17th of Tammuz: Who Fasts and who is Exempt

When our Sages determined the “minor” fasts, they did not oblige pregnant and nursing women, and the sick * A woman who stopped nursing – according to the majority poskim must fast, and some say that she is exempt for up to two years from birth * Weakness and a headache do not exempt one from fasting, rather, only an illness unrelated to the fast * Someone who knows the fast will make him sick – is considered ill, and is exempt * How to take medicines on minor fasts, and how to deal with the shortage of caffeine * Someone who broke the fast by accident must continue to fast * The obligation to educate children to fast applies to Yom Kippur, and there is no need to accustom them on other fasts

The Current Status of the Minor Fasts

When the prophets instituted the four fasts after the destruction of the First Temple, they modeled them after the fast of Yom Kippur, which is how the Rabbis usually enact decrees, modeling them after the Torah’s commandments.  Since Yom Kippur lasts an entire day, the prophets instituted the four fasts as full-day fasts, and since there are five prohibitions on Yom Kippur – eating and drinking, bathing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations – they prohibited the same things on the fasts commemorating the churban (destruction of the Temple). This is how the Jews observed these fasts throughout the seventy-year Babylonian exile.

When the exiles returned from Babylonia to build the Second Temple, these fasts were canceled and transformed into joyous days, as it says, Thus says the Lord of Hosts, “The fast of the fourth month (Tammuz), the fast of the fifth (the ninth of Av), the fast of the seventh (the third of Tishrei), and the fast of the tenth (the tenth of Tevet) will be to the House of Judah for joy and for gladness, and for festive days; love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).

And when the Second Temple was destroyed, the Jews went back to observing the very same fasts, keeping them throughout the difficult years following the second churban, during which Bar Kochva’s rebellion and the destruction of Beitar and Judea took place.  Thus, the status of these fasts depends on our national situation: at a time of evil decrees and persecution, we are obligated to fast, but when the Temple is standing these fasts become days of joy and gladness.

In the intermediate situation – when the Temple is destroyed, but we are not plagued with harsh decrees, as was the case during Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lifetime – the status of these fasts depends on the will of the Jewish people: “If they want to fast, they do so; if they do not want to fast, they do not fast.”  This is the law regarding the tenth of Tevet, the seventeenth of Tammuz, and the Fast of Gedaliah.  Regarding Tish’a B’Av, however, the matter does not depend on the nation’s will, and everyone is obligated to fast, even in the intermediate situation, because both Temples were destroyed on that day (Rosh HaShanah 18b).

In practice, the Jewish people are accustomed to observing all the fasts, even in the intermediate situation.  Therefore all Jews are obligated to fast on these days.  This is the halakha until the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt, speedily in our days, when the fast days will become joyous festivals.

Nursing and Pregnant Women are Exempt from Fasting

Nursing and pregnant women are exempt from the minor fast days (those which last for daytime alone), for the following reason.  According to the letter of the law, the Prophets ordained that we observe these fasts when Israel is faced with harsh decrees, but when no such decrees exist, it is up to the Jews to decide whether they want to fast or not.  And indeed, the Jews have accepted upon themselves to fast on these days until the Temple is rebuilt, speedily in our days.  However, from the very beginning, the custom has been that pregnant and nursing women do not fast on these days, because it is harder for them to fast.

In Germany (Ashkenaz), many pregnant and nursing women had a custom to act strictly and fast on the minor fast days.  Perhaps they did so because of the harsh decrees that the Jews suffered there.  In any event, the prevalent custom today, even among Ashkenazi Jews, is that pregnant and nursing women do not observe the minor fast days.

Two Years after Birth

A nursing woman is exempt from the minor fasts as long as she nurses her child.  Even if the child receives additional nourishment, the mother need not fast as long as she has yet to stop nursing her baby.  Some poskim exempt all women from fasting for 24 months after giving birth, because in their opinion the exemption does not depend on nursing but on the hardships of childbirth, from which it takes 24 months to recover.  In practice, most poskim rule strictly and require every woman who has stopped nursing her child to fast even on the minor fast days.  This is the prevalent custom, but one who wants to adopt the more lenient opinion has upon whom to rely. And a woman who feels weak, although she is not considered to be seriously ill, may act leniently (Peninei Halakha 7, 8, 11).

The Ill are Exempt

When the Prophets and Sages instituted these fasts, they did so for healthy people, not for the sick.  This is the difference between Yom Kippur and all other fasts.  On Yom Kippur, even the infirm are obligated to fast, because it is a Biblical command.  Only people whose lives may be in danger if they fast are exempt, for the preservation of human life overrides the Torah’s commandments.  Even then, if possible, one should make do with eating only a little, and eating in shiurim. But in the rest of the fasts that our Sages instituted, including Tisha B’Av, the ill are exempt, and do not have to eat or drink in shiurim, rather, they should eat and drink as usual, but not delight themselves with sumptuousness foods (ibid 7: 7).

Who is Considered Ill?

In general, people whose pain or weakness precludes them from continuing their regular routine of life, forcing them to lie down, are considered sick.  For example, those who have the flu, angina, or a high fever need not fast.

