The primary focus of Masechet Ta’anit is on public fast days that were enacted in response to drought or other calamities that befell the community. The Rambam explains (Ta’anit 1:1-3):
It is a positive biblical mitzvah to cry out and blow trumpets on any calamity that befalls the community… And this is one of the paths of teshuva (repentance). When a catastrophe occurs, and they cry out… and know that it occurred as a result of their bad deeds… this will cause the tragedy to be removed. But if they do not cry out… and [dismiss the events] as “the way of the world” and [bad luck or] chance, this is stubbornness and causes them to stick to their bad ways resulting in further misfortunes.
Fast days are not simply days in which we refrain from eating and drinking. Nor is it voluntary suffering that is crudely presented in exchange for relief. As the Rambam presents it, a ta’anit is a driver for teshuva. The fast motivates introspection and an understanding that Hashem engineers all that occurs in response to our actions. Out of the fast, decisions to improve ourselves and change our ways are made with the hope that the situation will improve.
This idea was already presented toward the end of the masechet we just completed – Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah (3:8) writes:
“And when Moshe raised his hand, Bnei Yisrael were victorious” [in the battle against Amalek] (Shmot ). Do Moshe hands really make or break a battle? Rather [the Torah] is teaching you that the entire time that Bnei Yisrael looked towards the heavens, and subjugated their hearts to their Father in heaven – they were victorious, if they did not – they would fall…”
The Ohr Gedalyahu (Purim) writes that Moshe indeed did perform many miracles “with his hands”. Therefore the Mishnah must be understood as asking, if the outcome depended solely on Moshe’s hands then why did he ever lower them? To this the Mishnah responds that the outcome was dependant on the heart of Bnei Yisrael and when they turned their hearts “to the earth”, Moshe’s hands would fall.
That Mishnah is even more closely related to our discussion presented thus far. Rashi (Shmot ) explains that during the war the entire nation was engaged in a ta’anit19 – the first instance of one in the Torah. The Ohr Gedalyahu, citing a principle brought in the works of R’ Tzadok Ha’Kohen, explains that the first mention of a concept in the Torah is the key to understanding it essence. Consequently, we find that a ta’anit is the vital weapon in our fight against Amalek. Amalek espouses the philosophy of “chance” and “natural order”. Their power over Am Yisrael only takes hold when Am Yisrael ascribe to that philosophy. Indeed, according to Rashi, the first time they attacked Am Yisrael was after Am Yisrael asked “Is Hashem with us or not?” (Shmot 17:7) The Ohr Gedalyahu explains that having seen all the wondrous miracles in they knew Hashem was with them, they however doubted His involvement in all natural events. Thus, empowered, Amalek came. Am Yisrael’s advantage and ultimate victory over Amalek only came through the fast and turning their hearts toward the heavens and recognising the ultimate control of Hashem.20
The ta’anit therefore realigns us, refocuses us and motivates us to improve as well as recognise Hashem’s influence in all matters. One must remember however, a ta’anit comes in response to a wake-up call that indicates that we have strayed. Ideally we should keep the message of the ta’anit close to our hearts so that we shall no longer need them.
19 See Rashi who explains that a Halacha is learnt from Moshe, Aharon and Chur standing together at the top of the hill, that we call three people to the Torah on a public fast day.
20 The Ohr Gedalyahu continues to explain that the power of the ta’anit against Amalek continues throughout history. He explains that this is indeed why ta’anit Esther is an integral part of the festival of Purim. (See the Ohr Gedalyahu for full explanation).
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