(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
Navigate to Belief section

Better To Suffer or Better To Live? Eating—and Not Eating—as a Meritorious Jewish Act

Talmudic rabbis debate Jewish solidarity in the face of misfortune, a communal imperative that still holds today

Adam Kirsch
July 01, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

Literary criticAdam Kirschis readinga page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Is fasting a meritorious act? You might expect that a Talmudic tractate called Ta’anit, after the Hebrew word for fast day, would be unequivocal on the subject. The whole point of the tractate is that at times of trouble—in particular, when the rain refuses to fall—the Jewish community can appease God and win his favor by fasting. As Daf Yomi readers completed chapter 2 of Ta’anit, we learned that there is a set procedure for declaring fast days, with the fasts increasing in strictness if drought stretches on.

We already saw, in last week’s reading, that Jews begin to “mention the might of the rains” in the Amidah prayer at the end of Sukkot. This involves inserting a phrase into the prayer that mentions God’s power over the wind and rain, as a low-key, implicit way of reminding God that the rainy season is coming and his people need their crops watered. If rain hasn’t begun by the third of Cheshvan—roughly the middle of October—we turn to explicit prayer, adding the words “and give dew and rain” to the Amidah. This dating is keyed to the agricultural needs of the Land of Israel; in Babylonia, Hananya adds, Jews begin to request rain 60 days after the autumn equinox, that is, in late November. In general, we learn on Ta’anit 14b, the rule is that “all is in accordance with the place and all is in accordance with the time”: Local conditions govern the prayers for rain.

If two weeks go by and the rain still hasn’t fallen by the 17th of Cheshvan, then the fasting begins: “Individuals begin to fast three fasts.” “Individuals,” the Gemara explains, means not just anyone but the leading members of the community, the Torah scholars. (“Not everyone who wishes to make himself an individual may do so,” the Gemara warns—for a lay person, an am ha’aretz, to fast would be laying claim to a holiness he doesn’t possess.) The sages undertake three fast days pegged to the cycle of Torah reading, on Monday, Thursday, and the following Monday. These fasts are not severe: The sages are forbidden to eat during daylight hours, but like Muslims in Ramadan, they may eat at night. They can also continue to work, bathe, and have sex, all of which are forbidden on strict fast days like Yom Kippur.

If two more weeks pass and the sages’ fasts haven’t brought any rain, then the whole Jewish community must start fasting, undertaking the same three days of lenient fasts. If this still doesn’t work, a new set of three fasts begins on a stricter basis: No one may eat for a full 24-hour period; and work, bathing, and sex are all prohibited. Finally, if the rain still hasn’t come, emergency measures are taken: The community must undertake seven days of strict fasting, along with public signs of distress like the sounding of alarms and the closing of all stores. If even this fails to work, then the entire Jewish community must go into mourning, as described in the mishna on Ta’anit 12b: “They decrease their engagement in business, in building and planting, in betrothals and marriages, and in greetings between each person and his fellow, like people who have been rebuked by God.”

As we would expect, many details about fasting and prayer are canvassed during the course of the Talmudic discussion. May a fasting person bathe with warm water or only cold water? Can you wear shoes on a fast day? (Some sages would wear their shoes on the wrong feet, to make things less comfortable for themselves.) If you are eating at night and fasting during the day, does that mean you can eat all night long, or only one meal at dinner time?

Despite all these specifications, however, the Talmud is by no means enthusiastic about fasting for its own sake. Indeed, the very strictness of the rules for declaring communal fasts is meant to control the ascetic impulse, not encourage it. Here as always, Judaism stands in sharp contrast to Christianity in its attitude toward asceticism: There is no Jewish imperative to scourge the body in order to elevate the soul. Celibacy has never been a Jewish virtue—all Jews are bound by the commandment to be fruitful and multiply—and while the holiest Christians are those who withdraw from the world, the holiest Jews, the Torah sages, were businessmen and family men. The Judaism we have come to know in the Talmud is emphatically a religion for living in the world, not for fleeing or disparaging the world.

The Talmudic ambivalence about fasting stands out sharply in Ta’anit 11a, where Shmuel says, rather surprisingly, that “whoever sits in observance of a fast is called a sinner.” This seems counterintuitive, and Rabbi Elazar stakes out the opposition position when he says, “One who accepts a fast upon himself is called sacred.” How could both of these views be correct? Perhaps we are meant to learn that while fasting may sometimes be necessary, it is still an evil, because it causes suffering to the body, and suffering can ever be inherently desirable.

Elazar makes this point with a striking and powerful image: “A person should always consider himself as though a sacred object is immersed in his bowels.” There is something sacred literally inside of us; our bodies are not just envelopes for our souls, but a kind of holy cargo that we have to treat with decency and kindness. Accordingly, Elazar holds that if you are able to fast without causing yourself bodily harm, you are “sacred”; but if a fast would damage your body, you would be a “sinner” to undertake it.

The Gemara goes on to list other exceptions to the obligation of fasting. According to Reish Lakish, “A Torah scholar is not permitted to sit in observance of a fast, due to the fact that fasting reduces his strength for heavenly service.” Rav Sheshet says the same thing more harshly: “The student of a Torah academy who sits in observance of a fast has let a dog eat his portion.” The rabbis debate the status of “pregnant and nursing women”: Some say that they are exempt from the early fasts but must join in the later, more onerous fasts, while others say the reverse, that they must engage in the lenient fasts but are spared the more intensive ones.

Later, the sages mention that while most Jews are forbidden to bathe during the communal mourning period, this doesn’t apply to young, unmarried women. They may continue to bathe and use cosmetics, because “a grown woman is not permitted to render herself unattractive,” since it may jeopardize her chance of getting a husband. We might well feel that this leniency is actually a form of condescension, as if a woman’s appearance mattered more than her spiritual intentions; but clearly the rabbis believed they were doing women a favor by this rule.

For all their ambivalence about fasting, however, the rabbis insist on one point. When the Jewish community is in trouble, each Jew must join in the common mourning and share the common burden. “When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink.” Such a person is described by the Talmud as “middling,” an average kind of sinner. But if you go further and actually enjoy yourself during a fast, saying, in the words of Isaiah, “Come, I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink,” you are a “wicked person.” For the rule is that “a person should be distressed together with the community.”

Even today, when most Jews no longer recognize the authority of the Talmud, this principle continues to govern the Jewish community. Solidarity in the face of misfortune is one of today’s few remaining Jewish imperatives—as the widespread concern for the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers has shown. And if you think that you can separate yourself from the community—say, by eating secretly during a fast—and no one will know, think again: On the Day of Judgment, the Talmud warns, “the stones of a person’s house and the beams of a person’s house testify against him.” This image, of a dwelling giving testimony about what happened inside it, is wonderfully vivid and uncanny—a reminder that God has eyes everywhere.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study,click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.