Why do we fast? Ask the rabbi

July 29, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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This question and others answered by Rabbi Raymond Apple.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Is the fast of Tishah B’Av still relevant today?

A. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, it has been asked whether Tishah B’Av ought not to be abandoned.

Has not the Jewish State risen once more and Jewry been restored to the land?

The question has become even more pressing since the events of 1967.

How can we realistically bemoan “the city that sits solitary” when we have had the privilege of seeing Jerusalem become a pulsating, united capital again?

The answer is threefold:
1. The inspiring events of which we are witnesses cannot blind us to the fact that the Temple has not been rebuilt and the security of the Land is still under threat.

2. Tishah B’Av is a day of mourning for many tragedies which have left lasting effects on Jewish life, culminating in the Holocaust. In our joy, dare we forget those who died?

3. Tishah B’Av is concerned not only with a physical exile but also with a spiritual one. The return to the Land of Israel is only the beginning of the Messianic Age. The complete redemption will have to see the rule of truth, justice and peace among all men: the establishment of a Jerusalem of the spirit. That is a fulfilment for which we still have to strive hard and long.

It would be naive and false to our history if Tishah B’Av were to be erased from our calendar.


Q. I learned that the Second Temple was destroyed on 10 Av. Why then do we commemorate the destruction on 9 Av?

A. According to the Second Book of Kings (25:8-10), the Temple was burnt and the walls of Jerusalem razed on 7 Av. Jeremiah (52:12) says it was 10 Av.

When the Talmud discusses the date (Ta’anit 29a) it suggests the following reconciliation: “On the 7th day the heathens entered the Temple and ate in it and continued to desecrate it throughout the 7th and 8th of the month; towards dusk on the 9th day they set fire to the Sanctuary and it continued to burn the whole of that day”.

The view of Rabbi Yochanan is, “If had lived in that generation I would have chosen 10 Av for the mourning because the majority of the Temple was burnt on that day.”

The Talmud responds that the 9th was chosen because the beginning of a tragedy is what should be marked. It adds that 9 Av saw such a succession of other catastrophes that the day seems to have an uncanny capacity to attract calamity. In time to come the same day will be a time of rejoicing and whoever shared in the mourning will share in the joy (Rosh HaShanah 18b).

Halachically, the mourning practices of the Nine Days leading up to Tishah B’Av continue until midday on 10 Av.

Josephus, an unreliable historian at best, asserts that it was the Jews themselves who set fire to the Temple, since “God had for certain long ago doomed it to the fire”.

Since the first Temple was understood as having been destroyed by the king of Babylon on 9 Av, says Josephus, the second Temple met its fate on the same day as Divine punishment and as retribution for rebelling against the Roman regime (Wars of the Jews VI:4).


Q. Why do we observe sad events by not eating and drinking? In what way does fasting express our emotions?

A. One answer is that when a tragedy happens we can’t eat, we don’t want to eat. In contrast, when it is a happy moment we eat (probably too much).

The Psalmist says that wine gladdens the heart of man (Psalm 104:l5); like wine, food gives us a feeling of happiness and fullness. So surely the opposite should also hold true.

Denying ourselves food and drink makes us feel uncomfortable, uneasy, depressed and deprived. Unless we have that unpleasant feeling we cannot appreciate the depth of the catastrophe.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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