day; according to the Mishna it was one of the happiest days of the year, when people streamed out of the Temple confident that they had been forgiven and granted another year of life. It was also one of two official matchmaking days when unmarried girls (all dressed in white so as not embarrass the poor ones) girls went dancing and singing in the vineyards inviting young men to take their pick! Can you imagine that nowadays, in this Jewish world of ours with the ten-foot, solid cast iron mechitza, when men not even allowed to hear the other sex sing, let alone see them dancing? Can it be the same religion? I don’t think so (said with New York intonation)!

What went wrong? Well, I guess you might argue that the Romans, defeat, slavery, exile, thousands of years of Christians, Muslims, Marxists, mentally deficient anti-Semites, and anyone else jumping onto the bandwagon to make our life hell.

It wasn’t just that we added the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz, and the 9th of Av over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. We have had fasts for the Crusades, for Expulsions, for the Cossacks Chmielnicki massacres. (Only for the Holocaust it seems we can’t get unanimous agreement on, but then we couldn’t agree on getting together beforehand to try to do anything to prevent it when we might have, either.) We have in our sources fasts for bad dreams, wicked thoughts, bad deeds, and for anniversaries of our parents’ death! Thank goodness many of then have now fallen by the wayside although I’m prepared to bet in the current mood, most of them will be resurrected soon!

Then there was one-upmanship. If the Christians had Lent, and the Muslims had Ramadan, and if religion is all about self-denial and how lousy this world is, then you can bet we didn’t want to be left out of the masochism stakes. OK, so we didn’t go in for self-laceration and all that, but we added fasts on the Monday, Thursday, and Monday (BaHaB) following the two major week-long festivals, to counteract levity and the danger of having had too much fun.

Then, in addition to fasting itself, we have added rules that strike me as inappropriate nowadays. I can live with a gap in the wedding season. I can live with a limit to the number of parties or functions one has to go to. But no music at all? No washing in hot water, no laundry, not buying anything new? In this day and age when some of us do not wear the same shirt for a whole month or take a bath once a year (whether we need it or not) doing without a daily shower in heats of 100% and wearing the same sweaty, smelly clothes for a whole week, does not strike me as putting cleanliness anywhere near Godliness! OK I agree some Jews (and other people) I know, do actually do this all year round, but surely I don’t have to. After all rabbis in the Talmud could claim they needed a bath even when not supposed to because they were accustomed to it. Should I suffer because the men of Metz, Speyer and Troyes didn’t like water?

Why, in my youth, taking deodorant into the mikvah in Meah Shearim would get you thrown out. Nowadays every black-hatted yeshiva bochur has his own $100 bottle of cologne! A laundryman friend of mine in Meah Shearim tells me that the average yeshiva bochur changes his white shirt three times a week! That’s progress. In my day it once a month.

Why is it that religions, all religions, seem to be associated with self-denial, fasting and smelling badly? It’s one of the least appealing aspects, this holier-than-thou, I’m suffering more than you are, aren’t I a good holy boy (or girl), I’ll get to heaven before you, ya boo.

Just as we can look at history and see the calamities, so too can we look at history and see things worth rejoicing about. After all, according to the prophet Zechariah (8.19), “God says the fasts of the fourth (month), the fifth, the seventh, and the tenth will become for the House of Judah, joy and gladness, happy festivals.” These were the rabbinic fasts introduced to commemorate destruction during the First Temple. Get over it, says Zechariah. Yes, terrible things have happened, but in our religion there are alternative voices. Hassidim rejoice on the anniversary of a dead relative and drink “Lechayim”. Most non-Hassidic Ashkenazis on the other hand, fast. You can find ascetic voices in Judaism, but thank goodness you can find those who command us to enjoy life and thank God for all the good things in life. We used to sit bored in synagogue, now we can jump up and down all “happy clappy”. In my view ( and Maimonides, and who am I to disagree with him?) it’s a matter of balance. And I guess if you feel you are an over indulgent, luxury dependent, spoiled sybarite, then, yes, you need all the fasts you can get.

My father was not a great fan of fasting. He told me that in his yeshiva, Mir in Eastern Europe, the students who found it difficult to fast were told that it was more important to concentrate on study. Of course, this was only on what we call the Minor Fasts. But the idea was that if fasting was simply an endurance test that left you incapable of anything constructive then perhaps there were more valuable things to do with a day. He represented a more relaxed approach to life. And he got this from his teachers.

I ‘m a hard case. Sadly, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I fast on required days and feel lousy and can’t think or study properly. So I’m totally useless and I waste a whole day. And for what? For whom? I guess I’m just chicken, but then I do take showers! But you people out there, enough with the masochism!

In huge swathes of Judaism we have become terrified of being flexible. Judaism has become something of an endurance test or an initiation into a select society of secret disciplinarians. Ours is not an ascetic tradition, though there have been attempts to turn into one. There’s a famous story about a student asking for his rebbe’s approval by telling him that he eats rough grain, rolls in the snow, wears hair shirts, and lashes himself every day. The rebbe looked out the window and pointed to a horse. “He eats oats, rolls in the snow, wears hair next to his skin, and gets lashes. Are you any better than him?”

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9 thoughts on “On Fasting

  1. Jeremy I recommend reading the third essay in Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals on ascetisim.
    I think you will like it.

  2. “all dressed in white so as not embarrass the poor ones”

    pray tell what there is about white that spared the poor girls their pain? or perhaps you meant that the dresses were BORROWED?

  3. Ascetics love Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is wasted on these ascetics. It’s a rockin’ good religion if you allow it.

  4. Yes indeed the Mishna specifically says the dresses were borrowed so as not to embarrass the poor ones. But then it goes and undoes it all by allowing the girls to proclaim their advantages (“My Daddy has $10 million in the Jerusalem Bank”!!).

  5. If all the dresses are plain white, then no one’s dress can be flashier than the others.

    But I must say that if wealth was the main advantage the boys were looking for, they may have been sadly disappointed to find what really makes a good match.

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