Can We Cancel Tishah Be-Av? The “Four Fasts” in Light of the Miracle of the Modern State of Israel

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Shimshon HaKohen Nadel


Following the return of the Jewish People to their ancestral homeland in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and in the wake of the miraculous birth of the State of Israel and dramatic reclamation of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, a number of authorities discussed the question of the relevance of Tishah Be-Av, as well as the other fasts instituted by our sages to mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and Jerusalem: The 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Gedaliah, and the 10th of Tevet.

While the notion of nullifying Tishah Be-Av along with the other fasts may sound shocking, this question was first asked 2,500 years ago. As the Temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, the Jews of Babylonia sent a message to the Priests and the Prophets in the Land of Israel, asking them to inquire of Hashem, “Should I weep in the Fifth Month [Av], abstaining [from pleasures] as I have been doing for many years?” (Zechariah 7:3).

Zechariah answers that the Four Fasts will indeed one day be transformed into festivals: “Thus said Hashem, Master of Legions: The Fast of the Fourth, the Fast of the Fifth, the Fast of the Seventh, and the Fast of the Tenth shall become occasions of joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; [Only] love truth and peace!” (Zechariah 8:19).

But the intent of his prophecy is unclear. When exactly will these days be celebrated as days of “joy and gladness?”

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b) gives an answer to this question:

Rav Hana bar Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Hasida: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Thus said the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness… to the house of Judah” (Zechariah 8:19). It calls them days of “fast” and it calls them “times of joy and gladness.” How so? At a time when there is peace, they will be for joy and gladness. But when there is no peace, [they will remain days of] fasting. Rav Pappa said that this is what it is saying: At a time when there is peace, they will be for joy and gladness, but when there is a decree from the government [persecuting the Jewish People], [they will remain days of] fasting. If there is neither a governmental decree nor peace – if they want to they may fast, if they do not want to they do not fast.

The Talmud continues and explains that Tishah Be-Av, however, has a different status from the other fasts, as a number of “tragic events were repeated on it.”

Based on the above, the Four Fasts will be observed as festivals when “peace” is achieved. But just how is “peace” defined?

Rashba explains that “peace” means a time when the Jewish People have sovereignty over their land. However, according to most authorities – including Rashi, Tosafot, Rabbenu Hananel, Ramban, Ritva, and the Tashbetz – a “time of peace” implies that the Holy Temple is standing. Without the Holy Temple, there is no “peace.” But even without “peace,” in the absence of a “decree” against the Jewish People, the minor fasts – 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Gedaliah, and the 10th of Tevet – would be optional. As the Talmud states, “if they want to they may fast, if they do not want to they do not fast.” 

The position of Rambam, however, requires examination. At the conclusion of Hilkhot Ta’aniyot (5:19), Rambam records the prophecy of Zechariah and writes: “All of these fasts will be nullified in the future in the days of the Messiah, and not just that but in the future they will be festivals and days of joy and gladness, as it says, ‘The Fast of the Fourth, the Fast of the Fifth, the Fast of the Seventh, and the Fast of the Tenth shall become occasions of joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; [Only] love truth and peace!'” But curiously, in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:3), Rambam records that during the Second Temple Period, the Fast of Tishah Be-Av was observed while the other fasts days were optional.[1]

While it is difficult to understand how according to Rambam these fasts were observed  while the Second Temple was standing, it would seem the Rambam believed that “peace” had not yet been achieved, even with a Temple. One explanation could be the Greek and Roman occupation. Another possible explanation: The spiritual state of the Second Temple, which was just a shadow of the First. Yet another explanation: The spiritual state of the Jewish People themselves during the Second Temple. As Maharsha explains, the prophecy of “joy and gladness” is predicated on “truth and peace,” the conclusion of the verse. In the absence of “truth and peace,” Maharsha writes – even in the presence of a Holy Temple – we revert back to fasting.[2]

The Second Temple period was one of corruption, strife, and baseless hatred, which could explain why according to the Rambam the fasts were observed. According to Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, this is precisely why the Rambam himself includes the very end of the verse,  “[Only] love truth and peace.” In the absence of truth and peace – even with a Holy Temple standing – Tishah Be-Av and the other fasts are very much relevant.[3]

It would appear that the observance of these fast days is subject to the changing reality. And historically, a number of Geonim and Rishonim ruled that as the period they lived in was neither one of “peace” nor “decree” against the Jewish Nation, the “Three Minor Fasts” are optional.[4]

