Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Fast of the Fourth

Today is the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a fast day commemorating the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E. The Seventeenth of Tammuz is intimately linked to the Ninth of Av, which occurs three weeks later and commemorates the destruction of the temple.

The book of Zechariah, which takes place in the years following the Jews' return from exile in the fifth century B.C.E., relates that a number of prominent individuals asked the prophet whether they should continue to mourn the destruction of the temple in the month of Av now that the Jews had been restored to their land and the temple was being rebuilt (Zech. 7:3). In classic Jewish fashion, Zechariah answered a question with a question:

When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months all these seventy years, did you fast for my [God's] benefit? And when you eat and drink, who but you does the eating, and who but you does the drinking (7:5-6)?

The prophecy proceeds to relate the story of the preceding exile and restoration in theological terms. Before the exile, God sent prophets to tell the Israelites to "execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another" (7:10). Because they did not heed the prophetic message, the people were exiled. Now, however, they have been restored.

For thus said the Lord of Hosts: Just as I planned to afflict you when your fathers provoked Me to anger and did not relent ... so, at this time, I have turned and planned to do good to Jerusalem and to the House of Judah. Have no fear! These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, judge honestly, and render judgements of peace in your gates (8:14-17).

Though admittedly ambiguous, Zechariah's response seems to suggest that his questioners are missing the point. Fasting and mourning are merely human responses to tragedy. The divine imperative is to act justly and thereby avoid the conditions that led to tragedy in the first place. The prophet seems optimistic that the new Jewish commonwealth will be blessed with truth and justice, peace and prosperity, and the admiration of surrounding peoples. Thus, he declares:

The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love truth and peace (8:19).

The four fasts mentioned by Zechariah are traditionally taken to refer to the four fasts commemorating the downfall of the first commonwealth: the Seventeenth of Tammuz (the "fast of the fourth month"), the Ninth of Av (the "fast of the fifth month"), the Fast of Gedaliah (the "fast of the seventh month"), and the Tenth of Tevet (the "fast of the tenth month").

The rabbis of the Talmud, turning to this text for halakhic guidance, were understandably perplexed. Focusing on the wording of Zech. 8:19, they ask (b. Rosh Hashanah 18b), "They are called 'fasts' and they are called 'occasions for joy and gladness'" -- which is it? The Gemara answers that these days are to be observed as happy occasions in times of peace and as fasts in times when there is no peace. Rav Papa adds that when the situation is ambiguous, "if they wish, they shall fast; if they wish, they need not fast."

Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman notes that, while the fasts were observed by nearly all Jewish communities after the destruction of the second temple, some prominent rabbis considered changing the custom following the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. All agreed that the Ninth of Av should continue to be observed as a fast day, since the temple had not been rebuilt. The other fast days, however, commemorated the loss of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem had been regained. On the first Seventeenth of Tammuz following the Six-Day war, many Jews in Israel and abroad made festive meals. The abolition of the fast, however, did not ultimately take hold in observant communities. And so here I am today, observing the fast.

Is this as it should be? From a halakhic perspective, Chipman notes, there are arguments to be made on either side. Rashi interprets the Gemara's "times of peace" as a reference to Jewish sovereignty, which would suggest that all the fasts (including the Ninth of Av) should be observed as feasts today. Maimonides and Rabbeinu Hannanel, on the other hand, suggest that these days should all be observed as fasts as long as the temple lies in ruins. In a less traditional vein, I would suggest that the fasts should continue to be observeded because the society that Zechariah envisioned -- one of truth and justice, international recognition, and above all, peace -- has not become reality. At times, it may seem that that the fulfillmentnt of that vision is within reach, and that may justify a relaxation of the traditional mourning rites. This week, sadly, is not one of those times.

With seven Israeli soldiers killed, two kidnapped, and the beginning of what Yossi Klein Halevi calls "Israel's next war," there is a great deal to pray for. Avraham Hein offers a psalm as well as the official prayer for IDF soldiers, which can be added to the traditional fast day prayers or recited at any time.

May the One Who Releases the Bound return the captured soldiers to their families. May the One Who Comforts Mourners console the bereaved among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. And may the One Who Makes Peace in the Heavens bring peace to Israel, now, speedily, and soon.