In the times of the Beit HaMikdash, the kohanim were divided into twenty-four mishmarot (“watches”) with each mishmar taking turns to work in the Beit HaMikdash on a weekly roster. Each mishmar was also divided into six or seven batei avot that would be each be allotted a day to work, with the remainder able to lend support if needed. The reason why this comes up in our masechet is because the Mishnah mentions some of the leniencies that were granted to the beit av and the rest of the mishmar that worked on the fast days (2:6). Depending on the intensity of the fast, in some instances they would be exempt, sometimes they would fast and in some cases they would fast but not complete their fast.
Rav Chisdain the Gemara earlier (12a) explains that any fast where one eats before nightfall is not considered a fast. When our Mishnah is raised, the Gemara explains that when the kohahim of the mishmar did not complete fast it is true that it was not considered a fast. They nevertheless fasted most of the time to share the distress of the people (le’tze’urei nafshei).
The concept of fasting but not completing a fast, also arises in a later Mishnah (2:10). There the Mishnah teaches that if one of the later fasts coincides with Rosh Chodesh, Channukah or Purim or if Tisha B’av falls on erev Shabbat (according to R’ Meir) even though one fasts, one does not complete the fast. The most pressing question is, if one should not complete the fast at what time do they stop?
On the second Mishnah, Rashi explains that they would stop fasting close to evening. The Sefat Emet finds this explanation difficult with respect to our Mishnah. Rashi had explained that the reason why the anshei mishmar did not complete their fast (while the beit avdid not fast at all) in the first round of fasts, was because if it was particularly busy, then would step in and needed full to be of full strength in that event. The Sefat Emetasks that because most of the avodah was completed by the time the korban mincha was offered, what benefit was there that the anshei mishmar did not complete their fast?
The Sefet Emet suggest that perhaps by allowing the anshei mishmar to finish their fast early they were considered like “pat besilo” – “having bread in their basket”. In other words, it would present them with a psychological boost thereby giving them more stamina to work. He however suggests that they probably ended their fast at midday and such a practice would fall into the more broad definition of eino mashlimim.
The case in the earlier Gemara cited above, concerns Tisha Be’Avthat coincides with Shabbat and is delayed to the next day. The Shulchan Aruch (559:9) rules in such a case, that a ba’al brit prays mincha washes and does not complete his fast. The Magen Avraham brings two opinions regarding the mincha referred to: mincha gedolah (6.5 halachic hours into the day) and mincha ketana(9.5) siding with the later understanding. The Mishnah Berurah however comments that the Achronim agree that the ba’al brit ends at mincha gedolah.
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