Fast Days for Repentance & Atonement

The Jewish calendar has a number of such days in addition to Yom Kippur.

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Rosh Hashanah Eve

Some people fast on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, because it is a day of grace and it is appropriate that it should be devoted to heavenly matters. This custom is supported by Midrash Tanhuma (Emor 22) and was prevalent among Ashkenazic communities, whence it found its way into halakhic [Jewish legal] compendia (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 681:2).

Those who fast do not read from the Torah and do not complete the fast (i.e., they eat something before nightfall, so as not to enter the holiday in a state of fasting). Since this fast is based solely on custom, considerable leniency is allowed for the frail and sick, as well as where a seudat mitzvah--a meal in honor of a religious rite--is held.

The Ten Days of Repentance

Many people used to fast on the weekdays of the Ten Days of Repentance, with the exception of the eve of Yom Kippur, on which it is mandatory to eat. These fasts also belong under the rubric of custom rather than law, being observed because the period before Yom Kippur is one of divine favor and closeness to God, so that one should conduct oneself therein with sanctity. Since these are considered personal fasts, there is no reading of the Torah and no commitment to complete them. This custom is not widely observed.

A Fast Day for the Burial Society

The seventh day of Adar is traditionally known as the day on which Moses died (and also the day on which he was born). Some people fast on this day, and there is a special Tikkun service [a ritual of study]. It is a widespread custom to visit the graves of righteous sages on that day (in Israel, it is customary to go to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in Meron who, according to the kabbalah [Jewish mysticism], possessed a spark of Moses' soul).

Members of the Hevra Kaddisha--the Burial Society (literally, Aramaic for the "Holy Commune")-in particular fast on this day, reciting certain prayers and words of admonition to atone for any irreverence they might have unintentionally shown toward the dead.

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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.