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The Fast Days of ‘Megillat Taanit Batra’

We are all familiar with the four biblical fast days in Tishrei, Tammuz, Av and Tevet. We are also familiar with the post-Talmudic fast of the 13th of Adar.

But if one looks at R. Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch (16th century), Orach Chayim 580, one sees an additional list of fast days. R. Yosef Caro writes that it is “ra’ui” (worthy) to fast on them. (Admittedly, he does not say “chayav.”) The list begins: “ 1 Nisan, death of Aaron’s sons; 10 Nisan, death of Miriam and end of her well; 26 Nisan, death of Joshua; 10 Iyyar, death of Eli and his sons and the capture of the ark…” It goes on with various other fast day dates through the rest of the year. The total number of dates listed here is 21.

Before he wrote his Shulchan Aruch, R. Yosef Caro wrote a commentary on the Tur called the Beit Yosef. There he wrote (sec. 580): “I never saw or heard about anyone who fasted on these days.” Nevertheless, when he later composed his Shulchan Aruch, he chose to codify them! (It has been suggested that his codification of these fast days may have been due to his well-documented ascetic and kabbalistic tendencies.)

So what is going on here? These fast days were not observed in biblical times and they are not found in the Mishnah or either Talmud. Where did these fast days come from?

It has been known for centuries that this list of fast days (with many variants) has been found in sources that long preceded the Shulchan Aruch. For example, a list like this is in the Halachot Gedolot (ninth century, Babylonia). A list like this is also found in other well-known sources such as Seder R. Amram Gaon and Machzor Vitry. (See the article by S. Leiman referenced below, p. 178, n. 15, for further references.)

But with the discovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 19th century, several earlier sources came to light. This enabled much progress to be made on the issues of the origin of these fast days.

Before I discuss this further, I have to address the name for these lists of fast days.

The convention now is to call some or all of these lists of fast days “Megillat Taanit Batra.” This is an artificial name, first suggested in 1908. Other scholars had used other names such as “Perek Ha-Tzomot.” (Of course, “Megillat Taanit Batra” should not be confused with the much older “Megillat Taanit,” an ancient list of holidays on which one was not allowed to fast. Nevertheless, our list of fast days was sometimes appended as an additional last chapter to “Megillat Taanit”!)

Now that the material from the Cairo Genizah has come to light, we see that we have evidence of the existence of these fast days long before the Halachot Gedolot in ninth century Babylonia. We now realize that these fast days originated in Palestine. For example, a piyyut from R. Eleazar Kallir (who lived in Palestine) includes many of the fast days. Moreover, on several occasions in this piyyut, Kallir does not even give the date of the fast day, only specifying the month and the event. This suggests that the fast days he included were well-known and may have been observed for generations by his time. The most recent scholarship estimates Kallir’s life span as 570-640 CE.

The scholar who has investigated this whole topic is Shulamit Elizur. She is a professor at Hebrew University who is a piyyut expert. She published a book in 2007: “Lammah Tzamnu? Megillat Taanit Batra U-Reshimont Tzomot Ha-Krovot Lah.” She collected all the various sources and compared them to see how the list of fast days evolved over the centuries. Based on all the evidence, she concluded that the original custom to fast on such days began in Palestine in the fifth or sixth century. Over the centuries, additional days were added to the list, and many variants arose.

That these fast days originated in Amoraic Palestine is not surprising. There seems to have been an affinity for fasting there. There is documentation that it was the practice among some Jews in Palestine in the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods to fast regularly on Monday and Thursday. See, e.g., Elizur, p. 160.

So we now know that our list of fast days originated in Palestine in the fifth or sixth century. But what we do not know is whether these fast days were observed by a large segment of Palestinian Jews or perhaps only by a small segment. Elizur, pp. 25 and 230-32, suggests the latter.

Thereafter, the list of fast days spread to Babylonia and Europe, but this does not mean that the fast days were actually observed there. Perhaps they were observed but only by very few. See Elizur’s discussion at pp. 227-42. But R. Yosef Caro nevertheless chose to include them in the Shulchan Aruch.

Elizur suggests that the earliest list included fasts for only the following events: the death of Joshua, the death of Eli, the death of Samuel, the killing of the sons of Tzidkiyahu, the translation of the Torah into Greek, the war between the rest of the tribes and the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-20), a certain violent physical dispute that broke out between the students of Shammai and Hillel, and the killing of the two Jewish brothers Pappus and Lulianus in the second century C.E. (Regarding this last event, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 13:69 and the issues raised at Elizur, pp. 202-04.)

One of the most interesting dates in the list at Shulchan Aruch, OC 580, is the ninth of Tevet. R. Yosef Caro wrote that “we do not know what bad event happened on it.” He wrote this because Halachot Gedolot, in the ninth century, wrote: “lo katvu rabboteinu al mah hu”the Sages did not write what event this fast was meant to commemorate). Thereafter, in the 19th century, several Jewish scholars suggested that the fast commemorated the birthday of Jesus and that for this reason the basis for the fast was purposely not specified.

This suggestion and another Christianity-related suggestion motivated Dr. Shnayer Leiman to write a comprehensive article about this topic. See Sid Z. Leiman “The Scroll of Fasts: The Ninth of Tebeth,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 74/2 (1983). (It can be accessed at his site, leimanlibrary.com.) He investigated the issue thoroughly and concluded that we still do not know what event this fast day was meant to commemorate.

Moreover, as stated by both Leiman and Elizur, the reason no explanation was given may simply have been that whoever decided to include the fast of the ninth of Tevet on the list may not have had the origin information himself. We do not have to read in “lo katvu…” a desire for secrecy. (As Elizur suggests for various reasons, it is possible that the origin of the fast of the ninth of Tevet may have been the death of Ezra. Whoever wrote the line “lo katvu” may have known that the date should be included in the list of fast days, but may have not known the reason for the fast, so he recorded the date of the fast and then added “lo katvu…”)

 

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. He would much rather write a joyful column about regular “Megillat Taanit,” the list of holidays on which fasting is prohibited. He promises to deal with that in the future.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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