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Were the Fast Days Observed in the Second Temple Period?

The Tanach describes several important events that occurred in the era of the destruction of the First Temple: the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem on the 10th of Tevet (Jer. 52:4, this was 1½ years before the destruction), the breaching of the wall of Jerusalem on the ninth of Tammuz (Jer. 52:6-7), the burning of the temple on the 7th and 10th of Av (2 Kings 25:8 and Jer. 52:12), and the assassination of Gedaliah in Tishrei (Jer. 41:1 and 2 Kings 25:25).

(The Tanach does not use the names Tevet, Tammuz, Av and Tishrei. It merely gives the number of the month.)

There are no verses that describe enactments of fasts to commemorate the above events. (Presumably, the fasts were first enacted in Babylonia.) But there is evidence of fasting during the 70 years between the temples. It comes from the book of Zechariah. In the fourth year of Darius, this prophet was asked what to do when the Temple was rebuilt: “Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself [from bodily pleasures], as I have done these ‘kamah shanim’?” (The work on the rebuilding had started in the second year of Darius.)

Here is the beginning of the prophet’s response, passing along the answer from God (with some criticism): “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh [months] for these 70 years, did you fast for My sake?…”

Thereafter at 8:19, the prophet declares: “The fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth [month], the fast of the seventh [month] and the fast of the tenth [month] will be for the house of Judah le-sasson u-le-simcha u-le-moadim tovim, love truth and peace.”

It is clear from this verse that the fasts in Tammuz, Av, Tishrei and Tevet had already been observed in the time of Zechariah.

Going back to the question posed in the title of this column, the prophet at 8:19 answers the question posed to him. But his answer is a prediction, not a description of what actually occurred. Moreover, that last phrase may have been a condition for the prediction to come true (see, e.g., Radak and Malbim), and the condition may not have been fulfilled. (For example, “The Living Nach” translates: “provided you love truth and peace!”) Alternatively, the prophet’s statement may merely have been a prediction for some far-off time. See, e.g., Metzudat David.

Our verse is discussed in the Talmud at Rosh Hashanah 18b. It interprets the prediction as meaning that the days will be holidays “be-zeman she-yesh shalom.” Although this is sometimes interpreted as meaning “when the Temple is standing,” on a plain-sense level it is a different criteria. See, e.g., Rashi, who interprets: “when the arm of the idol worshippers is not strong over Israel.” We certainly did not have political independence for most of the Second Temple period (except for a few decades during the Hasmonean period). Or is it enough to have peace, even without independence? The Persian period may have been one of peace, but what about the Greek and Roman periods?

Moving away from Zechariah’s prediction, let us now look at Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:3, dating from the late Second Temple period or thereafter.

“In six [specific] months, the messengers are sent. In Nisan, because of the Pesach. In Av, because of the taanit. In Elul, because of Rosh Hashanah. In Tishrei, because of the fixing of [the date of] the holidays. In Kislev, because of Chanukah. In Adar, because of Purim. When the Temple was up, they would also be sent in Iyar (=“yotzin af al Iyar”) because of Pesach Katan.”

One way of interpreting this Mishnah is that even during Temple times messengers would be sent out during Av because of the taanit. Just that messengers were also sent out in Temple times in Iyar. In this view, the ninth of Av was observed as a fast day during the Second Temple period. (This view is followed by Rambam. See his comm. on this Mishnah. He adds that fasting on the other three days was optional during the Second Temple period.)

There is an issue whether “af” is really in the text of the Mishnah, but probably it was originally there. (If it was not, one could interpret the Mishnah as referring to a constant number of months with messengers, six. During Temple times, messengers were sent in Iyar but not in Av. In this interpretation, the ninth of Av and the other fast days were perhaps not observed during the Temple period in any form.)

Another relevant source is Megillat Taanit. This is a list of festive days on which one was not allowed to fast. The earliest layer of Megillat Taanit is the Aramaic portion, which dates to around 50 C.E. Here there is a listing for the third of Tishrei as a date where one is not allowed to fast. (This was a commemoration of a certain unusual event, the details of which are not relevant here.)

On the simplest level, the fact that such a holiday was declared suggests that there was no practice of fasting (or of not fasting!) before its enactment. If the fast on the third of Tishrei was not observed in any way at that time, this is evidence for the same regarding some or all of the other fasts.

(No specific date in the seventh month was provided in the Biblical verses for the killing of Gedaliah. But the tradition that Gedaliah was killed on the third of Tishrei is already found in Tannaitic sources. See, e.g., Seder Olam ch. 26 and Tosefta Sotah ch. 6.)

To conclude, we do not have enough evidence to definitively answer our question about the observance of the four fast days during the period 516 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. The period is usually divided into four different eras: Persian, Greek, Hasmonean and Roman. The practice in each period may have differed and the practices in Israel and Bavel may have differed from one another.

Even the practices in the different communities within Israel may have differed. Perhaps some communities continued to fast during the Second Temple period on one or more of these days, while others stopped. And perhaps some even observed some or all as holidays, following the statement of Zechariah.

But one scholar’s observation is noteworthy: “It is difficult to imagine … that for a period of close to 600 years … these fast days had fallen into oblivion and then were suddenly reinstituted… Especially puzzling is the supposed reinstitution of the fast days of Tebet 10 and the Fast of Gedaliah, since these have nothing to do with the Second Temple… We are therefore led to accept the assumption that these fast days continued to be observed by the people during the Second Commonwealth.” This statement is by Judah Rosenthal in JQR 57 (1967) in his article on this topic. (There are traditional sources that take this approach as well. See his n. 64.) I would just modify his conclusion by changing it to “some of the people.”

P.S. There is another view that the fast of the 10th month referred to by Zechariah is the 5th of Tevet. See Rosh Hashanah 18b, citing Ezek. 33:21.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. For those who need memory aids for history, he recalls hearing an expression: “Boys Pants Get Ripped.” This is meant to remind of the order: Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman.

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