Fast Days for Repentance & Atonement

The Jewish calendar has a number of such days in addition to Yom Kippur.

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Excerpted from A Guide to Jewish Prayer with permission of the publisher, Schocken Books.

Various days of the year have been instituted as fast days for the purposes of repentance and atonement for sins. 

Monday-Thursday-Monday Fasts

Among these days are to be included the Monday, Thursday, and Monday following the Sukkot and Pesach festivals. These days were decreed as fast days because, as stated in the Talmud (Kiddushin 81a), the festivals, which are days of joy and leisure, may also result in transgressing the limits of responsible conduct. Consequently, these fasts were supposed to have been held immediately after the festivals, in order to atone for any such laxity. But since the months of Tishrei and Nisan are considered joyful months, and it is customary not to fast during them, the Monday-Thursday-Monday fasts are held during the following months--Heshvan and Iyar.monthly calendar

There are further reasons for these fasts: During Heshvan one fasts to plead for rain to fall on the newly planted fields, and during Iyar so that the harvest should not be ruined by blight or mildew. Heshvan and Iyar are also periods of seasonal changes in weather; hence, one fasts and prays for physical health.

Since these days were fixed as public fasts (although not everyone observes them), there are special selihot [penitential prayers] for them also. There is a Torah reading in Minhah, and daily prayers are the same as on any other public fast days.

Fasts Related to the Book of Exodus

Some people fast on the Thursdays of those weeks during which the first eight portions of the book of Exodus (whose initial letters spell out, in Hebrew, the appellation Shovavim Tat) are read. This custom originated among Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples, the point of it being that this period is a propitious time for purifying the soul from sin. The period was also set aside for fast days, since it generally occurs during the months of Tevet, Shvat, and the beginning of Adar, during which there are virtually no days on which it is forbidden to fast (except for the 15th of Shvat).

Moreover, these are winter months, during which it is less difficult to fast because the days are cold and short. There are also brief selihot for these days, with different selections for each week.

Yom Kippur Katan: A Minor Day of Atonement

The noted kabbalist [mystic] Rabbi Moses Cordovero of Safed (1522-1579) ordained that the eve of Rosh Hodesh [the new month] be observed as a minor day of atonement--a fast day of repentance and self-purification. Although this custom was not made mandatory, it has been widely accepted among [some] Jewish congregations and is treated as a public fast day. Special selihot are recited after Minhah [the afternoon service]. If the eve of Rosh Hodeshfalls on a Shabbat or Friday, then Yom Kippur Katan is brought forward to Thursday.

Rosh Hashanah Eve

Some people fast on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, because it is a day of grace and it is appropriate that it should be devoted to heavenly matters. This custom is supported by Midrash Tanhuma (Emor 22) and was prevalent among Ashkenazic communities, whence it found its way into halakhic [Jewish legal] compendia (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 681:2).

Those who fast do not read from the Torah and do not complete the fast (i.e., they eat something before nightfall, so as not to enter the holiday in a state of fasting). Since this fast is based solely on custom, considerable leniency is allowed for the frail and sick, as well as where a seudat mitzvah--a meal in honor of a religious rite--is held.

The Ten Days of Repentance

Many people used to fast on the weekdays of the Ten Days of Repentance, with the exception of the eve of Yom Kippur, on which it is mandatory to eat. These fasts also belong under the rubric of custom rather than law, being observed because the period before Yom Kippur is one of divine favor and closeness to God, so that one should conduct oneself therein with sanctity. Since these are considered personal fasts, there is no reading of the Torah and no commitment to complete them. This custom is not widely observed.

A Fast Day for the Burial Society

The seventh day of Adar is traditionally known as the day on which Moses died (and also the day on which he was born). Some people fast on this day, and there is a special Tikkun service [a ritual of study]. It is a widespread custom to visit the graves of righteous sages on that day (in Israel, it is customary to go to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in Meron who, according to the kabbalah [Jewish mysticism], possessed a spark of Moses' soul).

Members of the Hevra Kaddisha--the Burial Society (literally, Aramaic for the "Holy Commune")-in particular fast on this day, reciting certain prayers and words of admonition to atone for any irreverence they might have unintentionally shown toward the dead.

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Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the author of works bringing traditional Torah scholarship and Hasidic thought to a contemporary audience. He lives in Jerusalem.