Rav Moshe Aberman
Former Rosh Kollel in Chicago
Tomorrow is the tenth of Tevet, which is known as one of the public fast days. We will try in this column to understand the status of this day and its halachic consequences. Yom Kippur is a Taanit mi’deorita (originating in the written torah). In the case of Yom Kippur, the Torah teaches us what prohibitions apply, while details are given in the oral tradition of Torah. We also know of Taaniot Tzibure whose origin are Rabbinic, such as the series of fast days that are declared at times of drought or external dangers such as war. Tisha B’Av is another type of Taanit Tzibure established to commemorate a tragedy that befell the Jewish people and lead us to repent from those wrongs that bring about such tragedies.
At first glance Taaniyot such as the Tenth of Tevet and the Seventeenth of Tamuz fall in to the same category as Tisha B’Av, since they too commemorate tragedies that befell the Jewish people and are meant to awaken us to repent. Yet, the halachot of the Tenth of Tevet or the Seventeenth of Tamuz differ from those of Tisha B’Av, indicating a different halachic status.
The Gemara in Rosh Hashana 18b notes a seeming contradiction in the verse in Zecharya 8/19. “So has said Hashem Tzvakot the fast of the fourth and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be a time of happiness and rejoicing and a holiday for the house of Judah, and truth and peace shall co-exist in love.” On the one hand, the pasuk speaks of these days as days of fast, in the sense of days of sorrow, while on the other hand they are called a time of festivity. The Gemara resolves the seeming contradiction by stating that each term relates to a different period. At a time of peace these days are times of joy, in times of persecution these are days of fasting. Rav Papa elaborates, proclaiming that in times of peace such as during the time of the Mikdash these are days of rejoicing, in times of persecution these are days of sorrow, in times such as our time, that is neither a time of peace nor persecution, fasting is optional.
Even though in our time there is no persecution and fasting should be optional, the Rishonim teach us that the public accepted these days as days of fasting. Therefore, there is a requirement to fast, indicating that the Tenth of Tevet should be treated as a Taanit Tzibur. Yet, being the obligation to fast is due to public acceptance, there is justification for halachic variations due to the limited acceptance of the prohibitions imposed on Taaniyot Tzibur.
The primary differences between a true Taanit Tzibur and the fasts based on public acceptance are that in the latter: A. The fast begins at dawn and not at sunset. B. Certain prohibitions such as bathing, smearing of oils, wearing leather shoes and marital relations do not apply. Further, since the fast is based on public acceptance and not on a formal rabbinic decree, we are more lenient as to who may be exempt from fasting.
There is place for further discussion of details particularly in reference to what type of bathing is permitted and on issues of who is exempt from fasting on these days but that will need to wait for a later time.