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Fasts commemorating the Churban, and the authority to add laws

Tammuz 5782 | July 2022

We are living in an era following the return to Zion and Jerusalem (although the rebuilding of the city is incomplete without the rebuilding of the Temple). The circumstances of returning to our land raised the question of the correct way to celebrate new special days that were added to the Jewish calendar, such as Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. In addition to the question of the significance that should be attributed to the events of the return to the land of the Jewish people, there is also a need to address the authority to add new holidays to those ascribed by the Torah and the rabbis. The Torah itself addresses the concept of adding laws to the existing codex, stating that it is prohibited to add to or subtract from the laws of the Torah (Deut. 4:2; 13:1). However, some mo’adim (‘appointed days’ – including both holidays and days of commemoration) were famously added to the Jewish calendar at a later stage – Purim and Hanukkah on the one hand, and the fasts commemorating the Churban (as well as Taanit Esther) on the other.

Rabbinic literature goes to pains to justify rabbinic authority in establishing various mo’adim. The Gemara (Megilla 14a) states that the only holiday added by the prophets was Purim, and this holiday was added based on extrapolation from biblical verses, such as the comparison between Pesach (marking the transition from slavery to freedom) and Purim (marking the transition from certain death to life); or the comparison of recording the Amalek war (Ex. 17) with the recording of the Purim war in the book of Esther (Megilla 7a). The rabbis felt it was necessary to establish the foundation for an additional holiday in the Torah itself.

The Gemara in Shabbat (23a) discusses rabbinic authority in establishing the postbiblical holiday of Hanukkah. Two explanations were provided for the rabbinic authority to innovate mitzvot – and even to recite a blessing over the mitzvah in God’s name (“Blessed are You, Hashem … who has sanctified us in his commandments and commanded us to light the Hanukkah candle”). According to one explanation the rabbinic authority stems from the biblical verse “You shall not deviate from all that they will teach you” (Deut. 17:11). It was the rabbis’ understanding that the authoritative body that resides in “the place chosen by God” is not only interpretive and judicial, but also legislative.

A second explanation is based on the verse “Ask your father and he shall convey to you, your ancestors and they shall tell you” (Deut. 32:7). It is my understanding that the purpose of this verse is not to command the elders to innovate laws and customs, but rather acknowledges their authority (as elders of the nation) and validates their decisions – especially with regard to preserving historical memory. Therefore, some view this as the source of the Sanhedrin’s authority “from above,” or the authority of the elders “from below,” to add rabbinic mo’adim or mitzvot.

The discussion of fast days as a means of marking the Churban offers an additional explanation for adding mo’adim. The book of Zechariah (7:1-3) conveys that in the midst of constructing the Second Temple a convoy arrives (perhaps from abroad) to ask the prophet whether they should continue fasting on the set days marking the destruction of the Temple. Presumably this is a question that assesses the perception of their reality and inquires as to whether they are living through a time of redemption – and are therefore no longer required to fast. Zechariah offers a surprising response:

Then the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me, saying: “Tell all the people of the land and the priests; say, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?”

The prophet responds in God’s name that he had not asked the nation to fast; since they had decided to fast, it is their decision whether to continue fasting, or discontinue the custom. One might understand from this that the prophet is ambivalent toward the nation’s custom, or perhaps even objects to their initiative. However, later the prophet explains that after the final redemption (which will depend on the nation’s correction of the behaviors that led to the destruction) the fast days will become days of joyous celebration (8:19). This indicates that God recognizes these fasts, and views them positively, and promises reward for the fast itself. This idea is later expressed by the rabbis (Ta’anit 30b): “Anyone who mourns Jerusalem merits to see it in its time of joy.” Therefore, the choice to fast is worthy, and merits reward.

Presumably there was no official decision that obligated the nation to fast – certainly not in an era of destruction when the formal authorities had collapsed. The fasts seem to have emerged as a lay response to the great trauma of the destruction and continued as a custom. Other customs similarly developed in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, and these too warranted discussion of whether they were worthy and whether the nation was able to sustain them; as a result some customs were rejected while others were preserved (Bava Batra 60b). It seems from here that another authority for adding mo’adim is the nation, through customs created and adopted intuitively by the people based on the needs of a given event; these too are accepted and validated by God post factum.

Ibn Ezra explains that in fact this was the process by which Purim was developed. On the verse “[…] just as they had laid down for themselves and for their descendants regulations concerning their fasts and their lamentations” (Esther 9:31), Ibn Ezra comments:

The meaning of ‘the fasts‘ refers to those mentioned in the book of Zechariah:  in Tammuz and Av and Tishrei and Tevet; and the meaning of as they had laid down for themselves is that they accepted upon themselves to rejoice on Purim just as they accepted upon themselves and their descendants to fast on days of mourning when the city was breached and when the Temple was burnt – because the prophet had not commanded them to fast, as I will explain there, and we are not permitted to assume the position of earlier authorities.

Ibn Ezra indicates here that the validation of the custom to fast on the days of mourning set the precedent for establishing the holiday of Purim. Just as it seems intuitive to accept the custom to mourn and fast in times of distress, it is fitting to accept customs to rejoice in redemptive times.

The nation’s intuitive reaction to the destruction is not expressed in only one fast day – but in understanding the significance of different stages of destruction. Similarly, the customs of rejoicing express various stages of redemption, even if they mark a partial redemption – such as being saved from certain annihilation on Purim, or the national freedoms gained on Hanukkah and Yom Haatzmaut, or rejoicing in the reunification of Jerusalem and rebuilding of the city, on the path to complete redemption, on Yom Yerushalayim.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.