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United We Fast

The prophet Zechariah (Zech. 9:19) foretells of a time when the four fast days will be turned into holidays days of joy and happiness. The four fast days which he lists are defined by the month in which they are held: the “Fast of the Fourth” (i.e. the 17th of Tammuz), the “Fast of the Fifth” (i.e. 9th of Av), the “Fast of Seventh” (i.e. the Fast of Gedaliah on the 3rd of Tishrei), and the “Fast of the Tenth” (i.e. the 10th of Tevet). All of these fast days mark different stages in the destruction of the First Holy Temple and the Jews’ exile to Babylon: In Tevet, the Babylonian began their siege around the city of Jerusalem. In Tammuz, they breached the city’s walls. In Av, they destroyed the Holy Temple and exiled many Jews to Babylonia. And finally, in Tishrei, Gedaliah, son of Achikam, who was the Jewish governor over the remaining Jews in the Holy Land, was assassinated. A special fast day known as Tzom Gedaliah was declared in his memory. Other fast days of the Jewish calendar include Taanit Esther (which is observed the day before Purim) and Taanit Bechorot (which many firstborns observe on the day before Pesach). In this special installment, we will visit the concept of fasting from a linguistic perspective, shedding light on the differences between the seemingly synonymous words tzom and taanit.

The word taaanit (fast day) is rooted in the Hebrew word inui (affliction). Verb forms of the word inui are used to describe the afflictions which we are required to undergo on Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:19–21, 23:27–32, and Num. 29:7)—included in such afflictions is refraining from eating and drinking. Thus, technically the word taanit does not primarily mean “fast”, but rather denotes any type of suffering, including fasting. This word is the common word for fast days in the Mishnah and the Talmud.

The word tzom (fast) or variations thereof appear close to fifty times in the Bible and usually refer to abstinence from eating. It is probably related to the Hebrew word tzama (thirsty), as one who engages in a hunger-rite generally ends up thirsty. Nonetheless, Radak (in Sefer haShorashim and in his commentary to I Kgs. 21:9) writes in the name of his father that the word tzom literally means “gathering”. To prove this assertion, he cites the Mishnah (Chullin 4:7) that mentions the tzomet hagidim of an animal’s leg, which is the place where the different sinews converge. That gathering of sinews is known as a tzomet, lending credence to the assertion that a tzom is also a gathering. (This usage is reflected in Modern Hebrew in which the word tzomet refers to the intersection of streets, e.g. Tzomet Bar Ilan in Jerusalem is the Bar Ilan Junction).

  1. Akiva Shlomo Deutsch-Dayan of Geneva proposes differentiating between the two seemingly synonymous words by suggesting that the word tzom is Biblical Hebrew, while the word taanit is Rabbinic Hebrew. However, he rejects this distinction due to the fact that the word taanit also appears in the Bible in the Book of Ezra (9:5). Although he admits that Ezra does sometimes use expressions that are closer to Rabbinic Hebrew than Biblical Hebrew, he nonetheless rejects this explanation. Interestingly, the rarely-used Aramaic word for fasting is tvat (see Daniel 6:19 and Brachot 55a).

Instead, R. Akiva Shlomo Deutsch-Dayan of Geneva proffers the argument that the terms tzom and taanit reflect two different degrees of obligations for fasting. That is, he argues that tzom refers to a fast day which is required by the letter of the law, while the word taanit refers to a fast that is declared on an ad hoc basis or may be simply an accepted norm, but is not truly required. Thus, for example, the Fast of the Seventh is known as Tzom Gedaliah because Jeremiah prescribed that fast by prophetic fiat. On the other hand, the Fast of Esther is known as Taanit Esther because it was instituted in post-Talmudic times, and in the words of R. Moshe Isserles (1520–1572), “This fast is not obligatory, therefore one can be lenient when needed” (Orach Chaim, §886:2). Nonetheless, the fast days declared during the story of Purim are described in the Book of Esther as tzomot because at that time those fasts were obligatory.

  1. Avraham Etiel Gurwitz (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ner Moshe in Jerusalem) takes a different approach. Basing himself of Maimonides’ usage of the two words in question, he explains that the terms tzom and taanit imply two different modes of fasting. The word tzom simply represents the pledge to refrain from eating and drinking. This is the term Maimonides uses in Hilchot Nedarim (“Laws of Promises”) when referring to personal fasts. On the other hand, the word taanit refers to the acceptance of a certain day as halachicly special and whose specialness precludes eating and drinking. Therefore, Maimonides uses the word taanit when detailing the laws of the special days of fasting in Hilchot Taaniyot (“Laws of Fast Days”).

In a passage customarily read as the Haftorah on Yom Kippur morning, the prophet Isaiah mocks sinful Jews for their insincere fasting. People would fast and outwardly feign repentance, but would nonetheless continue to sin. When tragedy would continue to befall them despite their “repentance”, they would rhetorically ask G-d, “Why did we fast (tzamnu) and You did not see? We afflicted (ininu) our souls and You do not know”. Isaiah supplies the answer by asserting the inconvenient truth: “Behold, on the day of your fast, you find desires and all whom your bother [i.e., your debtors] you approach [to demand payment]” (ibid.). With this, Isaiah criticizes the hypocrisy of the fasts of sinners. Instead, Isaiah explains that G-d desires fasts which “break open the shackles of wickedness, untie the bonds of injustice, send free the oppressed, and cut off all iniquities” (Isa. 58:3–6).

  1. Yechiel Heilpern (1660–1742) cites an illuminating explication of this passage in the name of R. Moshe Di-Segovia Benveniste (c. 1540). When the Jews asked “Why did we fast and You did not see?” they used the word tzom which implies gathering or joining (commensurate with Radak’s explanation above). In this, they insinuated that they do not deserve whatever calamities G-d had wrought upon them because they were all united as one. Indeed, the Talmud (Keritut 6a) exclaims “Any fast day which does not include everyone—even the sinners of Israel—is not considered a fast day”. National unity is a necessity for effective fasting and the Jews in Isaiah’s time claimed that they met that requirement. However, Isaiah responds that this picture is a façade because in reality, the sinful Jews only feign unity with one another, but their hearts are not with each other. They pretend to love each other so that others will do for them favors, but they do not really love each other.

When the Jews claimed, “We afflicted our souls and You do not know” they essentially meant to argue that they gave up their bodily pleasures by fasting in order to better facilitate their spiritual connection to G-d. Indeed, the purpose of fasting is to dull one’s physical senses in order to sharpen and attune his spiritual consciousness. The Jews of Isaiah’s time pretended that this was their intent in fasting, but Isaiah reveals otherwise. He charges that in reality they declared fast days with ulterior motives: they needed spare time from their regular schedules in order to harass those who owe them money and pester them for payment. In other words, they did not declare fast days for altruistic, noble purposes, but for their own convenience.700_mgt5mzashz1kvdcbjpgiuon21rkbgy1h.jpg

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Reuven Chaim Klein

Founding Editor at Veromemanu
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is a known scholar, respected author, and long-time member of the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem. Reuven Chaim lives with his family in Beitar Illit, Israel.
Reuven Chaims' articles also appear weekly on ohr.edu and on https://ohr.edu/this_week/whats_in_a_word/ and in the Jewish Press.

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Reuven Chaim Klein