The Four Yearly Fasts

Introduction

In Zechariah 8:18-19, a curious comment is made about four distinct fasts, all of them yearly, and all of them tied to a specific month. “The Word of YHWH of Hosts came to me. Thus says YHWH of Hosts, ‘The fasts of the fourth fifth, seventh, and tenth months shall be for the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.’”

In my growing up years, I never gave much regard to this passage; and even after coming into Torah observance, I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. After all, the only fast that is recorded in the Scriptures is Yom Kippur, that is, the Day of Atonement, on the Tenth of Tishri, so I had always assumed that the fast of the seventh month was Yom Kippur.

Yet this passage continued to pique my curiosity. Ultimately, the identity of the four yearly fasts mentioned in this passage cannot be found in the Scriptures directly, but can only be discovered when turning to Rabbinic sources. I do not say this to alarm my Karaite and Torah Purist friends. That these fasts have been preserved only in Rabbinic sources should come as no surprise, as the passage in Zechariah specifies that they would be turned to joy “for the house of Judah,”  that is, the Jewish people. It is interesting to note that Zechariah the prophet makes reference to these four fasts as early as the late sixth century B.C., indicating that the keeping of these fast days is not a late Jewish practice, but actually has merit as very old Scriptural tradition.

Nevertheless, as only one of these fast days is ever prescribed in the Torah as a commandment, I cannot conclude that they are to be imposed upon believers from the House of Joseph. Still, if believers from the House of Joseph wish to voluntarily partake of these fasts, to stand alongside the House of Judah and the Jewish people, it is certainly good to do so. This document discusses, in very brief detail, the nature of these four fast days: the tenth of Tevet the seventeenth of Tammuz, the ninth of Av, and the third of Tishri. These days will be presented in chronological order for the events they traditionally commemorate.

 

The Fast of the Tenth Month (10 Tevet)

Although it is listed last in the prophecy of Zechariah 8, the fast of the tenth month is actually first in chronological sequence. Its purpose is to commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Although the event is explicitly recorded in the Scriptures, none of the accounts directly relate the memorial of this event to fasting.

2 Kings 25:1-2 records, “It happened in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and encamped against it; and they built forts against it around it. So the city was besieged to the eleventh year of king Zedekiah.” (Jeremiah 52:4-5 repeats this nearly word-for-word.)

Ezekiel 24:1-2 confirms this, “Again, in the ninth year, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month, the word of YHWH came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, write the name of the day, even of this same day; the king of Babylon drew close to Jerusalem this same day.’”

It is also recorded in Jewish tradition that two other events worth mourning occurred in the days immediately preceding the Tenth of Tevet. First, it is traditionally assumed on the eighth of Tevet that the Torah was translated from Hebrew into Greek. The translation of the Torah out of the Hebrew language was considered cause for mourning because many insights of the Torah’s hidden wisdom are lost when the text is read in a non Hebrew language.

Second, as tradition holds, the ninth of Tevet is the traditional time to mourn the death of Ezra the scribe, who had lead the restoration of the second temple. This is cause for mourning because of the high esteem that is held for Ezra, and the high degree of association between Ezra and the second temple. In many ways, the death of Ezra ushered in the beginning of the second temple era.

Gemara Rosh HaShanah 18b presents an alternate date; “‘The fast of the tenth month,’ this is the fifth of Tevet on which news came to the Captivity that the city had been smitten, as it says, ‘And it came to pass in the twelfth year of our captivity, in the tenth month, in the fifth day of the month, that one who had escaped out of Jerusalem came to me saying, “The city is smitten,”’ and they put the day of the report on the same footing as the day of burning.” (Ezekiel 33:21.)

So according to this alternate opinion, instead of fasting for the breach of the wall on the tenth of Tevet, the date of the fast could actually the fifth of Tevet, because that is the date when the news of the impending destruction of the city reached Ezekiel and the Jews who were with him. (Ezekiel 33:21) Although both dates are a possibility for the fast of the tenth month, mainstream Judaism recognizes the tenth of Tevet.

 

The Fast of the Fourth Month (Tammuz 17)

The second yearly fast is the seventeenth of Tammuz. The Talmud records that five misfortunes befell our fathers on this day. (Mishna Ta’anith 26a-26b, Gemara Ta’anith 28b)

  • The tablets of the Torah were shattered. (Exodus 32:19)
  • The daily offering was discontinued.
  • A breach was made in the wall during the siege of the temple. (2 Kings 25:3-5, Jeremiah 52:6, Gemara Ta’anith 28b)
  • Apostomos burned the Torah scroll. (Possibly alluded to by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 20.5.4)
  • An idol was placed in the temple.

It is for these reasons that we fast on the Seventeenth of Tammuz.