According to some, an account from the Talmud itself illustrates how these days are subject to change in light of a changing reality. The Talmud (Megillah 5b) relates that Rebbe, Rav Yehudah Ha-Nasi, “bathed on the market day in Tzippori on the 17th of Tammuz and sought to abolish Tishah Be-Av, but they [the sages] did not agree with him.” The Talmud continues and explains that Rebbe was only interested in abolishing Tishah Be-Av which fell on Shabbat, arguing that “once it is postponed, let it be postponed [altogether].” But Rav Yaakov Emden explains Rebbe’s behavior in light of the period in which he lived.[5] While the Second Temple had been destroyed and the Romans occupied the Land of Israel, Rebbe lived during a period of peace and prosperity, expressed by his relationship with Antoninus.[6]

Tosafot, however, points out that while Rebbe may have bathed on the 17th of Tammuz, he surely did not eat, as these fasts were already accepted by the Jewish People and no longer subjective.[7]

In fact, many authorities rule that once the Jewish People have accepted the Three Fasts upon themselves, these fasts become obligatory.[8] According to Ramban, the fasts are indeed obligatory today, “all the more so in these generations where because of our many sins there is (a) ‘decree’ and no ‘peace.'”[9] Ramban concludes, “Therefore everyone is required to fast due to divrei kabbalah and an enactment of the Prophets.”[10]

It would appear that Rambam too believes that over time the Three Fasts became mandatory, and were thus recorded as mandatory in his halakhic code. In Hilkhot Ta’aniyot (5:1) he writes that “There are days when all of Israel fasts…” and “All of Israel observes these days by fasting…” (Ibid., 5:5). By stating “all of Israel,” Rambam implies that over time these fasts were accepted by the Jewish People as obligatory.[11] The Shulhan Arukh rules: “We are obligated to fast on Tishah Be-Av, the 17th of Tammuz, the 3rd of Tishrei [Fast of Gedaliah], and the 10th of Tevet because of tragic events that happened on them,”[12] and “Everyone is obligated to fast on these four fasts and it is forbidden to make a breach in the fence.”[13]

But should the political landscape change dramatically, would these fasts still be obligatory? 

Even before the founding of the State of Israel, there was a sense that the nascent Jewish settlement was witness to the beginning of the process of Redemption. For some, the very appointment of Sir Herbert Samuel as High Commissioner of pre-state Palestine was a sign that redemption was imminent. After all, Samuel was the first Jew to govern the Land of Israel in 2,000 years. Some even accorded him status similar to the King of Israel![14]

In a letter written by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, dated 19 Tammuz 5680 (July 5, 1920), Rav Kook recognized that the appointment of Herbert Samuel was “an auspicious sign for the House of Israel and its revival,” but continued, “However, as to the fast days, I think that until Hashem will establish our destroyed Temple before our eyes, on top of the high mountain, as a glory in the eyes of all the nations, it is impossible for us to cancel them.”[15]

For Rav Kook, along with many contemporary authorities, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is a sine qua non for transforming our fasts into feasts.

Following the birth of the State of Israel, rabbis and scholars would discuss if Israel’s independence renders the Four Fasts irrelevant. Even the Jewish communities of Istanbul, Turkey and Constantine, Algeria inquired of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate whether to fast on Tishah Be-Av. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Ha-Levi Herzog responded in a telegram stating very clearly: “The fast of Tishah Be-Av, which is founded in the destruction of the Holy Temple, is not nullified. Not it nor the other fasts.”[16]

But in the wake of the dramatic events of June 1967, the question would surface once again. 

Addressing the new reality of a unified Jerusalem and a Temple Mount “in our hands,” Rav Hayim David Ha-Levi, who served as Chief Rabbi of Rishon Le-Tzion and later Tel Aviv, wrote that while we have merited the “first flowering of Redemption with national independence, is it not clear that it is not yet the Final Redemption until we merit the coming of the Messiah and the building of the Temple?”[17]

He continued, “Now, when we have conquered the Temple Mount through a military victory, and nevertheless Jewish law prohibits us from entering into the holy place and performing the holy service there, and all the more so as we see that there remain ‘foxes that trespass upon it,’ what is the reason to even think of nullifying the fast [of Tishah Be-Av]?”[18]

Rav Tzvi Yehudah Ha-Kohen Kook also felt that “we cannot touch the fasts commanded by the prophets.” He continued, “while we find ourselves in the historic process of the Redemption of Israel… One must understand that the fasts today are a continuation of the root of the pain of the past over the destruction of the Temple, and these things pain us until this very day.”[19]

Rav Ya’akov Ariel, former Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan and Rosh Yeshivah of its hesder yeshivah, ruled that in order to make any changes “there is a need for an authoritative Beit Din over Am Yisrael and true peace. And given the current situation, it appears that today we have neither.”[20] He explained that while we have achieved sovereignty, the current security situation – along with the spiritual state of the State of Israel – make it impossible to exempt us from these fasts.

