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Peninei Halakha > Zemanim > 6 - The Four Fasts Commemorating the Churban

6 – The Four Fasts Commemorating the Churban

1 – Instituting the Fasts

After the destruction (churban) of the First Temple, the prophets instituted fasts in commemoration of the tragic events surrounding the churban and the exile of the Jews [from their Land]. The purpose of these fasts is to arouse the people to mourn over the churban and the exile, which will lead them to repent and rectify the evil deeds that caused all the troubles that Israel has experienced since then, until this very day.

They instituted a fast on the tenth of Tevet because that is when Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylonia, began his siege on Jerusalem. They also instituted a fast in Tammuz because the walls of Jerusalem were breached in that month. The ninth of Av was established as a fast day because the Temple was destroyed on that day. On the third of Tishrei, Gedalyah son of Achikam – leader of the Jews who remained in Judea after the churban – was murdered, prompting [the prophets] to institute a fast day, because his death extinguished the last ember of Jewish sovereignty in the Land.

The Jews observed these fasts throughout the seventy-year Babylonian exile, and when they were privileged to build the Second Temple, the question arose: are we obligated to continue fasting on these days? The prophet Zecharyah (8:19) answered, Thus says the Lord of Hosts, “The fast of the fourth [month] (Tammuz), the fast of the fifth (the ninth of Av), the fast of the seventh (the third of Tishrei), and the fast of the tenth (the tenth of Tevet) will be to the House of Judah for joy and for gladness, and for festive days; love truth and peace.” Indeed, during the Second Temple era, these days became joyous festivals.

When the Second Temple was destroyed, the [original] enactment was reinstated and the Jews [once again] observed the four fasts. However, the date of one of the fasts changed: the one in Tammuz, commemorating the breaching of Jerusalem. You see, at the time of the first destruction, the city was breached on the ninth of Tammuz, and the Jews fasted on that day throughout the seventy-year Babylonian exile. During the second churban, however, Jerusalem was breached on the seventeenth of Tammuz, on which we fast to this very day. Now, the four fasts were originally instituted, by the prophets, to commemorate the destruction of the First Temple. This is why we fast on the tenth of Tevet, which is when Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylonia, laid siege to Jerusalem at the time of the first churban. This is also why we observe the Fast of Gedalyah, which marks the demise of Jewish governance [in the Holy Land] at the end of the First Temple era. Nonetheless, when it comes to the fast commemorating the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls, [the Sages] established the fast on the seventeenth of Tammuz, which is when the city was breached at the time of the second churban, because the pain of that destruction is closer to us. Furthermore, the verse calls that fast The fast of the fourth[month], implying that the main institution is that it should take place in the fourth month, which is Tammuz. Therefore, even when [the later sages] changed the date from the ninth to the seventeenth, they did not essentially change the prophets’ directive to fast in the fourth month in memory of the breaching of Jerusalem. Nothing changed in regards to the ninth of Av, because both Temples were destroyed on that day[1].

[1]. The Tashbetz (2:271) explains at length that the prophets instituted the [four] fasts mainly in commemoration of, and as a result of, the first destruction, which is when the Shechinah (Divine Presence) left [the Jews]. The sages who lived after the second destruction did not alter the original enactment, the proof being that they did not establish a fast on the day the Romans began their war on Jerusalem. The fact that we fast on the seventeenth of Tammuz, as opposed to the ninth, is because the [original] institution of a fast day commemorating the breaching of Jerusalem referred to the month of Tammuz. Therefore, it may be moved [from the ninth] to the seventeenth. The Ramban writes in Torat HaAdam (p. 243, Chavel edition) that we fast on the seventeenth of Tammuz because the second destruction is more painful for us (based on Yoma 9b). The Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:5) quotes R. Tanchum son of Chanila’i as saying that, in truth, Jerusalem was breached on the seventeenth of Tammuz during the First Temple period, as well. The people simply miscalculated, thinking that the breach occurred on the ninth; and Scriptures (Yirmiyah 39:2, 52:6) did not want to deviate from what the people thought. However, Rava states in the Bavli (Ta’anit 28b) that at the time of the First Temple, the city was indeed breached on the ninth of Tammuz, while [the same tragic event took place] on the seventeenth of Tammuz in the Second Temple era. Tosafot (Rosh HaShanah 18b, s.v. zeh) write that the Bavli and the Yerushalmi dispute the matter.

