2 – The Laws of the Minor Fasts

As we have already learned, since we no longer suffer from harsh decrees and religious persecution, and on the other hand, the HolyTemple is still in ruins, the status of the minor fasts currently depends on the will of the Jewish people.  Just as the very obligation to fast depends on Israel’s desire, so do the [other] laws of the fast.  And when the Jews accepted upon themselves to fast during the intermediary period, they did not agree to treat these fasts as strictly as the Yom Kippur fast.  This is the fundamental difference between the three minor fasts and Tish’a B’Av.  Because so many troubles befell us on the ninth of Av, we are obligated to fast on that day even during the intermediary period, and its laws remain as originally established: i.e., the fast lasts an entire day and we are enjoined – among other things – to afflict ourselves by not bathing, applying ointments, wearing shoes, and engaging in marital relations, just like on Yom Kippur.

However, the laws of the other fasts that were instituted as a result of the churban are more lenient.  We fast only during the day and we are only prohibited from eating and drinking, not bathing etc.

Another difference: pregnant and nursing women must fast on Tish’a B’Av; only the infirm are exempt.  On the three minor fasts, however, even pregnant and nursing women who are healthy are exempt from fasting, because when the Jews originally agreed to fast on these days, they decided to be lenient with these women, [ruling that] they need not fast (SA OC 550:1-2).[2]

Preferably, one should act strictly and refrain from bathing in hot water during the fast, but one may wash in lukewarm water for purposes of cleanliness.  It is also inappropriate to take a haircut, listen to joyous music, or shop for things that make one happy during the fast.[3]


[2]. During periods of harsh decrees, are we obligated – on a practical level – to treat all the fast days like Tish’a B’Av?  Seemingly, according to the Gemara in Rosh HaShanah, 18b (which we quoted above), during periods of harsh decrees, like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Cossack riots, and the Holocaust, the Jews were obligated to fast on the three [“minor”] fasts as they did on Tish’a B’Av.  However, we do not find that the Rishonim mention such an idea.  Even the Ramban writes, in Torat HaAdam (p. 243, Chavel edition), that [the Jews] already decided, put into practice, and accepted upon themselves to fast, adding, “All the more so in our generation, for due to our numerous sins, the Jews suffer hardships and there is no peace.  Therefore, everyone must fast.”  Nonetheless, he does not say that one needs to fast an entire day.  On the contrary, he concludes, “Go see what the people do.”  Apparently, he means to say that the custom is to treat them like minor fasts.  This is how the Shulchan Aruch codifies the halakha (OC 550:2).  Perhaps the reason is that after the harsh decrees that followed the second destruction ceased, the obligation to fast on the three [minor] fasts fell away and they became dependant on the nation’s will, and [the Jews] agreed to fast only during the day.  And since this is what they accepted, the original institution was totally nullified, [to the degree] that even if decrees once again arise they will fast only during the day.  The Gra writes similarly in his commentary [on the Shulchan Aruch, saying] that R. Yehudah HaNasi detached the three fasts from these stringencies, because he saw that the Jews of his time no longer suffered hardships; see there.

However, some [authorities] maintain that Jews must observe full-day fasts in every generation during periods of [anti-Jewish] decrees and religious persecution.  This seems to be the simple understanding of the Talmudic discourse as explained by the Ramban and the other poskim.  That is, whenever there are [harsh] decrees, the obligation to fast returns to its original status and the three fasts take on the laws of Tish’a B’Av.  The Tashbetz (2:271) concurs, but he writes that if the persecutions affect part of the Jewish people, only they need to fast an entire day.  It is possible, though, that even they are [exempt from this stringency, seeing that they are considered] “under duress” because of the persecutions.

