Sunday, July 29, 2012

On Fasting, Remembrance and the Future

Siddur Avodat HaShem - Tisha b'AvI just broke my fast.

Yes, it's only four p.m. in Winnipeg. The sun is still shining brightly. My Orthodox brothers and sisters are all still fasting, and will continue to do so until nearly 10 p.m. I am quite stringent in my observance of the Yom Kippur fast, so why have I broken this one, the fast of Tish'a b'Av, early?

This morning I went to shul and heard the book of Eicha, or Lamentations, read. I sat on the floor with my fellow Jews at the foot of the Holocaust memorial in our chapel and listened to the horrors of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, over 2000 years ago. The Torah reading and Haftarah (Prophetic portion) are just as depressing and frightening. In my mind's eye, those same scenes of death and grief were transposed to stories and pictures from the Holocaust, to the horrible tales of pogroms we retell during the Yom Kippur service, to all the places and times that Jews have been persecuted. 

All that grief, fear and horror have been channelled by Jewish tradition into this one day, right in the middle of the summer. It was not only the date of the destruction of both Temples, it was also the date of the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, and from Spain in 1492. It was even the date that the first trains from the Warsaw Ghetto reached Treblinka with their doomed passengers.

In memory of all these terrible things, the first part of Tish'a b'Av is a time of mourning. We not only fast, but we follow many of the traditions of a house of mourning - we don't greet each other, we sit on the floor with our shoes off. We read Eicha and various other poems of lamentation. We do this in the evening, and again in the morning. For the morning service, we do not wear our tallit and tefillin as we normally do. We omit all joyful parts of the service. All is mourning and tears. The weight of the past is heavy on our shoulders.

In the afternoon, though,  the mood changes. As we come together for mincha, the afternoon service, we catch up on the joyful parts of the morning service we left out. We even wear our tallit and tefillin in the afternoon, which is otherwise unheard of (the only exception is that we wear our tallit to the Kol Nidrei evening service on Yom Kippur - but that's a whole different kettle of fish). We remember the old Talmudic prophecy that the Messiah would be born on Tish'a b'Av. Out of  the ashes, there is hope. For many Jews, the existence of the State of Israel indicates the beginning of the Redemption.

So why do we continue to fast in the afternoon? Just because we always have? Some Conservative rabbis have wrestled with this problem. If we feel that the Redemption has begun, that the hope of the renewal of the Jewish people is taking concrete form, why do we continue to act in the same way as we did when the world was in darkness? Also, many people still fervently desire the rebuilding of the Temple and resumption of animal sacrifices. Others of us, however, would prefer to keep on the spiritual plane of  "I desire lovingkindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6) that the Rabbis have led us to since the destruction of the physical buildings. The great rabbi Maimonides even suggested that the animal sacrifices were a concession to the primitive nature of the Jews of the time, and that true apprehension of G-d could only be achieved through the intellect - he felt that even prayer was a concession to our childish need for a personal relationship. You can imagine how popular that particular stance made him with his fellow clergy - in fact, his works were banned and even burned, despite his being considered one of our greatest scholars.

I cannot pretend to follow or reproduce all the halachic arguments about the partial fast, which are reproduced here. I am not a rabbi, nor do I play one on any type of social media. But I do know that at least two rabbis whom I respect very much follow this ruling, and declare that after the resumption of normality at mincha on the afternoon of Tish'a b'Av, the fast can be broken. It's not a game of "I can fast longer than you" - it's a declaration that we do believe that the Redemption has begun, that the continuation of the fast into the afternoon is not necessary - one could argue, even inappropriate.

What say you?


  1. Most Jews don't even know today is Tisha b'Av. Most Jews, when told, don't care. You went to shul, you engaged in thoughtful reflection of the day, and all this is more than most Jews are doing today.

    I am not Conservative, nor do I consider myself "Orthodox." The minute one assumes a label, one assumes the attributes that come with it, even if some don't fit. I'm just a Jew. I will continue to fast to the end, because that's what I do and I believe it is right to do so. No Jewish observance ends in the middle of the afternoon, all follow a sundown-to-sundown schedule. Am I criticizing you? Not in any way. I don't pretend to be an authority, and I don't pretend to know what is right, and I refuse to pass judgement. I hope the day was meaningful, and that next year we should merit to be Israel.

    1. Thanks, L. I hope the day was meaningful to you, too.

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