2 – The Tenth of Tevet

The prophets established a fast day on the tenth of Tevet, because that is when Nevuchadnetzar King of Babylonia came with his army to besiege Jerusalem, and that marked the beginning of the troubles which ended in the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Shechinah. Granted, during the Second Commonwealth, the siege began on a different day; nevertheless, the initial destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and abolishment of Jewish kingship occurred on the tenth of Tevet.

Once the tenth of Tevet was already established as a fast day, the rabbis added two other sorrowful events, which occurred around that date, to the character of the day: the death of Ezra the Scribe, on the ninth of Tevet, and the translation of the Torah to Greek, on the eighth of the month. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel also expanded upon the significance of the day, establishing it as a day of general mourning (Yom HaKaddish HaKlalli) for the holy souls who were killed in the Holocaust, whose date of death is unknown.

Our Sages say that Ezra the Scribe was worthy to have the Torah given through him, had Moshe Rabbeinu not preceded him (Sanhedrin 21b), implying that he was second only to Moshe. Ezra the Scribe enacted ten fundamental decrees (Bava Kama 82a), and by doing so, he inaugurated the tradition of the Sages of the Oral Law. Chazal further state that Ezra the Scribe, who ascended from Babylonia to build the Second Temple, is actually the prophet Malachi (Megillah 15a). That is to say: on the one hand, he is the last of the prophets, who are associated with the Written Law; while on the other hand, he is the first of the Sages of the Oral Law. Thus, he is a great Torah scholar who serves as a transitional link between the Written and Oral Torahs. And just like Moshe, he cared for Klal Yisrael and bore the burden of leading them. He was among the leaders of the aliyah from Babylonia and one of the builders of the Second Temple.

Afterwards, when the Greeks came to power, they issued a harsh decree against the Jews, forcing them to translate the Torah into Greek. That day was as calamitous for the Jews as the day upon which the Golden Calf was made, for the Torah belongs to the Jewish people and translating it into Greek blurred its uniqueness, giving the impression that anyone can engage in it. This occurred on the eighth of Tevet, causing darkness to descend upon the world for three days. Therefore, on the fast of Asarah B’Tevet we mention this painful event, as well.

Our master and teacher, R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook zt”l, said that we must rectify these three issues on the tenth of Tevet: 1) In response to the siege of Jerusalem, we must strengthen the walls of the city and build up the Land both spiritually and physically. 2) In response to the death of Ezra, we must enhance and glorify the Torah, while engaging in the ingathering of the exiles, as Ezra the Scribe did. 3) In response to the translation of the Torah into Greek, we must restore our genuine Jewish spirit and culture and uproot all the evil “spirits” that entered our culture throughout the exile, when the nations ruled over us.

3 – The Seventeenth of Tammuz

The Sages of the Mishnah state, “Five (tragic) events befell our forefathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz: the Tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken, the continuous daily offering (Tamid) was terminated, the city [of Jerusalem] was breached, Apostomus burnt a Torah scroll, and [someone] erected an idol in the Holy Temple” (Ta’anit 26a-b).

[The breaking of the Tablets]: After the revelation at Mount Sinai and the [Jewish people’s] acceptance of the Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, where he learned Torah directly from God. When he descended the mountain carrying the covenantal Tablets, which were engraved with the Ten Commandments, he saw that some of the people had strayed after a golden calf that they had fashioned. His strength immediately failed and he broke the Tablets. Thus, not only were the Tablets broken on the seventeenth of Tammuz, but the sin of the Golden Calf occurred on that day, as well.

The termination of the Tamid offering: The Tamid is the most important sacrifice offered in the Holy Temple. Its importance stems from its consistency: they would offer the Tamid [twice a day], every day, once in the morning and once in the evening. During the first siege on Jerusalem, the Romans supplied [the Jews] with lambs to be used for the Tamid offering. This went on until the sixteenth of Tammuz. The seventeenth of Tammuz was the first day they failed to offer the Tamid(see Bava Kama 82a).

The burning of the Torah by Apostomus: He was a [wicked] Roman officer.

Erecting an idol in the Holy Temple: Some say that this happened in the First Temple, and [King] Menasheh was the one who did it. Others say that it took place in the Second Temple era, and the perpetrator was the wicked Apostomus (Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 4:5).