In a lecture given in 1968, Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik grappled with the question of Tishah Be-Av in light of the State of Israel:

Does Yom Ha-Atzmaut answer the question of “eikha”? Only fools can think so, arrogant fools, and there are many fools of that sort. Can a Jewish government or military success be considered a substitute for all the suffering and killing of the years of Israel’s exile? It is forbidden to say that this is the recompense for six million Jews who were slaughtered. This is an expression of cruelty and a total lack of sensitivity. Does the rejoicing of the Six Day War answer all the questions that arose in the period that preceded it? Are we not as puzzled and confused as we had been before it? Did this triumph lessen our sorrow and calm our spirits? Did it resolve our problems and doubts? Is it not incumbent upon us to repeat, as did Yirmeyahu, the question of “eikha”? As long as God’s will is as obscure as it was during the dark night of the hiding of His face, as long as historical events have not been clarified from a comprehensive and true perspective, as long as the world mocks us because of our faith in a merciful and gracious God, as long as the mystery of “eikha” has not found a solution – it is forbidden to abandon Tisha Be-Av. As long as a Jew asks “eikha,” one must continue to fast on Tisha Be-Av. Only after we succeed in deciphering the mystery of “eikha” will we be able to abandon the fast of the fifth month.[21]

For Rav Soloveitchik, Tishah Be-Av is the day when we mourn all of the calamities and tragedies throughout Jewish History. The day itself – along with the reading of Eikhah – charges us with making sense of our national suffering. Until we understand the root of our suffering, Tishah Be-Av is still very relevant, according to Rav Soloveitchik. 

In the Prayer for the Welfare of the State, we describe the State of Israel as the “first flowering of our Redemption.” We recognize that it is not yet the complete Redemption, but the beginning of an ongoing process that is unfolding before our very eyes. We recognize just how far we have come, but how far we still are. Indeed, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Ha-Kohen Kook believed that “One may fast and mourn for the destruction of the Temple and the Exile, and at the same time see and recognize the light of salvation that shines forth in our day.”[22]

May we indeed merit to “recognize the light of salvation that shines forth in our day,” but also to mourn properly and see the fulfilment of the promise of our Sages: “All who mourn for Jerusalem will merit to witness her in her joy” (Ta’anit 30b). And may we merit to finally observe Tishah Be-Av as a festival, instead of a fast. 

[1] But see Tashbetz 2:271, who disagrees that Tishah Be-av was observed during the Second Temple period, and assumes this is a scribal error that crept into the text of the Rambam.

[2] See Maharsha to Rosh Hashanah 18b.

[3] See Orthodox Union’s Mesorah 15 (Tishrei, 5759): 47.

[4] See, for example, Ginzei Kedem, vol. 3, p. 43, and the comments of Rabbeinu Hananel, Rashba, Ritva, and Ran to Rosh Hashanah 18b.

[5] Ad loc.

[6] Ibid. See Avodah Zarah 10a-b. See also Bi’ur Ha-Gra, Orah Hayyim 550:2-3.

[7] Megillah 5b, s.v. “v-rahatz”.

[8] See Ritva to Rosh Hashanah 18b; Sha’arei Teshuvah 77; Shibolei Haleket, Seder Ta’anit 278; Tur, Orah Hayyim 550 and Beit Yosef, ad loc. See also Tashbetz 2:271.

[9] Torat Ha-Adam, Inyan Aveilut Yeshanah, 101.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Maggid Mishnah, ad loc.

[12] Orah Hayyim 549:1.

[13] Orah Hayyim 550:1.

[14] See, for example, the correspondence published as an appendix to Hidushei Ha-Rav Chaim Hirschensohn, vol. 2, pp. 38b-39b. See also the letter of Rav Kook, cited below, where Rav Kook dates the letter, “in the first year of our brother High Commissioner of the Land of Israel…”, similar to the way a contract would be dated in the year of the reign of the King of Israel.

[15] Iggerot Ha-Re’iyah, vol. 4, p. 66. Cf. Mo’adei Ha-Re’iyah, p. 544. See also R. Ya’akov Tzvi Zisselman, Tiferet Ya’akov (Yaffo, 1921), 5.

[16] See Tehumin 18 (5758): 488 for a facsimile of the telegram.

[17] Aseh Lekha Rav 1:13.

[18] Ibid.

[19] R. Shlomo Aviner, Sihot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, Yom Yerushalayim 5728.

[20] Be-Ohalah Shel Torah 2:74.

[21]Shall I Weep in the Fifth Month?” adapted by Rav Yair Kahn, translated by David Strauss, and available on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s website, here: Retrieved July 16, 2021.

[22] R. Shlomo Aviner, Sihot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, Yom Yerushalayim 5728.

Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef and Rosh Kollel of the Sinai Kollel.