We have just had the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz. It commemorates the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the moment at which the Romans destroyed the walls and a prelude to the destruction of the Second Temple. Whereas the Fast of the Ninth of Av (in three weeks) the actual destruction of the two Temples, is the most important fast after Yom Kipur, the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz is a minor fast. Dawn to Dusk only.
To give it more significance in relation to its elder brother, the rabbis added a series of other events to recall on the day. The anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of stone; when the First Temple service was suspended by the Babylonians; when some fellow called Apostumus (who experts have great difficulty identifying historically), burned the Torah and put a statue up in the Temple. It is the start of the Three weeks of mourning that culminate in the Ninth of Av.
According to the Talmud, once the month of Adar begins, and until the Ninth of Av is over, we reduce pleasure and celebration and avoid doing business. The prevailing custom nowadays is that during these three weeks from the 17th of Tammuz, we have no weddings, parties, or public festivities, and for some, no music. And we eat no meat, drink no wine, nor wear new clothes. Some will not wear freshly laundered clothes (but then they seem to do that all year round!).
The main sources of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, and Rambam are minimalist. According to them because the minor fasts are shorter, the obligation to fast can be set aside for anyone experiencing difficulty fasting. They refer only to the Month of Av as being a sad and negative period of mourning. And some sources say only in the week in which the fast occurs do restrictions apply. A matter of days not weeks.
It is later that Rabbi Moses Isserles, known as the Ramah ( 1530-1572) added “It is our custom not to have weddings from the 17th of Tammuz until the 9th of Av.” And we do not eat meat or drink wine. It seems the Ashkenazi world suffered even more than the Sephardi. Haven’t things changed since then? Perhaps because for a further thousand years, our history has been one constantly punctured with murder, massacre, pogroms, and oppression (not to mention prejudice and racism).
We have a lot of ‘periods of mourning’ and fast days. Perhaps not as many as the Catholics and we don’t have Lent, but in medieval times we seemed to want to imitate them. The Monday, Thursday, and Monday fasts (BaHaB) after the weeklong major festivals were indeed introduced to counteract levity and the danger of having had too much fun. But it always struck me that fast days only reiterated what has been called ‘The Oy Vay’ view of Jewish History.
On the other hand, just as we can look at history and see the calamities, so too we can look at history and see the things worth rejoicing about. After all, according to the prophet Zecharia (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.’
Sadly, as we know, the destruction of the Second Temple only served to reinforce them and two thousand years of exile have given us much to mourn. You might argue that we are still endangered and under assault. Anti-Semitism prospers. Israel’s legitimacy is challenged. Innocents are dying. But you could also argue that we have never been stronger, or in more control of our destiny, never been allied so closely to so many other nations in the world.
Today the prevailing mood in religious circles is that we are terrified of being flexible and laid back. Judaism has become something of an endurance test or an initiation into a select society. Ours is not an ascetic tradition though there have been attempts to turn it into one. I find fasting an endurance test rather than a spiritual experience. The magnificence of Yom Kipur is its solemn atmosphere and challenge of self-examination and repentance. Otherwise, what must be done, must be done, if one wishes to identify and be part of a tradition.
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.
There’s a story I heard from my father 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 of the window and pointed to a horse and said “He eats oats, rolls in the snow, wears hair next to his skin, and gets lashes. Are you any better than him?”
On the other hand, nowadays it is fashionable to fast, cut out alcoholic consumption, and diet for health and cosmetic reasons. So why not for religion?