The post Chanukah voluntary fasts
Years ago, while walking in Meah Shearim shortly after Chanukah, my eye caught a large pashkeval (billboard) proclaiming the fasts of שובבי״ם ת״ת. After a bit of research, I learned that there is a custom to fast every Thursday during the weeks we read the parshiyot of שמות, וארא , בא, בשלח, יתרו , משפטים, תרומה, תצוה – the initials spell שובבי״ם ת״ת. The word שובבי״ם (rebellious ones) evokes the pasuk שובו בנים שובבים (Yirmiyahu 3:14) – “return rebellious children.” This play on words gave rise to a custom of fasting for repentance during these weeks.
The first recorded mention of this practice is in a 15th century work called the Leket Yosher – a collection of anecdotes written by a student of the Trumat Hadeshen. He recalls that the custom in Ostreich (Austria) was to fast on the Thursday of the weeks of שובבי״ם ת״ת during a leap year. The rabbi and his students would gather in the afternoon of Shabbat Parshat Vayechi and accept upon themselves the upcoming fasts. The Leket Yosher recalls that his teacher would diligently fast on these days even though it was possible to give tzedaka instead. (Leket Yosher pg. 116)
The reasoning behind these fasts is somewhat shadowy. The Levush, Rabbi Mordechai ben Avraham Yafeh (1530-1612) records (OC 685) that early rabbis noticed that women would miscarry more often during a leap year. They instituted eight fasts – שובבי״ם ת״ת – corresponding to the Mondays and Thursdays of the leap month. The Levush notes that these fasts were distinct from communal fast days in that the weekly parsha was read in the morning (not the portion Vayechal which is usually read on fast days). The fasts begin during the week of Parshat Shmot. The story of the burgeoning births in Egypt evokes prayers for fertility and live births. It was the hope that just as the Children of Israel were able to be fruitful and multiply in Egypt, the women in their communities would carry their children to term as well.
Faced with trouble in their communities, medieval rabbis declared a voluntary, communal fast as a solution. The Rambam writes that we fast to “awaken hearts and to open the paths of repentance” (Rambam Hilchot Ta’anit 5:1). The Mishna Brurah further explains (OC 549:1) that the main point of fast days is not abstaining from food, but focusing our attention on Teshuva. Even if this practice of frequent fasting has fallen by the wayside, we should seize opportunities for introspection and consider how we can improve our lives and those of our communities.