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Taanit 14

He decreed thirteen fasts, but he was not answered.

We have already learned that the rabbis believe that communal fasting and prayer are the appropriate response to troubled times. But how much fasting should a community undertake when times get tough? Today’s daf explores this very question.

During the years of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia there was a trouble. He decreed thirteen fasts, but he was not answered.

ThisRabbi Yehuda Nesia was Rabbi Judah HaNasi’s great-great-grandson and led the Jews of Roman Palestine at the turn of the fourth century.The daf doesn’t tell us what “trouble” the Jews were experiencing, but whatever it was, it was serious enough to impose six and a half weeks of communal fasting (fasts were held twice per week). Unfortunately, the trouble was not resolved.

He considered decreeing more. Rabbi Ammi said to him that they said: One does not trouble the community excessively.

Rabbi Ammi appears often as an advisor to Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah.Here he suggests more fasts would just add more trouble to an already troubled community. Unfortunately, the Gemara doesn’t tell us what Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah thought about Rabbi Ammi’s advice. 

However, the Gemara isn’t shy about telling us what another rabbi, Rabbi Abba son of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, thought of Rabbi Ammi’s advice. The Gemara immediately quotes him as saying:

When Rabbi Ammi acted, he did so on his own. Rather, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said as follows: They taught only for rain. However, other types of calamities, they continue to fast until they are answered from Heaven. 

According to Rabbi Abba, Rabbi Ammi’s ruling was a minority opinion that contradicted the rabbis’ broader position.Rabbi Abba distinguishes between two types of fasts: climate-related fasts and fasts related to other problems, such as political persecution. Whereas the number of fasts that can be imposed for climate-related problems is limited, Rabbi Abba believes that the leaders of a community can impose unlimited fasts on their community in the face of other kinds of trouble. 

Now, the Gemara ultimately follows Rabbi Abba and the other rabbis in suggesting that a leader can decree an unlimited number of fast days in response to political or social problems, but only thirteen fast days in response to weather-related problems. Rabbi Ammi’s position is rejected and the medieval commentator Rashi goes further, suggesting that Rabbi Ammi just didn’t like fasting and so wanted it to end, undermining the idea that he held a legitimate halakhic position.

But why would the rabbis agree that only thirteen fast days may be held for weather-related problems? All you have to do is open any newspaper and you’ll see the devastating impact that hurricanes, storms and droughts can have on communities. So why is the number of fasts limited? Is Rabbi Abba saying that somehow climate-related problems are less important or less serious than other kinds of problems?

To answer this question, the Gemara cites an earlier statement by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who says that in the case of weather-related fasting, a community can only observe thirteen fasts is because after that, “the time of the rainfall has passed.” Seasons change, and the time in which bountiful rain would be helpful is limited. After six and a half weeks of fasting (and keeping in mind that there must already have been weeks with no rain for a fast to be imposed in the first place), the moment has passed. 

Read all of Taanit 14 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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