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The Fast of the Firstborn: 14 Nisan

A widespread custom of firstborns fasting on the 14th of Nisan is not referred to in the mishna or either Talmud. Nor is it mentioned in the literature of the Babylonian geonim. The earliest explicit source for this fast is a post-Talmudic tractate—Soferim—which in large respects describes practices of Eretz Yisrael.

Here is what is found in Soferim, chapter 21: “And why do we not fast in the month of Nisan? Because on the first of Nisan, the Tabernacle was erected and 12 princes offered their sacrifices during the first 12 days—a day for each tribe—and each made the day a Yom Tov for himself. Also, in the time to come the Mikdash will be rebuilt in Nisan … For this reason, no tachanunim are recited on any of the days of Nisan and there is no fasting until Nisan has passed, except for habechorot shemitanin on the eve of Passover, and the tzenuin (pious ones) because of the matzah, so that they can eat it with taavah (appetite).”

According to the most recent scholarship, Soferim was completed in the ninth or tenth century in an area under the influence of the customs of Eretz Yisrael (e.g., Italy or Byzantium).There are many halachic practices included in the 21 chapters of this tractate. Some, we follow today. Others, we do not. This one—the fasting of the firstborn—has been generally accepted. It is cited with approval by many Rishonim, first in Ashkenazic communities and later in Sefardic ones, and it is accepted at Shulchan Aruch O.H. 470. (Of course, the common modern practice is to avoid it via participation in a siyum.)

It is interesting that Soferim mentions the practice of the firstborn fasting but does not give any reason for it. Of course, the underlying reason might be fasting as a commemoration of being saved. (See, e.g., Tur, O.H. 470.) But this is counterintuitive. A “feast” day would be a more likely commemoration. I have also seen the suggestion that the fast commemorates that the firstborn lost the privilege of doing the avodah and that this privilege was given instead to the kohanim. Other suggestions have been made as well. (E.g., atonement for some ancient sin of the firstborns.)

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There is one possible early source that may evidence fasting of firstborns on Erev Pesach. It is a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim, 10th chapter), in a discussion of the behavior of Rabbi Judah HaNasi on Erev Pesach. It was said about him that he did not eat matzah or chametz on Erev Pesach. One of the suggestions offered to explain this was that he was a firstborn. But then, the next Amora in the Talmud rejects this explanation and decides that he was an “istenis” and if he ate during the day, he would not be able to eat the matzah with appetite at night. The Talmud seems to accept this last explanation, as it does not attempt any refutation of it.

What can we learn from the rejected suggestion that “he was a firstborn?” Was the suggestion a completely erroneous idea? It seems more likely that some firstborns did fast at the time of this Amora (even if it was not a widespread and accepted custom) and that this is what motivated the suggestion. There are Rishonim who agree with this view. One of the many scholars who agrees is D. Goldschmidt. See his Mechkerei Tefillah U’Piyyut, pages 384-86. Of course, even if this is the way to understand the rejected suggestion, there is no reference to any such fast in any other literature prior to Soferim, chapter 21.

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According to some, e.g., the Agudah (died 1348) and the Bach (died 1640), firstborn women are obligated to fast as well. But the Maharil (died 1427) disagreed and his lenient approach has become accepted. Maharil wrote (cited in the Darchei Moshe, O. H. 470) that the eldest in the homes today do not fast even though, according to our tradition, the plague of the “firstborn” struck them down as well. Thus too, women do not fast today even though, according to our tradition, the plague struck them down. (I do not know where the midrashim are that include women as victims in this plague. But note that verse 12:30 has the phrase: “ain bayit asher ein sham met.” What if a house had only women? The implication is that the oldest women would have been struck down.)

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Rabbi Arussi (cited below) points out that Rambam seems to track the above passage in Soferim 21 in his Mishneh Torah, Chametz U’Matzah 6:12, except that he omits the fast of the firstborn. Presumably, this would be Rambam’s way of disagreeing with any obligation of the firstborns to fast … In the 19th century, a suggestion was made that the text in Soferim was not “habechorot mitanin” but “habechorot mitangin” (enjoy). There is, of course, no manuscript evidence for this reading and this reading does not fit the context.

However, it does bring to mind a joke that I learned recently from my fellow Jewish Link columnist, Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman: “A young monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to helping the other monks in copying the old laws of the church by hand. He notices that all of the monks are copying from copies—not from the original manuscript. So, the new monk goes to the head monk to question this, pointing out that if someone made even a small error in the first copy, it would never be picked up! In fact, that error would be continued in all of the subsequent copies.

The head monk says, ‘We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.’

The head monk goes down into the dark caves, underneath the monastery, where the original manuscripts are held as archives in a locked vault that hasn’t been opened for hundreds of years. Hours go by and nobody sees the head monk.

The young monk gets worried and goes down to look for him. He finds him banging his head against the wall and wailing: “We missed the r! We missed the r!” His forehead is all bloody and bruised and he is crying uncontrollably. The young monk asks the head monk, ‘What’s wrong, father?’ The head monk replies, with tears in his eyes, “The word was supposed to be celebrate!””

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For further reading on the fast of the firstborn, see the very detailed article in Hebrew by Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, cited in a note in the Wikipedia entry, “Fast of the Firstborn.” The note links to the entire article (in the journal “Mesorah LeYosef,” volume 4). Rabbi Arusi was born in Yemen and is now the Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I also recommend the short article by Goldschmidt that I cited above.


Mitchell First is, of course, a firstborn. He can be reached at [email protected].

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