Tisha B’Av: A True Fast or a Peculiar Fast? By Rabbi Joel Finkelstein

The Gemara in Taanit 12b seems to say that there’s no fast like the fast of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av then is the quintessential fast. Shmuel, or in another version, Rabbi Yirmiya bar Abba said, “There is no Public Fast in Babylonia except for Tisha B’Av alone.” How so? In what way is Tisha B’av unique, superior to other fasts? Rashi on the spot mentions two notions of stringency, not wearing shoes and starting the fast at night.
However, the Gemara in Pesachim 54b presents a debate as to whether Tisha B’Av is the only true fast (Shmuel) or that it is not a Public Fast (Rabbi Yochanan). The Gemara suggests several other possible unique features of Tisha B’Av. a. That one must fast even during its twilight time. b. That pregnant and nursing mothers must fast as they do on Yom Kippur (speak to your local MOR and doctors)  whereas they needn’t do so on other fasts. c. They considered the notion that people shouldn’t work on Tisha B’Av though that is more of a local custom. The Gemara then entertains the option (d.) that Tisha B’av is unique in that one may not even dip a finger in water (unless one is very dirty). All of this is codified into common practice today.
Rabbi Yochanan, however, said that Tisha B’Av is not a Public Fast day. The Gemara suggests two ways to understand what he meant by this. Did he mean it is not a Public Fast day in respect to not saying the prayer of Neilah as we do on Yom Kippur, or in respect to not adding the 24 blessing version of Shmoneh Esreh which was said on true Public Fast days of old? It is left unresolved. The Ramban in Toras Haadam seems to think both ideas are true.

So we must ask, how can we maintain, on the one hand, like Shmuel, that Tisha B’Av is a uniquely strict fast, like a true Public Fast,  as it is, starting at night, with all the prohibitions of Yom Kippur, no shoes, no bathing, no ointments and no relations; and on the other hand, we agree with Rabbi Yochanan that it is not like a Public Fast in as much as we don’t recite Neilah and we don’t recite the expanded version of Shmoneh Esrei as true Public Fast days do?
It might be instructive to look at why we don’t have Public Fasts in Babylonia except for Tisha B’Av whereas in the Land of Israel they did have public fasts. Rashi said that in Babylonia they don’t need much rain. He is implying that for fasts other than those for rain, Bablyonia and the Land of Israel are the same, as the Ran pointed out. The Raavad of Provence said no, the reason that we don’t have true fasts in Bablyonia is that people there are poor and it is cold (so they need to wear shoes). According to the Raavad, we would never have a Public Fast in Babylonia or anywhere else in exile that is considered like Babylonia.
Ramban, however, says that the problem with Public Fasts outside of the Land of Israel is a lack of authority. A Public Fast must be set by the Nasi, the one communal leader which they had in the Land of Israel only. Some have argued based on this that outside Israel we are always like individuals, our concerns don’t count as a fully communal concern as we are only a part of the community at large. The Raavya of Germany disagrees. He says a person can accept on himself the stringencies of a Public Fast even outside Israel. But the Ramban might maintain that we simply lack the authority to create such complete and severe fasts outside of the Land of Israel.
Based on this Ramban, we can ask, why did Shmuel say that the only Public Fast out here in exile is Tisha B’Av? Perhaps we can suggest that it is only Tisha B’Av, which represents the idea of the very destruction of our holiest center, the place of Divine Presence, that can unite us as a community, that can forge the sense of authority and the power of Klal Yisrael to create a true Public Fast.
The Ritva in Rosh Hashanah 18b connects the idea of the uniqueness of Tisha B’Av we have discussed with the idea mentioned there that Tisha B’Av is unique because on it our troubles were doubled, huchpelu bo tzarot. What does this mean? Tosaphot offer two explanations. a. Many bad things occurred on other days such as the 17th of Tamuz but the severity of what happened on Tisha B’Av is what makes it unique. Or, says Tosaphot, the 17th of Tamuz might have also had 5 bad things which occurred on it, but only Tisha B’Av had the same exact calamity happen twice, the destruction of the house of G-d. Ie. it is either the severity of the calamity of Tisha B’Av or the  repetition of its calamities which make it so unique.
The Ramban in Torat HaAdam (Avel, Avelut Yeshanah) says that based on the Gemara in Megilah 22a we should say Neilah, a musaf tefialh, an additional prayer, on Tisah B’Av as part of the unique nature of Tisha B’Av as a true Public Fast. However, we follow the Gemara in Pesachim which seems to say that we follow Rabbi Yonchanan and do not add prayers or blessings. The Ramban does entertain the possibility of Tisha B’Av as a true Taanit Tzibur, a Public Fast.
The Jerusalem Talmud actually records  a debate as to whether Tisha B’Av is a true Public Fast or simply a day of mourning. Fasting and mourning are not identical. As the Rambam in the laws of Fasts explains, the source of fasting is the idea of calling to G-d in times of trouble. Mourning is not a time of prayer. It’s a time to feel distance from G-d. If it’s a day of mourning, then extra prayers are not in place, but if it is a true Public Fast then of course Neilah and the 24 blessing Amida would be appropriate. The conclusion of the Jerusalem Talmud is actually that the Neilah is recited while the 24 blessings are not.
We, who say neither Neilah nor add the extra Amida blessings seem to maintain that Tisha B’Av, though the closest thing we have to a Public Fast, is more of a day of mourning than a day of Public Fasting.
So what makes Tisha B’Av uniquely severe as a fast? It has severity in that we commemorate a most severe event, which occurred not once but twice on this day. It is severe since its seriousness unites all Jews and its authority stems from a more central place. And that is why it alone with Yom Kipppur starts at night and includes all 5 prohibitions of mourning.
And what is that prompted Rabbi Yochanan to say it is not a Public Fast? And why don’t we say Neilah or the extra brachot of Shmoneh Esrei? Apparently, this day is more like a Shiva, G-d forbid, than a public gathering for prayer and fasting. It is more mournful than prayerful.
How can Tisha B’Av be prayerful? As it says in the Gemara in Berachot 32b, From the time the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the gates of prayer were sealed. Sadly, on this one day when we need the most help from Heaven, on which we come closest to a true Public Fast, on which we could possibly add another Amidah, Neilah, just as the gates of Heaven are closing, it is on this very day that we are told, no, this is not the time to add prayers, in fact we omit some prayers on Tisha B’Av. Things are so bad that we can’t even use our greatest weapon to fight the evil decree; We can’t even pray extra. There’s no fast like this fast, in as much as we can’t even pray on this closest thing we have to a real fast. May this sobering fact stir us to yearn more deeply and mourn more passionately. May it be our last Tisha B’Av and may the Gates of Prayer open again.
Rabbi Joel Finkelstein has served as the rabbi of the Anshei Sphard- Beth El Emeth Congregation in Memphis TN for the last 20 years. Rabbi Finkelstein had produced numerous podcasts and Webcasts on Torah topics and is widely recognized for his scholarship and eloquence. 
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