Almost everyone develops a headache and feels weak on a fast day, and most people find it easier spending the day in bed than continuing to function normally.  Sometimes, a person who is fasting even feels worse than a flu sufferer.  Nonetheless, such feelings are not considered a sickness, rather the natural effects of fasting, which will pass within a few hours after the fast is over.  Therefore, only one who needs to lie down because of an illness is exempt from fasting.  One who suffers from the fast itself, however, must continue to fast even if his weakness causes him to prefer to lie down in bed.  Only one who becomes so weak from the fast that he leaves the category of a suffering faster and enters that of the infirm may break his fast.

In addition, anyone who knows that fasting can cause him to fall ill need not fast.  For example, someone who suffers from an active ulcer or severe migraines is exempt from fasting, because it is liable to precipitate his illness.  Similarly, a weak person who knows that there is a good chance that he will become ill if he does not eat is exempt from fasting.  Diabetes sufferers who need to take insulin need not fast, and some of them are even exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur.  Those who have kidney stones are exempt from fasting, because they have to drink a lot of water.  A person with high blood pressure is not considered sick and should fast, unless his doctor instructs him otherwise.  Whenever in doubt, consult a God-fearing doctor (ibid 7:7).

Swallowing Medications

It is also important to note that sick people who need to take medicine regularly, like a person who has started a regimen of antibiotics or one who suffers from a chronic disease, must continue taking their medicine even on a fast day.  If possible, one should swallow it without water.  Realize that almost no medicine, including antibiotics, does any harm to those who take it without water.  One who cannot swallow pills without water should add something bitter to the water, until it becomes undrinkable, and use it to swallow the pill.

Caffeine for a Headache

Many are accustomed to drinking a few cups of coffee a day, and when fasting, suffer from severe headaches. In order to prevent this, it is advisable to take pills containing caffeine (Acamol and Dexamol and the like have tablets with caffeine) and swallow them on the fast without water. In this way they will be able to observe the fast without excessive pain. And if they do not have similar pills, they can swallow instant coffee grains without water, which, since it is bitter and tastes bad – no prohibition applies to eating it in order to prevent pain.

Eating before Dawn

Even though the fast starts at alot hashachar (this year at 03:50), the prohibition to eat sometimes begins the night before.  If one has in mind not to eat anymore until the beginning of the fast, it is considered as if he accepted the fast upon himself, and he may not eat.  Therefore, one who goes to sleep the night before a fast and wakes up before daybreak may not eat, for he has already taken his mind off of eating.  However, if he stipulates mentally before going to sleep that he will eat something if he wakes up before alot hashachar, he may eat, because he has not yet accepted the fast upon himself.

All this is true with regard to eating, but the poskim debate the issue of drinking.  According to the Rama, one may drink even if he did not make an explicit stipulation before going to sleep, because many people take a drink of water when they wake up, and it is therefore as if he had intention to drink if he wakes up before daybreak.  The Shulchan Aruch (564:1), however, holds that there is no difference between eating and drinking, and only one who stipulates, before going to sleep, that he will drink some water when he rises before daybreak may drink.  In practice, one who wants to drink before the fast begins should make a mental stipulation to this effect, but be’di’avad, one who wakes up before alot hashachar and is thirsty may drink, even if he failed to stipulate (see MB 564:6, KHC 10).

Rinsing One’s Mouth with Water

Ideally (le-chatchila), one should not wash one’s mouth on the minor fasts, because there is concern that one might swallow drops of water.  However, one who detects that his breath smells bad may wash out his mouth, because he has no intention to drink, only to clean his mouth.  Still, he should be very careful not to swallow any water.  One may use toothpaste in order to clean out his mouth thoroughly and remove a bad smell, if not doing so causes him distress.

Tish’a B’Av is a stricter fast, which entails a prohibition against washing oneself.  Therefore, one should act more stringently and, unless it is very necessary, not rinse his mouth.  Only someone who would be greatly distressed may wash out his mouth and brush his teeth, without toothpaste, even on Tish’a B’Av.  On Yom Kippur, however, when one must fast according to Torah law, one should not be lenient.

One who Drinks by Accident on the Fast

One who accidentally eats or drinks on a fast day must continue fasting, because these days were instituted as fast days due to the troubles that occurred on them.  Even if one eats or drinks enough to be considered as one who broke his fast, thus forfeiting the ability to say Aneinu in Shemoneh Esrei, he is still forbidden to eat or drink.  After all, one who committed one sin is not allowed to commit a second (SA 568:1).  In such a scenario, the person does not have to fast a different day to make up for the fast he broke, because we are obligated to fast specifically on the days that our Sages established for fasting.  Indeed, some people have a custom to accept upon themselves another fast to atone for the one that they broke, but one is not obligated to do so (MB 568:8).  It is better to atone for this by giving more charity and learning more Torah.

