Religious Life

Fasting for Justice – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – June 29, 2018

Shalom Chaverim,

Sunday is a minor fast day known at Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (17th Tammuz). It is “minor” in the sense we fast from morning to evening rather than evening to evening as on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av.

While the rabbis of the Talmud pile many associations on to this date, the Bible’s explanation for the fast is gleaned from two prophets. Zachariah mentions a fast of the fourth month (Tammuz). He does not specify what happened on that date but from the context, it is clear that it has to do with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Jeremiah mentions this date as well describing events that led to the destruction of the First Temple three weeks later on 9th Av in 586 BCE:

In the tenth month (Tevet), Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, came to wage war against Jerusalem and encamped near it… In the fourth month on the ninth of the month, the famine in the city became critical. The city was breached and all the men of war fled and left the city (52:4-7).*

Now imagine for a moment it was 516 BCE, 70 years after the destruction of the First Temple. You had joyfully returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile and had rebuilt your Temple. In such a case, would it be necessary to fast to remember destruction? After all, God had restored you to your land and had vanquished your enemies.

This was the very question posed to the prophet Zachariah. He responded saying,

Judge with truth and perform acts of kindness. Show mercy toward one another. Do not oppress the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor, and do not think in your hearts of wronging one another. But they refused to heed. They turned a rebellious shoulder. They made their ears hard of hearing. They made their hearts hard as iron.  (7:9-12)

This is a confusing answer to the question. What does he mean?

Zechariah is saying, ‘yes, you should fast.” But it is not as we might expect. Don’t fast to commemorate your tragic history. Rather, fast to recall your ethical lapses that led to the destruction in the first place: You lied. You oppressed the weak. You shunned the stranger.

There is much discussion these days about building walls for protection. Zechariah reminds us that the true enemy is not one threatening from the outside but the one within who commits injustice.  It is the one who closes his ears to the cry of a stranger, the one who hardens his heart to the longings of a mother separated from her child.

As we fast this Sunday, may we rededicate ourselves to kindness and mercy. Then perhaps, to paraphrase Zechariah, when we love truth and peace, we will transform the fast of Tammuz into a time of feasting and rejoicing (8:19).

Rabbi Alexander Davis

*Although the First Temple walls were breached on 9th Tammuz, we commemorate the day on the 17th when the walls of the Second Temple were breached. The rabbis thought fasting on the 9th and 17th would be excessive.