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Notes from Limmud Fest 2010

The Hunger Artist: Fasting as Spectacle, Memory, Sacrifice, Turbo Prayer and Vision Quest

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

[I'm giving this the 'supercool' tag for the quotation from Berachos 17a; read this if you read nothing else!]

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Exodus 34:28 שמות לד כח
He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread, nor drank water. He wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. וַיְהִי־שָׁם עִם־ה׳ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה לֶחֶם לֹא אָכַל וּמַיִם לֹא שָׁתָה וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל־הַלֻּחֹת אֵת דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים׃
Exodus Rabbah (פרשה מז ד״ה ה׳):

He was there with the Lord. And is it possible for a person to exist forty days without food and without drink? R. Tanḥuma in the name of R. Eleazar ben R. Abin in the name of R. Meir said, the saying goes, "when you come to a city keep its customs." Above there is no eating and drinking. So when Moses went up he became like them. Below where there is eating and drinking when the angels descend they eat and drink, as it is written [Gen 18:8]: "And he stood before them under the tree and they ate." R. Yoḥanan said they just looked like they ate, one course disappeared after the other.

Another interpretation: He was there with the Lord. A story is told of R. Yoḥanan once when he traveled from Tiberias to Sepphoris his student R. Ḥiyyah was with him and R. Yoḥanan saw an orchard and he said to R. Ḥiyyah, "Can you not see this orchard of mine which I sold for such and such?" At that moment R. Ḥiyyah bar Abbah cried and said to him, "Have you left nothing for your old age?" He said to him, "Do you not see that I sold something created in six days and bought something that was given in forty days? The whole world and all that is in it was created in six days but the Torah was given in forty days. [Moses] did not eat bread, but from the bread of the Torah he ate, nor did he drink water, but from the waters of the Torah he drank..."

Another interpretation: He was there with the Lord. Bread he did not eat and water he did not drink in this world, but in the world to come he would eat from bread of the Torah and he would drink from the waters of the Torah, therefore, while he did not eat bread, in a way he did eat: He took nourishment from the splendour of the Shechinah. And do not be surprised, for all the creature that carry the heavenly throne are nourished by the splendour of the Shechinah.

ויהי שם עם ה׳ וכי אפשר לו לאדם להיות מ׳ יום בלא מאכל ובלא משתה? ר׳ תנחומא בשם ר״א ב״ר אבין, בשם ר׳ מאיר אומר: המשל אומר: אזלת לקרתא הלך בנימוסיה! למעלה, שאין אכילה ושתיה, עלה משה ונדמה להם למטה, שיש אכילה ושתיה׃ ירדו מלאכי השרת ואכלו ושתו, שנאמר: והוא עומד עליהם תחת העץ ויאכלו׃ אמר רבי יוחנן: נראין כאוכלין, ראשון ראשון מסתלק׃

דבר אחר: ויהי שם עם ה׳ מעשה ברבי יוחנן שהיה עולה מטבריא לציפורי׃ היה רבי חייא תלמידו אצלו והיה רבי יוחנן רואה כרם׃ אמר לרבי חייא: אין אתה רואה כרם זה שהיה שלי, ומכרתי אותו בכך וכך׃ אותה שעה בכה רבי חייא בר אבא ואמר לו: לא הנחת לעת זקנותך כלום?! אמר לו: וכי קלה היא בעיניך, שמכרתי דבר שנברא בששה ימים, וקניתי דבר שניתן לארבעים יום, עולם כולו ומלואו נברא בו׳ ימים, אבל התורה ניתנה לארבעים יום׃ לחם לא אכל, אבל מלחמה של תורה אכל׃ ומים לא שתה, אבל מימיה של תורה שתה...

דבר אחר: ויהי שם עם ה׳ לחם לא אכל ומים לא שתה בעולם הזה, אבל לעולם הבא, הוא אוכל מלחמה של תורה, והוא שותה מימיה׃ לפיכך, לחם לא אכל, אלא מאין היה אוכל? מזיו השכינה היה ניזון׃ ואל תתמה, החיות שנושאות את הכסא, מזיו השכינה הן ניזונות׃

Rabbi Isaac Hutner, Pachad Yitzḥak, Yom Kippurim 1:2:

We know from the halacha that [the beit din] decrees a fast (תַּעֲנִית) for every trouble that might befall [a community] since fasting is one of the paths of repentance (teshuva). As well, we know that Yom Kippur is a day of repentance for Israel. It would appear from this that Yom Kippur is like a communal fast rooted in the processes of repentance. But this is not what appears in the words of the Rambam.

There is an additional positive commandment on Yom Kippur, and that is to rest [or cease: לִשְׁבּוֹת] from eating and drinking. And furthermore in halacha 5 he adds: And it is a command to rest from all these [the other pleasures one must forgo on Yom Kippur: wearing shoes, bathing, annointing and conjugal relations] just like he rests from eating and drinking. Certainly in the laws of communal fasts it is not possible to describe the fast as an act of resting.