The poskim debate the halakha of one who forgets that it is a fast day, makes a blessing over a cup of water, and then remembers the fast.  Some say that the prohibition of making a blessing in vain is of Biblical origin, while drinking on a fast day is only a Rabbinic injunction.  Therefore, it is preferable to take a small drink in order to save oneself from saying a blessing in vain.  Others maintain that since most Rishonim hold that a blessing in vain is a Rabbinic prohibition, it is better not to drink at all.  In addition, it is improper to fix one sin by committing another one.  It seems to me that this is the course of action one should take.

Children under the Age of Mitzvot

Children who have yet to reach the age at which they are obligated in the mitzvot are exempt from the fasts that the Rabbis instituted.  And our Sages did not require us to train our children to fast for a few hours; they did so only in regard to Yom Kippur, which is Torah-based…  Nonetheless, many have a custom to train their children to fast a few hours, each one according to his or her strength.  But children should not fast all day long (Rama of Panow 111; see KHC 554:23).  When feeding children on a fast day, one should give them only simple foods, in order to teach them to mourn with the congregation (MB 550:5).

Soldiers, Brides and Grooms

Soldiers who are engaged in a defensive operation that is liable to be compromised if they fast should eat and drink as usual so that they can carry out their mission properly.  However, soldiers who are merely training must fast.

Brides and grooms are obligated to fast on the minor fast days.  Even though they have a mitzvah to rejoice for seven days after their wedding, and they are therefore forbidden to accept upon themselves a private fast, nonetheless, they must observe public fasts, because public mourning overrides private joy.  Although when the fast is postponed from Shabbat to Sunday, like this year, the bride and groom are allowed to break the fast after Mincha Gedolah in the afternoon (Peninei Halakha: Z’manim 7:9, footnote 12).

The Aneinu Prayer

The Rabbis prescribed that we add a special blessing for the fast, called Aneinu, in our prayers.  The cantor inserts it in between the blessings of Go’el Yisrael and Refa’einu when he repeats the Shemoneh Esrei of Shacharit and Minchah.  He says it only if there are at least six people in the congregation fasting, and he has to be one of them (SA 566:5).

Individuals, however, do not say Aneinu as a separate blessing in their silent prayers.  Rather, they insert it in the middle of the blessing of Shomei’a Tefillah (Ta’anit 13b).  There are various customs as to when we say Aneinu.  Some say that one should recite Aneinu in all three prayers of the day.  And even though we do not fast at night, one should say it in Ma’ariv because the day as a whole is called a fast day.  Yemenite Jews and some Sefardic Jews follow this custom.  Most Sefardim say Aneinu only when the fast is in effect.  Therefore, on the minor fasts they say it in Shacharit and Minchah, and on Tish’a B’Av, they say it also in Ma’ariv (based on Razah, KHC 565:17).  Ashkenazi Jews are accustomed to saying Aneinu in Minchah alone, because they are concerned that perhaps someone will say it in Shacharit, become weak during the day, and break his fast.  Then, his statement “on this day of our fast” will turn out to be a lie.  Therefore, they say Aneinu only in Minchah, because one who has fasted this long will probably complete the fast (based on the Geonim and Rashi; Rama 565:3).  Everyone should continue his family custom.

One who eats less than an olive-sized portion of food or drinks less than a cheek full of liquid is considered to still be fasting and should say Aneinu.  But if one eats or drinks more than that, he has broken his fast and may not recite Aneinu.

Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessings) During Mincha

Throughout the year, the kohanim (“priests”) do not lift their hands to bless the people during Mincha services, because people usually eat a meal before Mincha and we are concerned that the kohanim might bless the people when they are drunk, which is forbidden.  On fast days that have a Ne’ilah service, like Yom Kippur and the fasts that the Rabbis instituted for droughts, the kohanim bless the people during Ne’ilah, because there is no reason to fear that they will be drunk, seeing that it is a fast day.  During Mincha of those days, however, the kohanim do not bless the people for fear that they may mistakenly think that they are supposed to do so on regular days, as well.  Regarding ordinary fast days, on which we do not pray Ne’ilah, the law depends on when the congregants pray Mincha.  If they pray at the same time that Ne’ilah is usually said [i.e., shortly before sunset], the kohanim bless the people.  But if the congregation prays Mincha earlier, Birkat Kohanim is omitted, since it is not the time designated for Ne’ilah.  In such a case, the cantor, as well, omits “Elokeinu v’Elokai Avoteinu,” which is customarily said when no kohanim are present.

Therefore, it is fitting to call Mincha on fast days for a time that enables people to merit participating in the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim.  Ideally, one should pray Mincha within half an hour of sunset, which is the best time to pray Ne’ilah.  Nevertheless, as long as the congregation prays after plag mincha, the kohanim may lift their hands and bless the people.  If they pray earlier than that, however, Birkat Kohanim is omitted.

kohen who is not fasting should not ascend the platform to bless the people.  And if there are no other kohanim, some authorities say that he still may not go up, while others maintain that he should.  The latter opinion goes as far as to say that he should go up even if there is one other kohen (Lu’ach Eretz YisraelHalichot ShlomoTefilla 10:13).  If there are less than six people fasting, no kohen should go up to bless the congregation during Mincha, even if he is fasting (see Piskei Teshuvot129:2).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.

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