However, the event that ultimately prompted [the prophets/rabbis] to establish a fast day was the fifth tragedy, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls. The Romans besieged the city for three years, yet they were unable to conquer it. Finally, because of baseless hatred and infighting [among the Jews], the city’s defenders grew weak and the Romans prevailed. On the seventeenth of Tammuz, they succeeded in breaking through the walls of Jerusalem and penetrating inward. Practically speaking, once the city was breached, the campaign was lost. Battles continued to rage in Jerusalem for another three weeks, but in the end, [the Romans] conquered the Temple mount and burned down the Second Temple, on the ninth of Av, thus beginning the long exile[2].

If we ponder the matter, we will see that there is a deep connection between the five tragedies that occurred on the seventeenth of Tammuz. Each one reveals a crisis that affects the spiritual roots first, then introduces cracks in the wall of faith, and eventually causes serious damage, which if not repaired promptly will lead to the total destruction of Tish’a B’Av. When the Jews committed the Sin of the Calf, they did not completely reject God. They still believed in HaShem, creator of the world; they just believed that the Calf had certain powers, as well. Once they began committing idolatry, however, they had no strength to resist the council of the Spies, and they rebelled against HaShem and His servant Moshe, thus violating the purpose for which the Jewish nation was created – the revelation of the Shechinah in this world, in the Land that was designed for this, Eretz Yisrael. The same is true of the termination of the Tamid offering, the placement of an idol in the Temple, and the burning of the Torah. None of them, as of yet, entail [complete] destruction, but they represent a fundamental spiritual rift, which if left unrepaired will grow worse and worse, leading eventually to total destruction.

[2]. See previous note regarding the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls during the first churban, which Scriptures say occurred on the ninth of Tammuz, and why we fast on the day it happened during the second churban. See also Torat HaMo’adim (Yosef), p. 7, where the author cites varying opinions as to when the idol was erected in the Temple and when the Tamid was terminated.

4 – The Ninth of Av (Tish’a B’Av)

The Sages of the Mishnah state, “Five [tragic] events befell our forefathers on the ninth of Av: it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would not enter the Land, the First and Second Temples were destroyed, [the city of] Beitar was captured, and the city [of Jerusalem] was ploughed over” (Ta’anit 26b).

The first event happened in the Generation of the Wilderness. Moshe granted the nation’s request and sent twelve spies to survey the Land of Canaan. When they returned, ten of them slandered the Land and “melted the hearts” [cf. Devarim 1:28] of the people, saying that they could not conquer the Land of Canaan because its inhabitants were strong and gigantic. The entire congregation lifted up their voice, and the people wept that night. All the children of Israel complained against Moshe and Aharon, and the entire congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this Land to die by the sword? Our wives and our children will be for prey. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt”(BeMidbar 14:1-4).

Granted, Yehoshua and Calev rebuked them, saying, The Land is very, very good. If the Lord desires us, He will bring us to this Land and give it to us, a Land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord, and do not fear the people of the Land, for they are [like] our bread; their protection has left them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them(ibid. 14:7-9). Nonetheless, the people did not accept their words. On the contrary, The entire congregation said to stone them with stones(v. 10).

The Sin of the Spies was worse than the Sin of the Calf on many levels. When the Jews made the Golden Calf, they did not completely reject God and Moshe; they merely erred, thinking that Moshe disappeared and that HaShem would no longer reveal Himself to them manifestly. Therefore, they felt it necessary to search for a “god” that could serve as an intermediary between themselves and the Creator. Consequently, the Holy One, blessed be He, forgave the Jews for this sin. When it came to the Sin of the Spies, however, the Jews denied God’s ability to operate in this world and help them conquer the Land. They also betrayed the main mission for which the world was created and the Jews were chosen – to reveal God’s Shechinah in this world, by way of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, HaShem did not pardon the Sin of the Spies; rather, He decreed that all those who participated in the sin must die in the desert. Only Yehoshua bin Nun and Calev ben Yefuneh, who refused to join in the sin, were privileged to enter the Land.

That night, when the congregation wept and showed disdain for the Desirable Land, was the night of Tish’a B’Av. HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, “You wept in vain; I will establish for you weeping for all generations” (Sanhedrin 104b). At that moment, it was decreed that the Beit HaMikdash would be destroyed (Midrash Tanchuma, Shelach).