And the key is this, that in the end, Yom Kippur is not a day of teshuvah and forgiveness. Instead, the fundamental definition of the day is, as it says in the mishnah, the wedding day, the day of the giving of the Torah when the second tablets [replacements of the broken ones] were given on Yom Kippur. Two times did the people of Israel hear "I am the Lord your God". Once on the sixth of Sivan, and once again on the tenth of Tishrei. Between these two dates the sin of the golden calf and the people's repentance for it occurred...

So receiving the Torah has two roots. On the sixth of Sivan the Torah was received in the condition of "before the sin", and on the tenth of Tishrei the Torah was received in manner of repentance ["after the sin"]. So Yom Kippur is not formally the day of repentance but the day of receiving the Torah through the power of repentance. It is our wedding day... so the fast of Yom Kippur is not for afflicting the body in order to weaken the natural forces of the body as we do in a communal fast, but it is a ceasing or resting [שְׁבִיתָה] from the act of eating... Yom Kippur is unique among the holidays in that all agree it is all about God, כֻּלוֹ לַשֵׁם, there being no לָכֶם "for you" there at all. The תַּעֲנִית [fast] works to evoke repentance by negating the forces of the body, but the fast of Yom Kippur is because eating is not a need of the spirit.

Esther 4:16-4:17 אסתר ד טז-יז
Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my girls will fast likewise; and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law: and if I perish, I perish. So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him. לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל־תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל־תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם גַּם־אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי אָצוּם כֵּן וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל־הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא־כַדָּת וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי׃ וַיַּעֲבֹר מָרְדֳּכָי וַיַּעַשׂ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־צִוְּתָה עָלָיו אֶסְתֵּר׃
Go, gather all the Jews... and fast for me. From here [we learn] that the root of a fast is in the gathering [of the community]. Likewise [does Joel the prophet (1:14)] say, "Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God, and cry to the Lord." לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִים וגו׳ וְצוּמוּ עָלַי מכאן שעיקרו של צום באסיפה, וכן הוא אומר קדשו צום קראו עצרה אספו זקנים כל ישבי הארץ בית ה׳ אלהיכם וזעקו אל ה׳׃
Zechariah 8:19 זכריה ח יט-ח יט
Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah; therefore love truth and peace. כֹּה־אָמַר ה׳ צְבָאוֹת צוֹם הָרְבִיעִי וְצוֹם הַחֲמִישִׁי וְצוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וְצוֹם הָעֲשִׂירִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵית־יְהוּדָה לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחָה וּלְמֹעֲדִים טוֹבִים וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם אֱהָבוּ׃
Rosh Hashana 18b ראש השנה יח ב

What is the meaning of the verse, "Thus says the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah;" The prophet calls these days both days of fasting and days of joy, signifying that when there is peace they shall be for joy and gladness, but if there is not peace they shall be fast days.

R. Papa replied: What it means is this: When there is peace they shall be for joy and gladness; if there is persecution, they shall be fast days; if there is no persecution but yet not peace, then those who desire may fast and those who desire need not fast. If that is the case, the ninth of Av also [should be optional]?

R. Papa replied: The ninth of Av is in a different category, because several misfortunes happened on it, as a Master has said: On the ninth of Av the Temple was destroyed both the first time and the second time, and Beitar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed.

מאי דכתיב כה אמר ה׳ צבאות צום הרביעי וצום החמישי וצום השביעי וצום העשירי יהיה לבית יהודה לששון ולשמחה׃ קרי להו צום וקרי להו ששון ושמחה בזמן שיש שלום יהיו לששון ולשמחה אין שלום צום׃

אמר רב פפא הכי קאמר בזמן שיש שלום יהיו לששון ולשמחה יש שמד צום אין שמד ואין שלום רצו מתענין רצו אין מתענין׃ אי הכי תשעה באב נמי

אמר רב פפא שאני תשעה באב הואיל והוכפלו בו צרות׃ דאמר מר בתשעה באב חרב הבית בראשונה ובשניה ונלכדה ביתר ונחרשה העיר׃

