This Tuesday, July 19, is the Fast of Shiva Asar b-Tammuz (the Seventeenth Day of Tammuz), which will inaugurate the Three Weeks of mourning for both our Holy Temples, caused by the fall of Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians (586 B.C.E.) and then by the Romans (70 C.E.).
There are six public fast days in the year. One is Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Another is Taanit Esther (the Fast of Esther), connected to the Purim festival. The other four all commemorate an aspect of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples.
Following are the four fast days:
1. Asarah B-Tevet (the Tenth Day of Tevet) This fast day usually falls in the winter around December. It commemorates when the siege by the Babylonians began against Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.
This day has modern ramifications, since this is the event that laid the foundation for our long Exile, which has not yet terminated. The Rabbinate of Israel has thus declared this day as the Yahrzeit for the many martyrs of the Holocaust whose dates of death are unknown. I have adopted the practice of lighting a Yahrzeit candle for them on this day and saying the Kaddish.
2. Shiva Assar B-Tammuz On this day, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans, which made the imminent fall of the city a virtual certainty. A number of other tragedies befell us at this time.
3. Tisha B-Av The fast of the Ninth of Av, which occurs exactly three weeks after the above Fast. Many tragedies occurred on this day, the greatest of which was the destruction of both Holy Temples.
4. Tzom Gedaliah This fast occurs on the day after Rosh Hashanah. The assassination of the Jewish governor, Gedaliah, marked the end of the first Jewish Commonwealth.
WHY DO WE FAST?
Of course, one of the major themes for the above four Fasts is that of mourning. Our souls cry out against the many unjust and horrific crimes against our people. We are repelled by the fact that our tiny people has given so much to the world and has been treated so cruelly in response.
But there is more. Our fasting is a fervent prayer that these injustices will soon become a thing of the past. We yearn for the day that the cruelty of mankind will give way to justice and love and that their “swords will be turned into plough-shares.”
Finally, and perhaps the most important aspect of fasting on all our fast days is the crucial need for Teshuvah… for repentance. The second Holy Temple was destroyed because our people had descended to the depth is sinat chinam — senseless and unreasonable hatred. Tragically, we are suffering seriously from this malady today. Jewish organizations, rabbis, cultural groups (religious, secular, Sefardi, Ashkenazi, etc.) often feel superior and hold all others in contempt.
I believe that we should focus on this shortcoming tomorrow and on all future fast days. Above all, we should never forget the huge power of the individual. What you and I do does make a difference. May we have an easy and meaningful Fast and may we soon behold the rebuilding of our Holy Temple and ultimate peace upon mankind.