Gemara Rosh HaShanah 18b presents an alternate date here; “‘The fast of the fourth month,’ this is the ninth of Tammuz, on which a breach was made in the walls of the city, as it says, ‘On the fourth month on the ninth of the month the famine was sore in the city, so that there was no bread for the people of the land, and a breach was made in the city.’” (Jeremiah 52:6-7.)

Although either the ninth or the seventeenth are valid candidates for the fast of the fourth month, mainstream Judaism recognizes the seventeenth of Tammuz.

 

The Fast of the Fifth Month (9 Av)

The third yearly fast is the ninth of Av. The Talmud records that five misfortunes befell our fathers on this day. (Mishna Ta’anith 26a-26b, Gemara Ta’anith 29a)

  • It was decreed that our fathers should not enter the promised land. (Numbers 14:26-38)
  • The first temple was destroyed. (2 Kings 25:8-9, Jeremiah 52:12)
  • The second temple was destroyed. (70 A.D.)
  • The city of Bethar was captured. (Related to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132 A.D.)
  • The city of Jerusalem was ploughed up. (Related to the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 133 A.D.)

It is for these reasons that we fast on the Ninth of Av.

The account of the destruction of the first temple is recorded in 2 Kings 25:8-9
Gemara Rosh HaShanah 18b agrees with this date placement; “‘The fast of the fifth month,’ this is the Ninth of Av, on which the House of our God was burnt.” (2 Kings 25:8-9, Jeremiah 52:12)

 

The Fast of the Seventh Month (3 Tishri)

The fourth and final yearly fast is the third of Tishri. Its purpose is to remember in mourning the assassination of Gedaliah, a righteous leader of the Jewish people during the Babylonian occupation of the land of Judah. To some degree, it is believed that his death signified the official end of the first temple period, even though the temple itself had been destroyed a handful of years prior.

2 Kings 25:25 records, “It happened in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, of the royal seed came, and ten men with him, and struck Gedaliah, so that he died, and the Jews and the Chaldeans that were with him at Mizpah.” A much more expanded telling of this account is found in Jeremiah 41.

Gemara Rosh HaShanah 18b agrees with this date placement; “‘The fast of the seventh month,’ this is the third of Tishri on which Gedaliah the son of Ahikam was killed. Who killed him? Ishmael the son of Nethaniah killed him; and the fact that a fast was instituted on this day shows that the death of the righteous is put on a level with the burning of the House of our God.” (2 Kings 25:25, Jeremiah 41)

 

Putting it All Together

Although these fasts are detailed only in Rabbinic sources, it is important to note their Biblical origin. In fact, all four fasts have roots in 2 Kings 25 and the latter portion of the book of Jeremiah.

  • First came 10 Tevet, on which Nebuchadnezzar first besieged Jerusalem. (2 Kings 25:1-2, Jeremiah 52:4-5, and Ezekiel 24:1-2)
  • Second came 17 Tammuz, on which the wall was breached during the siege of the Temple. (2 Kings 25:3-5 and Jeremiah 52:6)
  • Third came 9 Av, on which the Temple itself was destroyed. (2 Kings 25:8-9 and Jeremiah 52:12)
  • Fourth came 3 Tishri, which signified the close of an era. (2 Kings 25:25 and Jeremiah 41:1-2)

When all of these fasts are put together, it becomes apparent that the common theme that runs through all four days is the destruction of the temple, the beginning of the captivity, and the end of an era. It is a time to mourn the punishment that is at hand, and long in anticipation of the glory that is to come.

And ultimately, these fast days remind us, more than ever, that we need the Messiah to come. Moshiach now!

 

An abridgment and a harmony account of 2 Kings 25; Jeremiah 41, 52; Gemara Rosh HaShanah 18b; and Gemara Ta’anith 29a.

It came to pass on the tenth day of the tenth month, in the ninth year of king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, that king Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem with all his army. He encamped against it, and built forts against it all around, so that the city was besieged to the eleventh year of king Zedekiah.

And on the ninth day of the fourth month, the famine was severe in the city, so that there was no bread for the people of the land. Then, on the seventeenth day of the fourth month, a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, which was by the king’s garden.

Now on the seventh day of the fifth month, which was the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard and a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. The heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth of the fifth month. Towards dusk of the ninth of the fifth month they set it on fire, and it continued to burn the whole of that day, until the tenth day of the fifth month. He burnt the house of YHWH, and the king’s house; and all the houses of Jerusalem; he burnt every great house with fire.

It happened on the third day of the seventh month, that Ishmael, the son of Nethaniah, of the royal seed, came to Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, at Mizpah, and Ishmael brough with him ten men. And there they ate bread together in Mizpah. Then Ishmael arose, with the ten men who were with him, and struck Gedaliah with the sword, and killed him, whom the king of Babylon had made governor over the land. Along with Gedaliah, Ishmael also killed all the Jews and Chaldeans who were with him at Mizpah.

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