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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In this category is to be included the fast for a bride and bridegroom (and in some places also of their parents) on their wedding day, provided it is a day on which it is permitted to fast (albeit in some places it is customary for bride and bridegroom to fast even on a Rosh Hodesh). It is likewise customary for both bride and bridegroom to recite the confessional prayer AI Het ["For the sins"] after Minhah, as is done on the eve of Yom Kippur.

When a person decides on a private fast, he must explicitly verbalize his intention (using a special formulation for such occasions) during the Minhah prayer preceding the day he intends so to do. A fasting individual does not alter the prayer service, except to add the Anenu prayer in the Shema Kolenu benediction of the Amidah (among Ashkenazim, at Minhah only).

Longer and Shorter Fasts

In addition to the usual one-day fasts, there were those who wished to do added penance by fasting two or three days in succession (as recorded in the books of Jewish customs from the Middle Ages on). There were even some people who undertook to fast "from Shabbat to Shabbat," ceasing to eat or drink from the conclusion of Shabbat until the beginning of the next Shabbat.

Another type of fast (observed mainly among Sephardim) is Ta'anit Dibbur--a "fast" of speech, in which an individual, or sometimes an entire group of people, avoid speaking of secular matters for one or several days.

Similarly, there is also a Ta'anit Sha'ot--a fast of hours, from dawn till midday, which is considered a half-day fast.

As inferred earlier, there are contending views in the Talmud and in later works for or against fasting and self-mortification in general. Some sages used to fast year-round, eating only one meal each night [Talmud, Pesahim 68b]; some did so for many years, and even in recent generations certain righteous people have continued this practice. At the same time, there were many who objected to this mortification of the body, notably leaders of the Hassidic movement [See Iggert ha-Teshuvah of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady], who instead recommended that one increase acts of charity and the performance of good deeds.

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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.