Non-fixed Fast Days

Judaism has communal fasts that are not on the yearly calendar and numerous occasions when individuals may choose to fast.

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There have also been occasions when a public fast was declared, not for reasons of distress but in order to arouse people to repent. Such a fast is mentioned in the Book of Ezra (Chapter 9). Halakhically [according to Jewish law], it is left for the local authorities to decide whether such a fast is to be treated like a public or a private fast.

Bad Dreams

In each generation, certain individuals have held personal fasts for various reasons. Often this is because they wish to devote themselves to self-purification and prayer, in order to ask that some distress or pain from which they have been suffering cease. Among such fasts should be included Ta'anit Halom--afast undertaken because of a bad dream that evokes fear and dread. Our sages said that in such a case a person should fast in order to avert an evil fate decreed for him (Talmud, Shabbat 11a). Since such a fast is intended for the serenity of the soul, one may even fast on Shabbat; however, to atone for having infringed upon the joy of Shabbat, one must then fast on another day in compensation (Talmud, Berakhot 31b).

Memorial Fasts

Other private fasts are those held in memory of loved ones. This is mentioned in the Talmud, and it has been common practice in many Jewish communities for a person to fast on the day his mother, father, or his religious mentor died (Yahrzeit) [ Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 568]. However, this custom--as well as private fasts in general--was more or less dropped in modem times, due to the influence of the Hassidic movement, which generally sought to diminish self-mortification in Jewish observance.

Fasting for Individual Repentance

Another kind of private fast is that undertaken for repentance. Such fasts, already mentioned in the Bible and Talmud, sometimes depend entirely upon the individual's feeling that such would be the correct way to atone for some sin or sins one had committed. However, in the course of time, people usually consulted a religious sage for guidance as to how to expiate sin. In addition to various forms of self-mortification, such atonement would include the assignment of a number of fasts, in proportion to the seriousness of the offenses.

Such matters are dealt with in many halakhic compendia, as well as in Kabbalah-oriented manuals. The Tikkunei ha-Teshuvah ("Rules of Repentance") of Rabbi Isaac Luria impose a large number of fast days, both for sins enumerated in the Torah and for sins of moral corruption and unseemly behavior (for example, a large number of fasts for the sin of anger). Certain religious works, such as Tikkun Karet, have also been written on this subject.

Spiritual Cleansing

Another type of private fast is that undertaken for the cleansing of the spirit and the purification of the soul. Such fasts, too, are mentioned in the Talmud (Talmud, Bava Metzi'a 85a), and are naturally practiced by only a select few.

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Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the author of works bringing traditional Torah scholarship and Hasidic thought to a contemporary audience. He lives in Jerusalem.