The Sin of the Calf caused a breach in the wall of faith; consequently, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the crack [that had formed] in the Torah’s glory and the Temple service split asunder. The Sin of the Spies destroyed the fundamental belief in Israel’s mission to sanctify God’s name in this world, and all of its resultant troubles signify the nullification and destruction of our ability to consistently reveal holiness in the Land. First, it was decreed, on Tish’a B’Av, that the Generation of the Wilderness would not enter the Land, and since we did not subsequently rectify the Sin of the Spies, both Temples were destroyed. We failed to rectify the sin after that, as well, so the city of Beitar was destroyed when Bar Kochva’s rebellion faltered, and Jerusalem was ploughed over. All of these tragic events prevented the Shechinah from being revealed in the Land, and that is why we mourn and fast on Tish’a B’Av.

5 – The Fast of Gedalyah (Tzom Gedalyah)

On the third of Tishrei, Gedalyah ben (son of) Achikam was killed. After the First Temple was destroyed and most of the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, the king of Babylonia appointed Gedalyah ben Achikam as the leader of the remaining Jews of Judea. [Am Yisrael as a whole] pinned its hopes on these remnants, [reasoning] that if they managed to establish themselves in the Land, they could rebuild the Beit HaMikdash and reestablish Jewish sovereignty, together with those who [eventually] return from Babylonia after the seventy years [of exile]. Indeed, for some time it seemed that the meager population that remained in the Land was recovering from the churban and cultivating its fields and vineyards.

However, the king of Ammon, who wanted to eradicate the remnant of Israel, sent Yishmael ben Netanyah to murder Gedalyah. Yishmael had an additional, personal reason to carry out the scheme: he was a scion of the Judaic dynasty, and he thought that he deserved the privilege of ruling over Judea, instead of Gedalyah ben Achikam. Several of Gedalyah’s generals warned him about Yishmael and even recommended killing him before he succeeded in carrying out his plan. But Gedalyah didn’t believe them, accusing them of maligning Yishmael. It came to pass in the seventh month, that Yishmael son of Netanyah son of Elishama, of the royal seed, along with the king’s captains and ten men, came to Gedalyah son of Achikam at Mitzpah; and they ate bread together there at Mitzpah. Then, Yishmael son of Netanyah and the ten men who were with him arose and struck Gedalyah son of Achikam son of Shafan by the sword, and killed him… along with all the Jews who were with him… and the Chaldeans who were found there(Yirmiyah 41:1-3). This extinguished the last ember of Jewish rule in Eretz Yisrael and consummated the exile. This is why the prophets declared [the third of Tishrei] a fast day.

Actually, there is some doubt as to when exactly Gedalyah was killed. The Talmud states that the murder happened on the third of Tishrei (Rosh HaShanah 18b; Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 4:5). However, some Rishonim explain that he was killed on the first of Tishrei, but since the holiday of Rosh HaShanah comes out on that day, [the Rabbis] postponed the fast day until the third of Tishrei[3].

The Sages also state that the institution of Tzom Gedalyah demonstrates that the death of a righteous individual is tantamount to the destruction of the House of our God (Rosh HaShanah 18b).

[3]. This is what Rabbeinu Yerucham writes (Netiv 18, beginning of section 2). In accordance with this, the Ibn Ezra and Radak explain that the word chodesh (month) [see the verses above] implies the first of the month, because that is when the month is renewed. [The Rabbis] simply postponed the fast until the third of the month. Even though [the Jews] observed only one day of Rosh HaShanah at that time, [the Rabbis] did not want to [require us to] fast immediately following a holiday. Therefore, they pushed the fast off until the third of Tishrei. And even after [the Jews] began keeping two days of Rosh HaShanah, the fast remained on the third of Tishrei. See further sources on this in Torat HaMo’adim 1:2 (p. 8). The author of Responsa Rosh Yosef holds that since Tzom Gedalyah is observed on a day other than its true date, its laws are more lenient [than those of the other fasts]. Hence, one who celebrates a brit milah [on the third of Tishrei] may eat a festive meal and need not make up the fast. The Taz (sec. 549), however, dismisses his words, as does the Bi’ur Halachah (ibid.), based on the Ritva. Their reasoning: even if we say that Gedalyah was actually killed on the first of Tishrei, since the fast was established on the third of the month, it is not considered “postponed.” Rather, that is its [proper] date.

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