Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Year's Day Fast

For the first time in recent memory, the minor fast day of the Tenth of Tevet coincided this year with the first day of the new solar year, yielding an arguably odd integration of the secular and religious. This curious combination draws a few observations into stark relief.

While Judaism marks its new year, Rosh Hashanah, as a joyous celebration, one where families gather for prayer and meals and reflect on our hopes for the year to come, it is surely also a solemn time. Rosh Hashanah demarcates the beginning of the Ten Days of Penitence, the period of reflection and introspection leading to Yom Kippur. The former is clearly an introduction to the latter, a day on which we afflict our souls with the hope of achieving spiritual cleansing, when we appeal to the Qadosh Barukh Hu for another chance, for an opportunity to move forward with a clean slate even though we are not worthy.

Compare that with our modern conception of January 1st. How do Americans mark this transition? By celebrating with no higher goal than partying with abandon. Yes, there may be some who make resolutions for self-improvement, but one must wonder how deeply these resolutions penetrate the soul of the resolved.

Meanwhile the Tenth of Tevet, one of a handful of minor fast days sprinkled through the Jewish calendar, commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian empire in 587 BCE. Nineteen months later, Nebuchadnezzar’s forces destroyed the First Temple, laid waste to the rest of the city, and exiled the Israelites to Babylon (today Iraq). But we live in a world with a Jewish state in the traditional land of Israel, a much-rebuilt Jerusalem under Jewish and democratic sovereignty. There are those that say that we ought to dispense with fasts related to Jerusalem laid waste; we are no longer lamenting like Jeremiah, or yearning like our ancestors did for 2,000 years. The flip side of the Tenth of Tevet, the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and the Ninth of Av is Hatikvah, the national anthem of the State of Israel.

And so, on this particular fast day, we may recall the opportunity for a second chance that the Jewish New Year promises, an added foil to the debauchery engendered by the secular new year. As we look toward Tu Bishvat and Pesah, which the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) identifies as two of the four Jewish new year dates, we remember that we do not live from party to party, but from milestone to milestone and season to season as we continue to rebuild.


  1. Time to consign 10 טבת observance to the dustbin, as well as all liturgical references to Temple restoration. Particularly important now as misguided co-religionists seek to start World War III by calling for rebuilding the Temple. No wonder Pew found so many younger people find Judaism irrelevant.

  2. Thank you for your cogent thoughts that remind us of the importance of fasts that allow us to pause and reflect on and reassess our ethical relationships within our families, our near communities, and the greater world every few months.

    Fasts have indeed served our People as a very valuable ethical tool -- a way perhaps to approach that part in us all that reaches for the Divine. There is, as well, a scientific/physiological and neurological basis for the "heightened" sense of consciousness attainable with fasting. For many, it becomes a pathway into an altered state of awareness -- mysticism. The Eastern religions of Asia and the Indian sub-continent have known and practiced this for millenia.

    What you wrote reminds me of the lovely Japanese haiku about the wonders of reassessment:

    The falling flower
    I saw drift back to the branch
    Was a butterfly.