Fast days are designed to implore God to bring much-needed rain. But what can the community do to maximize their chance of success?
The discussion actually started at the bottom of yesterday’s daf. Abaye lays out a precise routine for a community to follow when a fast day has been declared:
Abaye said: From the morning until the middle of the day they examine the affairs of the town. From this point forward, for a quarter of the day they read from the Torah and the Prophets. From this point forward, they pray for mercy.
According to Abaye, the community must first examine its own behavior, to see if their own behavior has caused the lack of rain. This examination takes up half the day. The next quarter of the day is spent reading from scripture. The last quarter of the day is spent in solemn prayer. Why in this order? The Gemara points to Nehemiah 9:3 which describes Israel following this same order when they rededicate themselves to the Torah:
“And they stood up in their place and they read in the book of the Torah of the Lord their God a fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and prostrated themselves before the Lord their God.” (Nehemiah 9:3)
Today’s daf points out that this order — examination, Torah, prayer — is a bit weird. After all, when you want something (for example, rain) why not start with prayer? Especially on a fast day, when your mind is likely to get fuzzier as the day goes on, shouldn’t you spend the sharpest part of the day in prayer?
The Gemara rejects this possibility outright: “It should not enter your mind to say that!” To make its case, the Gemara then quotes from the Book of Ezra. A little context will be helpful here.
When the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple, he exiled the ruling elite to Babylonia. When the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylonia, he permitted Jews to return to the land of Israel and re-establish their own society there. The Book of Ezra describes the return of the Babylonian exiles from captivity, the efforts to rebuild the Temple, and the culture clashes which develop as the Jews try to establish a community in line with the Torah. One major point of tension that the book describes is the question of intermarriage. Ezra, one of the leaders of the community, was notified that some Jews had been marrying women from neighboring nations who were not related to the Jews and were not raised to worship God. When he heard this,“I rent my garment and robe, I tore hair out of my head and beard, and I sat desolate.” (Ezra 9:3)
The author of the Book of Ezra thinks that this kind of intermarriage is an existential crisis, threatening the genealogical purity of Israel and the Jewish relationship with God. In the face of this crisis, Ezra assembles the people and goes through a very specific set of procedures:
“Then were assembled to me everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel due to the faithlessness of them of the captivity and I sat appalled until the evening offering. And at the meal-offering I arose from my fast, even with my garment and my mantle rent; and I fell on my knees and I spread out my hands to the Lord.” (Ezra 9:4-5)
To manage the existential problem at hand, Ezra begins by examining the problem, and only in the afternoon does he begin to pray. Likewise, says the Gemara, the first part of a fast day is spent in communal reflection, determining if the community has done something to merit divine punishment. Only after that process does the community turn to study and then finally prayer as the last part of the process.
Today’s Gemara stresses that communal introspection and taking responsibility are critical for the success of a fasting campaign. Only after the community has examined the problem and tried to fix it do they turn to Torah study and finally prayer.
The take away is this: Want to maximize your community’s chance of divine forbearance? Remember that God forgives those who root out communal problems and atone before they even begin to pray.
Read all of Taanit 13 on Sefaria.