The Shelah writes in Tractate Ta’anit (Ner Mitzvah 6) that it would have been appropriate to act strictly [and treat] all three fasts like Tish’a B’Av, but we do not impose an enactment upon the people unless they can bear it.  Therefore, [the rabbis] ruled strictly only with regard to Tish’a B’AvSefer HaPardes, attributed to Rashi, indicates that an individual who feels that he can tolerate it should fast an entire day on all the fasts.  He concludes that it is good to act strictly only in the area [of eating], while it is unnecessary to observe the other afflictive prohibitions; and if one wishes to act strictly, he should do so in private, to avoid arrogance.  The Magen Avraham and many other Acharonim mention this [ruling].  Apparently, they understood that since [evil] decrees existed in their times, it was appropriate to act strictly on the three fasts, but [the masses] did not conduct themselves in this manner.  Therefore, individuals who are capable of acting strictly should do so.  The reason [Sefer HaPardes] ruled leniently regarding the other restrictions is that their status is more lenient from the start.  After all, many poskim maintain that these restrictions are not forbidden by Torah law even on Yom Kippur.  The Magen Avraham and Mishnah Berurah (550:6) write that the only area in which one should not be strict is wearing shoes, because it would look ridiculous [to walk around without shoes when everyone else is wearing them], implying that it is good to act stringently in the areas of washing, anointing, and the like.  I believe that their reasoning is based on the fact that there were so many [harsh] decrees, as I wrote above, and the Sha’ar HaTziyun (9) concurs.  (See Rabbi Karp’s Hilchot Bein HaMetzarim 1:8, where he makes an inference from the words of the Gra.  In my humble opinion, however, he did not read the words of the Shelah and the Acharonim carefully enough, thinking that they ruled stringently even in the intermediary situation, when it appears that they were strict only because of the [harsh] decrees [that prevailed at the time].  See also Piskei Teshuvot 550 6-7, [and note] 22.)

Either way, in our times, after the establishment of the State of Israel (with God’s help), it seems that there is no reason whatsoever to act strictly.  We are obligated to fast, regardless of the nation’s will, only when there are [harsh] decrees, according to the Ramban, or religious persecutions, according to the Tashbetz and the Tur.  If there are no such troubles, however, everyone agrees that we do not have to fast [on the three minor fast days] as we do on Tish’a B’Av.  And even if we explain that the Shelah meant to say that the Jewish people would have accepted [the three fasts] as full fasts, if they were able to do so, even in the intermediary situation, which depends on Israel’s will, and therefore individuals should fast the entire day; nevertheless, there is no room whatsoever to be strict in the current State of Israel, where – thank God – we are not even subjugated to the nations of the world.  After all, Rashi holds that the fasts are completely nullified when we are free from the yoke of the nations.  Albeit, most Rishonim disagree with Rashi (see note 1, above), but it is impossible to transform a situation which Rashi considers joyous into one of completely obligatory fasting.  Therefore, there is no room to be strict and fast an entire day and observe the other afflictive prohibitions on the three fasts as is done on Tish’a B’Av.  This goes against what is written in Torat HaMo’adim (1:4) and Hilchot Chag BeChag (1:3).

[3]. The Shulchan Aruch (550:2) rules that one may bathe on the minor fasts.  The majority of poskim agree, and the halakha follows their opinion.  Tosafot (Ta’anit 13a, s.v. ve’chol) quotes the Ra’avyah as saying that one may even bathe in hot water, [adding that] Rav Yoel, his father, prohibits the use of hot water.  Several other Rishonim and Acharonim mention this stringency.  The author of Torat HaMo’adim (1:6) cites the sources.  Two possible explanations can be given for this stringency: 1) [The rabbis] introduced it at a time of harsh decrees.  If so, there is no room to adopt it nowadays, as explained in the previous note.  2) [It was enacted] in order to ensure that the three fasts are not more lenient than the Nine Days, on which we do not bathe due to our mourning over the churban.  This reason is mentioned in Bi’ur Halachah (551:2, s.v. meRosh Chodesh) and Sha’ar HaTziyun (550:8) in the name of Eliyah Rabbah, Ateret Zahav, and Pri Megadim.  One who wishes to be strict in this matter should observe all the customs of the Nine Days, [which include] not listening to joyous music, not taking haircuts, not reciting the SheHechiyanu blessing if possible (see below 8:7; KHC 551:209).  No one has a custom to refrain from doing laundry (perhaps because the anguish [generated from keeping] such a custom [is felt only after] an extended period of time, having no significance [if kept for just] one day).  It is appropriate to avoid majorly joyous events, like dances, even on the night of a fast.  Regarding weddings, however, there are varying opinions.  After all, since weddings involve [the fulfillment of] a mitzvah, they may be permitted on the night of a fast.  (See also Piskei Teshuvot 550:7; Mikra’ei Kodesh, [by R.] Harrari, 3:9-10, with notes.)  Nonetheless, on the night of the seventeenth of Tammuz, one should follow the more stringent opinion, because the Three Weeks [begin then] and it is not fortuitous [to hold such events] during that period (below, 8.1; Piskei Teshuvot 551:7).  Some authorities forbid one to wash even in cold water on the minor fasts.  In practice, however, it seems that even one who wants to act stringently [in general] may be lenient and wash in lukewarm water, for one may be lenient on this issue even during the Nine Days, as we will explain below, 8.19.  It is a mitzvah to bathe in hot water in honor of the Sabbath (SA 260:1); therefore, if [one of these] fasts falls out on a Friday, one should bathe in hot water.
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