The Fast of the First Born

This pre-Passover fast applies to a select few.

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Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson Inc.).

The sunrise to sunset ta'anit (fast) bekhorim (of the firstborn) is the only fast that applies to just a segment of the community: all males who are the firstborn children in their families (if the firstborn child is female, the first son born after her is not obligated). The father of a child too young to fast fasts for him, and if he himself is bekhor, the mother fasts for the child on the day of ErevPesach [the day in which Passover begins at nightfall]. Since it is forbidden to abstain from eating on Shabbat (except for Yom Kippur), when ErevPesach falls on Saturday night, the fast takes place on Thursday.

There is a widely practiced exemption: On the principle that fasting is prohibited on a joyous occasion, Judaism allows for anyone who attends a religious feast to forego fasting. It is customary to hold a celebratory meal on the completion of study of a tractate of Talmud, called a siyyum (conclusion). So rabbis initiated the practice of studying a portion of a Talmud tractate after morning services, held especially early on Erev Pesach. All the firstborn are invited to be present for the conclusion and share cake and schnapps afterward, considered a seudat (meal) mitzvah (in honor of a commandment; in this case, studying the Torah).

Among some Sephardim [Jews of Mediterranean descent], women used to observe the fast of the firstborn. The Syrians, who stringently observe it, include their women in the siyyum and seudat mitzvah following morning services. As an alternative, a community would sometimes arrange for the poor to be married on the day of ErevPesach. The firstborn were invited, since the wedding meal is a seudat mitzvah exempting them from the fast.

Lesli Koppelman Ross is a writer and artist whose works have appeared nationally. She has devoted much of her time to the causes of Ethiopian Jewry and Jewish education.