Fasting and Judaism

There are two major fast days and four minor fast days that are part of the Jewish year.  The two major fasts, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, last just over twenty four hours. They begin before sundown, when it is still light outside, and end after the next sundown, when it is dark outside and three stars can be seen in the sky. This fast is absolute. The faster may not eat food, drink, brush his teeth, comb his hair, or take a bath. Minor fasts differ in their duration from a major fast. No food or drink is taken from dawn until nightfall.

Strict adherents to Judaism strictly observe each and every fasting day. Other Jews may practice modified forms of fasting. This can be abstaining from food but not water, fasting but not observing bathing restrictions, or not observing some of the fasting days at all.

What is the Purpose of Fasting in Judaism?

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. As one of the most important days of the Jewish year fasting, along with prayer, is practiced as a means of repentance. This fits well with the idea of performing penance for any sins committed during the year and restoring one’s soul to a state of wholeness.

Most of the remaining fasting days focus on commemorative mourning and remembrance of important historical events. On the Tenth of Tebet Jews fast in memory of the siege of Jerusalem (597 B.C.) by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Six months into the siege the first breach was made in the walls of the city. This and other tragic events that occurred around this time are remembered in the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz . The city did eventually fall to the Babylonians. The Jewish King Jehoiachin was made captive and carried off to Babylon with many of his people.

Eleven years later Nebuchadnezzar's uncle, who had been made vassal-king of Judah in Jehoiachin's place, revolted against his nephew. Nebuchadnezzar returned and besieged the city for sixteen months (587-586 B.C.). The second defeat by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. was followed by the destruction of the Temple and the city. This event is commemorated by the fast of the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av). By coincidence the Second Temple, rebuilt after the return of the Jews from Babylon, was destroyed by the Romans on the same day in A.D. 70. Thus the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple are mourned on the same fast day.

The fast of the Third of Tishri, also called the fast of Gedaliah, is in memory of the assassination of Gedaliah, the Babylonian governor of Judah after the destruction of the city and the Temple in 586 B.C.

The other minor fast day is the fast of Esther. It commemorates the three days of fasting undertaken by Esther prior to meeting with King Ahasuerus. This is the one minor fast that is not a mournful remembrance.

To find out more about Jewish traditions concerning fasting:

The Jewish Virtual Library

Judaism 101


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