THE FAST DAYS
I was thinking about the rituals commemorating the humiliating defeat of Israel/Judea culminating with the destruction of the first and second Temples first by the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and later the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Our rituals concerning national calamity involve scriptural readings, changes to the prayer service and varying levels of self-denial, almost always including fasting.
There are a number of fast days connected with the events surrounding the destruction of the Temples. Of course, the best known is the 25-hour (sunset one day to darkness the next) of Tisha B’Av, the anniversary, according to our tradition of the destruction of both Temples. There are also a number of half-fasts (don’t sat that quickly) connected to events surrounding the final blow.
The tenth of Tevet, usually in January, marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon. The 17th of Tamuz, generally in July, marks the breach of Jerusalem’s wall by the Romans. Tzom Gedalia, occurring the day after Rosh Hashana, marks the shameful moment when Gedalia, by all accounts a righteous man, the governor of Judah appointed by Babylon, was assassinated by those who saw him as a traitor/collaborator. This assassination is considered a blot on our national conscience. It is possible that the Fast of Esther can be included in this group. Even though it commemorates a different event, it is clearly set during the diaspora following the destruction of the first Temple. The reading of the Book Esther even includes some verse chanted in the musical trope used on Tisha B’Av for the book of Eicha (Lamentations).
In order to link the thematic connection of these fast days to their liturgy, it is necessary to include a piece of theology. This is that the loss of the Temple and of our sovereignty were ultimately Divine retribution for our national failings. The causes and sins frequently cited are idolatry, causeless hatred and ill-treatment of the most vulnerable. In this view the Babylonians and the Romans were effectively acting as God’s agents in meting out punishment. Note that during the Musaf service on holidays we recited a paragraph that begins “on account of our sins, we were exiled…”.
The practices for these days involve fasting, complete abstinence from food or drink, during the daylight hours for the four minor fasts and for 25 hours on Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av there are further restriction against bathing, sexual relations, the use of oils and creams and wearing leather shoes. It kind of has the feel of a mix of shiva and Yom Kippur and I believe that is exactly the mood it is meant to convey. On all the fast days there are prayers added to the Amidah asking God to hear our prayer and ease our burden. On Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor as we read Lamentations in a very mournful melodic mode. We sing KInnot, mournful dirges at the end of the davening. The whole day carries an air of mourning and regret. On Tisha B’Av Mincha we add a prayer specifically begging for consolation and restoration. In the Shacharit service the Amidah is followed by Avinu Malkeinu, a prayer associated with the High Holy Days. So, as I said the mood of these days is one of distress, mourning and a degree of repentance.
This brings me to what I will call the light at the end of the tunnel. The ends of the last two chapters of Eicha hold out hope for redemption. Chapter 4 verse 22 begins “Your iniquity, fair Zion, is expiated; He will exile you no longer…” and the last chapter ends with “Take us back… renew our days as of old.” The other, really optimistic note in the Torah reading for the minor fasts in the morning and Tisha B’Av afternoon. It is the aftermath of our great national sin, the episode of the golden calf. God wants to destroy the entire nation on the spot but Moses intervenes. Moses reminds God of Adonai’s great compassion and forgiving nature. God relents and finally instruct Moses to make two tablets of stone like the ones Moses has just destroyed in order to rewrite the “ten commandments”. The verses in these passages having to do with God’s graciousness and capacity for forgiveness are chanted in the High Holiday mode. This reminds us that no matter how dire the situation, no matter how grievous our sins there is always a path open for forgiveness and national healing and return to God’s good graces.