To Fast or Not to Fast?

Every year, as Tisha B’Av approaches, I wonder if I will fast or not. What usually happens is that I spend so long decidingwhether I’m going to eat that I end up fasting most of the day by default.

Why is do I have this an internal debate? I think part of it comes growing up in a Reform setting that tended toward the “classical” side, which deemphasized both embodied religion and the Temple and sacrificial cult. Not to mention its assertion that we are perfectly happy to establish our Jewish lives wherever we are in the world, thus no longer yearning for a return from “exile” to Zion. Tisha B’Av centers on all these elements, and thus is cause for much ambivalence.

Another piece is that I don’t really have many experiences of observing Tisha B’Av in community. The fact that it falls during the summer means it doesn’t get much attention in religious school curricula, and the Reform summer camp I attended certainly wasn’t going to make much of a deal about it. (I do remember one summer that the t’fillah specialist gave a good effort to mark Tisha B’Av somehow, but not to great effect.) And even congregations who do observe the occasion publicly have trouble attracting people. Imagine the advertisement: Come sit in the dark, on the floor, and be really sad and hungry together! Sounds like a great time, right?

Not only that, fasting on Tisha B’Av is a lot harder than fasting on Yom Kippur (it’s the only other full-day fast in the Jewish calendar). Because it falls in the summer, it’s not dark enough to mark the end of the fast until much later than the end of Yom Kippur in the fall, so even though it’s the same number of hours, it feels longer. Plus Yom Kippur has a lot going on, keeping us occupied while we’re not eating (especially for clergy!). Tisha B’Av is a relatively empty day—unless you’re working that day and face the additional challenge of trying to show up for your job on an empty stomach. (Also, I always forget to wean myself off of coffee in advance of Tisha B’Av the way I do before Yom Kippur. So I have to factor in the caffeine headache.)

The result is that to fast on Tisha B’Av, you really have to believe its worth it.

So I have this annual debate, because I do believe that Tisha B’Av is valuable. Back at the beginning of the stay-at-home orders, I wrote a whole piece about how its themes are particularly useful for framing our current pandemic-restricted Judaism. I also know that there is a lot of brokenness in the world, and I do think that it’s okay, perhaps even healthy, to take a full day to dwell in the brokenness without an attempt at repair. Sometimes we need to feel the weight of the sadness. Plus, I don’t like making my Jewish choices because of inertia; the fact that I did or didn’t observe something last year should have little bearing on my choice to do so now.

(Though I may criticize some Reform approaches to specific practices and concepts, I do generally move through Jewish life according to a very Reform understanding of personal responsibility for my own Jewish practice.)

Turns out, the rabbis of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b) had a similar debate over whether observance of Tisha B’Av (and the other, minor fast days that commemorate calamities) are obligatory or customary:

As Rav Ḥana bar Bizna said that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Thus said the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons, to the house of Judah” (Zechariah 8:19). It calls them days of “fast” and it calls them “times of joy and gladness.” How can this be? When there is peace in the world, they will be times of joy and gladness, but when there is no peace, they are days of fasting.

The passage opens with a simple enough distinction: we observe these specific occasions as days of fasting and mourning only in times of strife and persecution. If we are experiencing peace, we have no business mourning over past tragedies. This is the logic that some take for deciding to do away with Tisha B’Av altogether, implying that to mourn the Temple would be to denigrate the magnificence of the Temple-less Jewish life we have today.

Rav Pappa then offers another interpretation:

Rav Pappa said that this is what it is saying: When there is peace in the world, these days will be times of joy and gladness; when there is persecution and troubles for the Jewish people, they are days of fasting; and when there is no persecution but still no peace, if people wish, they fast, and if they wish, they do not fast.

Now we have options, and perhaps Rav Pappa’s scenario reflects the actual status of the Jewish people today: we’re not facing large-scale, systemic persecution, but there is still enough antisemitism to prevent us from fully being at peace. So it’s left to each of us to decide whether to observe these fasts or not. I feel validated in my ambivalence.

Until Rav Pappa continues, that is:

[The Talmud asks], if if this is so, should Tisha B’Av be observed according to one’s wishes? Rav Pappa said: Tisha B’Av is different, because the calamities that occurred on that day were multiplied. As the master said: On Tisha B’Av the Temple was destroyed, both the first and the second, the city of Beitar was captured, and Jerusalem was plowed over by the enemies.

Even in times when one might be ambivalent about the other fasts, Rav Pappa says, one is still obligated to observe Tisha B’Av. Whether you or your community feels persecuted or peaceful is irrelevant.

I think there’s an important lesson here. Often our actions are motivated by the degree to which we feel personally impacted by a particular situation. We are inclined to ignore or dismiss concerns others raise if we do not see them as real in our own lives. Just think of the opposition to Black Lives Matter from those who think racism is merely prejudicial and not structural, or the reckless behavior some exhibit in the face of COVID-19 because they believe themselves immune. Speaking for myself, I know that I tend to minimize the presence of antisemitism in our world, mostly because I haven’t personally experienced it much.

In other words, it’s about privilege. You don’t have to think much about power/health/money/companionship/safety/fulfillment when you have it.

Tisha B’Av doesn’t care how good things are for you, says Rav Pappa. You observe it anyway, precisely because things were (are) bad for others. We clearly haven’t fixed all the world’s brokenness, so we don’t get the choice of whether to look away.

Alan Lew, in This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, offers the following questions (p. 46) for reflection on Tisha B’Av:

What is the recurring disaster in our life? What is the unresolved element that keeps bringing us back to this same moment over and over again? What is it that we keep getting wrong? What is it that we persistently refuse to look at, fail to see?

There are so many truths that have been revealed in the last few months about what is broken for human beings in our world. And many who experience various kinds of privilege have been working to understand that which we have failed before to see.

The above are important questions for us, individually and collectively, and it’s worth giving them the time they require for reflection. Maybe that’s one reason to fast on Tisha B’Av: it keeps the day from moving too fast. (See what I did there?)

So in this discussion of why one’s observance of Tisha B’Av should be independent of personal relevance, I have established, ironically, that this year it is particularly relevant.

Seems I will be fasting.

One comment

  1. Love you. I fasted as well. Or, perhaps I should write “I slowed as well”. שנה טובה ופוריה Hope you and Ari are already feeling at home. Miss you. I would love to check-in with you prior to Rosh HaShana.

    Liked by 1 person

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