Sunday, December 15, 2013

Some Food for Thought on a Food-less Day

By Ken Spiro

A Food-less Day

When we think about fast days in the Jewish calendar, the one that first pops to mind is usually Yom Kippur-the holiest day of the year. 

Yom Kippur is the longest and most serious fast, lasting an entire day.  What many people don’t know is that there are also four other minor fasts, most of which last for only half a day - from sun up to sun down - that have a very different theme and focus than Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, we refrain from eating because on this day, the holiest of days, we are like angels – spiritual beings unconcerned with physical needs such as food and drink – totally focused on spirituality and our relationship with our Creator.

Unlike Yom Kippur, which is a holy day mentioned in the Torah (Numbers 29:7), the minor fasts are not mentioned in the Torah. These fast days were instituted by the rabbis many, many centuries ago and are linked to calamitous events in Jewish history.  The best known of these fasts is The Ninth of Av or Tisha b’Av in Hebrew – the one fast not mentioned in the Torah that, like Yom Kippur, also lasts a full day. This fast is connected to the most tragic events in Jewish history, most notably the destruction of both the First and Second Temples which occurred on the same date, though many centuries apart.

Another of these minor fast days will be occurring this week, on Friday, and it’s called the Tenth of Tevet or the Fast of the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet. So… what happened on the 10th of Tevet in Jewish history that caused the rabbis to institute a fast?

Siege of Jerusalem

On this date, in 588 BCE, the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem.  The siege would last for over two years and, after great suffering and famine, would eventually lead to the destruction of the First Temple on the 9th of Av of the year 586 BCE.  Tens of thousands of Jews died in the siege of the city and, following the city’s fall, the survivors were led away in captivity to be exiled in Babylon.  This exile lasted 70 years until the Persians, who conquered and destroyed the Babylonian Empire, gave the Jews permission to return and rebuild the Temple.

One of the themes of this minor fast day, as well as others, is sadness and mourning over the many tragedies that befell the Jewish People. However, there’s more to this fast day than just mourning.

Time, Energy, and Power

There’s a fundamental belief in Judaism that time has power and that there is a specific energy implanted in all the special days of the Jewish year: Shabbat, holidays and even fast days.  On these special days, be they happy or sad, the unique energy implanted in the day can be more easily tapped into.  In short, we can connect, change and grow on these days in ways that we cannot during ordinary days of the year.  In order to benefit from any of these special days, we have to first understand the focus and theme of each one and the opportunities they represent.  Only through this clarity, can we maximize the potential of the day.

Theme of Minor Fast Days

The primary theme of the minor fast days is repentance – an opportunity to focus on the dysfunction within the Jewish People that led to our external sufferingdestruction, and exile. It’s also a fundamental belief in Judaism that all external tragedies can always link to some kind of internal flaw or problem within the Jewish People that damages our relationship with each other and with God. Afflicting ourselves by not eating or drinking is a powerful tool that shakes us awake and helps us realize that there is something not working properly within the Jewish People – something that needs to be fixed. 

A fast day is a special opportunity that allows us to focus on the deeper spiritual causes of suffering. The ultimate goal of the day is not to wallow in depression but rather to wake us up and motivate us to work toward fixing our flaws, thus avoiding future tragedies and energizing us to fulfill our unique mission as a “light unto nations.”


As a people we have survived many tragedies. Not only have we survived but we’ve outlasted all our enemies and have lived to see the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. As amazing as Jewish history is, we cannot afford to become complacent. Enemies continue to threaten Israel and anti-Semitism is still alive and well, while apathy, assimilation,  and infighting sap our strength and prevent us from building  a Jewish People that the world so badly needs.

This Friday may we all use the unique opportunity of the day to get the clarity and strength we need so tragedy will be a thing of the past for both the Jewish People and the world. In the words of the prophet Zechariah, may these fast days be transformed into days for, “…joy and for gladness and festivals of truth, peace and love.”  (Zecharia 8:19

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