Taanit 2:1 תענית ב א
What is the order [of service] for fast days? The Ark is taken out to the open space of the city, wood ashes are placed on the Ark, on the head of the Nasi and on the head of the av beth din. Everyone else puts ashes on his own head; the elder among them addresses them with words of admonition [to repentance]. Thus, our brethren, Scripture does not say of the people of Nineveh, "G-d saw their sackcloth and their fasting" but "G-d saw their works, that they turned from their evil way"; and in the Prophets it is said [Joel 2], "Rend your heart and not your garments." סדר תעניות כיצד מוציאין את התבה לרחובה של עיר ונותנין אפר מקלה על גבי התבה ובראש הנשיא ובראש אב בית דין וכל אחד ואחד נותן בראשו׃ הזקן שבהן אומר לפניהן דברי כבושין אחינו לא נאמר באנשי נינוה וירא האלהים את שקם ואת תעניתם אלא וירא האלהים את מעשיהם כי שבו מדרכם הרעה׃ ובקבלה הוא אומר וקרעו לבבכם ואל בגדיכם׃
Berachot 17a ברכות יז א
When R. Sheshet was fasting, he would, after finishing his prayers say this: Master of the Universe, it is manifest to you that while the Temple stood, if a man sinned, he presented an offering, and though all that was offered was its fat and blood, atonement for him was brought about. Now that I have been fasting, my own fat and my own blood have been diminished. May it be Your will that my diminished fat and blood be deemed as through I had presented them on the altar as an offering before You, entreating that You favour me. רב ששת כי הוה יתיב בתעניתא בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי לפניך בזמן שבית המקדש קיים אדם חוטא ומקריב קרבן ואין מקריבין ממנו אלא חלבו ודמו ומתכפר לו ועכשיו ישבתי בתענית ונתמעט חלבי ודמי יהי רצון מלפניך שיהא חלבי ודמי שנתמעט כאילו הקרבתיו לפניך על גבי המזבח ותרצני׃
BT Bava Metsia 85a:
When R. Zera came up from the land of Israel, he kept a hundred fasts to forget the Babylonian's [subtle] method of study, so that it should not disturb him. רבי זירא כי סליק לארעא דישראל יתיב מאה תעניתא דלשתכח גמרא בבלאה מיניה כי היכי דלא נטרדיה׃

Simḥah ben Shmuel of Vitry, Machzor Vitry (France, 12th century—not the oldest version of this story, but the fullest), copy-and-pasted from Jewish learning notes of mine on the Kaddish:

A tale of R. Akiva. He was walking in a cemetery by the side of the road and encountered there a naked man, black as coal, carrying a large burden of wood on his head. He seemed to be alive, and was running under the load like a horse. R. Akiva ordered him to stop.

"How comes it that a man does such hard work?" he asked. "If you are a servant and your master is doing this to you, then I will redeem you from him. If you are poor and people are avoiding you, then Iwill give you money."

"Please sir," the man replied. "Do not detain me, because my superiors will be angry."

"Who are you," Rabbi Akiva asked, "and what have you done?"

The man said, "The man whom you are addressing is a dead man. Every day they send me out to chop wood."

"My son, what was your work in the world from which you came?"

"I was a tax collector, and would favour the rich and kill the poor."

"Have your superiors told you nothing about how you might relieve your condition?"

"Please sir, do not detain me, for you will irritate my tormentors. For such a man [as I], there can be no relief. Though I did hear them say something—but no, it is impossible. They said that if this poor man had a son, and his son were to stand before the congregation and recite the prayer בָּרְכוּ and the congregation were to answer amen, and the son were also to say יהא שמה רבא מברך, they would release him from his punishment. But this man never had a son. He left his wife pregnant and he did not know whether the child was a boy. And if she gave birth to a boy, who would teach the boy Torah? For this man does not have a friend in the world."

Immediately Rabbi Akiva took upon himself the task of discovering whether this man had fathered a son, so that he might teach the son Torah and install him at the head of the congregation to lead the prayers. "What is your name?" he asked. "Akiva," the man answered. "And the name of your wife?" "Shoshnia." "And the name of your town?" "Lodkiya."

Rabbi Akiva was deeply troubled by all this and went to make his inquiries. When he came to that town, he asked about the man he had met, and the townspeople replied, "May his bones be ground to dust!" He asked about the man's wife, and he was told, "May her memory be erased from the world!" He asked about the man's son, and he was told, "He is a heathen—we did not even bother to circumcise him."

Rabbi Akiva promptly circumcised him and sat him down before a book. But the boy refused to receive Torah. Rabbi Akiva fasted for forty days. A heavenly voice was heard to say, "For this you mortify yourself?" "But Lord of the Universe," Rabbi Akiva replied, "It is for You that I am preparing him." Suddenly the Holy One, blessed be He, opened the boy's heart. Rabbi Akiva taught him Torah and שמע ישראל, and ברכת המזון. He presented the boy to the congregation and the boy recited בָּרְכוּ and they answered ברוך המבורך לעולם ועד. At that very moment the man was released from his punishment. The man immediately came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream and said, "May it be the will of the Lord that your soul find delight in the Garden of Eden, for you have saved me from the sentence of Gehenna." ... For this reason, it became customary that מעריב on the night after שבת is led by a man who does not have a father or a mother, so that he can say Kaddish and בָּרְכוּ.

(Translation: Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish)

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