The second chapter of Tractate Taanit starts on today’s daf with a very long mishnah enumerating the rituals of a public fast day — or more specifically, as the Gemara will explain, the rituals performed only after several earlier fasts have failed to achieve their desired result.
The mishnah itself is too long to quote in its entirety, but the basic framework is as follows: First, the Holy Ark would be brought into the public square, after which burnt ashes would be placed upon it and the heads of community leaders and then on the heads of the other members of the community. Next, an elder would recite biblical “verses of reproof,” followed by prayers that included an elongated Amidah with 24 blessings, including additional passages from the High Holiday liturgy. Then, with some exceptions, the fast would continue for the rest of the day.
An interesting question arises about the first of these requirements: bringing the Torah ark into the public square. Normally, the ark is kept in the synagogue. Broadcasting the calamity of drought by taking it out of the synagogue, setting it up in the town square and sprinkling it with ashes surely emphasized the gravity of the disaster. But a statement at the top of tomorrow’s daf suggests a deeper reason for this ritual.
And why do they remove the ark to the city square? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: This is done as though to say: We had a modest vessel (which was always kept concealed) but it has been publicly exposed due to our transgressions.
The 15th-century Italian commentator Bartenura expands on this idea: “The ark which the Torah scroll is placed in is a modest utensil which was despised by our sins. And why is it brought to the city street? To say, we cried out in private in the synagogue and we were not answered; we will despise ourselves in public in the city street.”
As we have seen, the rabbinic view of droughts was that they were brought about not by natural climatic changes, but by the sins of the people. The response, as Tractate Taanit describes, was to decree a public fast. But if no rain had come even after several cycles of fast days, more drastic action was needed.
The ritual of bringing the Torah out of the private enclave of the synagogue was one of these drastic actions, undertaken only after days of prior fasting had not brought the rains. It was a public acknowledgement that the community’s private prayers had failed. It was seen as an act of humiliation, the public exposure of an otherwise “modest vessel,” much as uncovering one’s head or other body parts might have been. That humiliation was furthered by putting ashes on the ark, on the leaders and on the congregants.
These days, we no longer sprinkle ashes on a Torah ark during times of drought. But several times in the past decade alone, rabbinic leaders in Israel have called for public fasts, prayers and Torah readings in the face of extreme weather conditions. To be sure, today’s solutions to a lack of rain include scientific advancements that were beyond the rabbis, such as desalination and drilling for underground water sources. But fasting, prayer and public Torah readings continue to be practiced right alongside them.
Read all of Taanit 15 on Sefaria.