Rabbi Wein.com The Voice of Jewish History

Rabbi Wein’s Weekly Blog
 Printer Friendly


The Jewish people in this new year of 5766 are about to observe two fast days on consecutive Thursdays. The first Thursday, the day after Rosh Hashana, is the day of Tzom Gedalya. It commemorates the tragic assassination about twenty five hundred years ago of Gedalya ben Achikam, the provisional governor of Judah by fellow Jews. But the fast day really is also intended to set the tone for the days of repentance and introspection that mark the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is interesting to note that it has been the ritual observance of a fast day, replete with all of the laws and halachic consequences that Tzom Gedalya carries with it, that has preserved Gedalya's memory and the concurrent warning against political violence for so many centuries.

Though certainly not meant as a comparison, I nevertheless note that the memorials for Rabin's assassination diminish from year to year, though barely more than a decade has passed from that awful event. The secular Jewish world, in my opinion, knows not how to commemorate meaningfully either victory or defeat. In a world where "now" dominates it is difficult to produce long-lasting, let alone eternal ceremonies. Tzom Gedalya serves as an example and testimony to the eternity of halacha, ritual and the power of religious ceremony. It also sets the mood for the coming day of fasting, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur requires preparation. It cannot be approached casually and coldly. Tzom Gedalya serves as the forerunner of that preparation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (Halperin), the great Kotzker Rebbe, once stated in his inimitable style: "There are really no major fast days in the Jewish year. For on Tisha B'Av who can eat? And on Yom Kippur, who needs to eat?" Rambam in his great Mishneh Torah lists Yom Kippur as a day of rest and not as a fast day. On Yom Kippur therefore we "rest" from eating, as we do from all of the other usual and ordinary things and events of daily life. Thus Yom Kippur is different from all other fast days, not only in degree and severity but also in kind. This is what the rabbis meant when they stated in the Talmud that on Yom Kippur we all become as the angels.

It is the origin of the Jewish custom to wear white as a symbol of purity and of both mortality and immortality on that holy day. It is a day of rest from being ordinary, mundane, barely human. A day of relief from pressures, ambitions, competitiveness - that is the rest day of Yom Kippur. In this important facet, Yom Kippur differs from all other fast days of the year. Yom Kippur's fast is in line with the words of the prophet "tear open your hearts rather than rend your garments." It is far easier to tear cloth than to bare one's heart. But the rabbis taught us that the Lord wants our hearts. Yom Kippur is the time when this order may be delivered more easily than otherwise during the year.

I have written before in an essay on the subject of fasting and its role in Jewish history and life, It was much more common in earlier times than it is today, even in the circles of the stringently observant. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chayim, remarked a century ago in his Mishna Brurah that the current generations are not as physically strong as were past generations and therefore the practice of fasting as penance has declined in favor of prayer and charity. Whether that fact still holds true for our current time of advancing longevity and relatively good health throughout one's lifetime may be open for debate. However, it is clear that the Jews are no longer a nation of fasters.

As such, the necessity of opening our hearts to God becomes an even greater imperative. Praying carefully, absorbing the meaning of the holy words of our prayer book, admiring the beauty of the language and the poetry of the heart that distinguishes the Jewish prayer books, all can help contribute to an opening of the heart and a true feeling of repentance and renewed commitment. May the two fast days that now come upon us be of aid to us in the holy endeavor of searching one's heart and soul and improving our lives. May the great day of Yom Kippur cleanse us from all sin and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Eternal Life.

Shabat shalom.
Shana Tova.

Berel Wein

Subscribe to our blog via email or RSS to get more posts like this one.