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There are six days in a year when observant Jews fast. Two “Major Fasts” call for a fast from sundown on the day before to sundown on the day itself, and four “Minor Fasts” call for a fast from sunrise to sundown.
The best known of these six fast days is the “Day of Atonement,” Yom Kippur, observed by many Jews, even those who do not observe other fasts. Four fast days, one “Major” and three “Minor” ones, commemorate events pertaining to the destruction of the Jewish Temple (for the first time in in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE). One “Minor” fast, the Fast of Esther, commemorates a biblical story that ends in victory for the Jews.
A simple mnemonic trick helps to remember four of the six fast days. The two Major ones are referred to as Black (the Ninth of Av) and White (Yom Kippur); and two of the minor ones are known as Woman and Man, because they commemorate the deeds of two persons, Queen Esther and Governor Gedaliah.
Tisha b'Av, the Ninth of Av (July/August), is a major fast in the Jewish calendar. Traditionally, Jews fast for 25 hours in commemoration of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to tradition, both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on this date in 587 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. In addition to abstaining from food and drink, the observance of Tisha b'Av includes not washing, bathing, anointing the skin, wearing leather, or engaging in marital intimacy. The Book of Lamentations and penitential, liturgical poems known as Kinnot (Elegies) are read in the synagogue. To heighten the sense of mourning, lights are dimmed and people sit on the floor or on low stools as they would while sitting Shiva. Work is avoided, and the wearing of Tallit (prayer shawls) and Tefillin (leather boxes containing scrolls with verses from the torah), usually done in the morning, is delayed until afternoon prayers.
Aside from Tisha b'Av's main connection with the destruction of the Temples, this date also is associated with the sin of the spies in the Book of Numbers and the end of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Throughout history, Jews have mourned their biggest tragedies on this day. Among the many sets of Kinnot recited by different communities, one can find poems that specifically mourn Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Khmelnytskyi Uprising, and the Holocaust.
Embedded within the sorrow of Tisha b'Av is a spark of hope for the future. The Jerusalem Talmud says that the Messiah will be born on Tisha b'Av. This idea poetically links the deep losses the Jewish people have suffered to an abiding faith in the promise of a time of restoration and redemption.
Yom Kippur is themajor fast in the Jewish calendar. Unlike other Jewish fast days, it is not observed in mourning or to commemorate events in Jewish history. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and is primarily connected to Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and the High Holiday cycle in the month of Tishrei (September/October). The details of this holiday are best understood in the context of these holidays rather than in the context of other Fast Days.
The Fast of Esther is a minor fast in the Jewish calendar and is observed on the thirteenth of Adar (February/March), the day before Purim. It commemorates the three days that Queen Esther and the Jews of Shushan (an ancient city in Persia) fasted before she approached the king to intercede for her people. Given the intense joy and frivolity associated with Purim, the Fast of Esther helps illustrate the trepidation that seized the Jewish community in Shushan before they were delivered from the threat of the wicked Haman.
The Fast of Gedaliah is a minor fast in the Jewish calendar. The fast commemorates the violent death of Gedaliah, a Babylonian-appointed governor who led the Jewish people for a brief period following the destruction of the First Temple. Gedaliah's death marked the end of Jewish autonomy and resistance against the Babylonian invaders. The death of Gedaliah is described in the Second Book of Kings. The fast falls on the third day of Tishrei (September/October), placing it immediately after the observance of Rosh Hashanah. According to the Talmud, this fast was instituted to demonstrate that the death of the righteous is likened to the destruction of the Temple, the destruction being the main reason for most of the other fast days.
The Tenth of Tevet (December/January) is a minor fast in the Jewish calendar and is most closely associated with the events surrounding the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Specifically, this fast commemorates the day that Nebuchadnezzer began his siege of Jerusalem which ultimately culminated in the burning of the Temple and the Babylonian exile. Classic rabbinic sources debate which day in Tevet the calamity occurred, and even the exact nature of the calamity, but Jewish tradition has firmly settled on the Tenth to observe this fast. In modern Israel, the Tenth of Tevet is a “general Kaddish” day to say Kaddish and light yahrzeit (memorial) candles for people whose date of death is unknown.
For several centuries, the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz (July) has been observed as a minor fast (from sunrise to sunset) and is most closely associated with the events surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Specifically, this fast commemorates the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached following several months of siege.
Also, the day inaugurates a traditional three-week period of mourning which culminates in the major fast for the Temple's destruction on the Ninth of Av. During this time, many observant Jews refrain from cutting hair, holding public celebrations, and listening to some forms of music. The final nine days of these three weeks is observed as a more intense level of mourning and many forgo meat and wine.