Masechet Ta’anit 11a-17b

hero image
18 Jan 2007

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan

Ta’anit 11a-b

As its name indicates, most of Masechet Ta’anit deals with issues of fasting. Should a personal fast be viewed as a positive trait or a negative one? This question is debated by the amora’im. Shmuel rules that a person who accepts a fast upon himself is considered to be a sinner – a choteh. Rabbi Eliezer argues that he is called kadosh – a holy person. Resh Lakish says that he is considered pious – a chasid.

Shmuel and Rabbi Eliezer derive their positions from different interpretations of the laws of nazir – accepting the limitations of a Nazarite, namely abstaining from wine, leaving his hair uncut and refraining from contact with the dead. According to Shmuel, when the Torah commands the nazir to bring a sacrifice at the end of his nezirut to atone for the sin he committed (see Bamidbar 6:11), the “sin” refers to the fact that he abstained from wine, limiting his enjoyment of life. If he is considered a “sinner” for missing out on wine, certainly abstaining from all food and drink is, if anything, a greater sin. Rabbi Eliezer points to a different passage, one that refers to a nazir as kadosh (see Bamidbar 6:5), arguing that if abstention from wine makes you holy, how much more so abstaining from all food and drink.

The commentaries use this argument as a springboard for discussing the appropriate attitude towards self-flagellation. One possibility, raised by Tosafot, is that such behavior is considered assaulting oneself and should be seen as an act that goes against the will of God. Some commentaries distinguish between people who fast as an act of atonement and those who do so in an attempt to rise to higher levels of spirituality. Even so, there is no agreement about which of these is admirable and which is to be condemned. The Ri”af accepts fasting as appropriate behavior for someone who does so as part of a process of teshuva; the Me’iri says that a desire to grow spiritually through a fast can be considered holy.

Ta’anit 12a-b

Rav Yehuda quotes Rav as teaching that an individual who accepts upon himself to fast for personal reasons (as opposed to communal fast days determined by the bet din) can “borrow against the fast and pay back later” – i.e. he can choose to eat today and substitute another day of fasting instead.

Many of the commentators interpret this to apply only in a case where the person did not commit himself to fast on a specific day (e.g. where he planned to fast on a certain number of days during the year). Nevertheless, many of the rishonim (the Ra’avad, Rashba, Re’ah, Ritva and others) argue that the Gemara makes no such distinction and that a person can even switch his fast from one day to the next. These rishonim understand that this is Shmuel‘s intent when he compares a personal fast day to a person who takes an oath. Someone who takes an oath to give charity, for example, can switch one coin for another, so long as they have the same value; similarly, fasting on one day is the equivalent of fasting on another.

There is one personal fast that must take place on a specific day – a ta’anit chalom. A fast that is the result of a disturbing dream must be done immediately after the dream takes place. This rule is so severe that Rav Yosef teaches that someone who is disturbed by their dream must fast even on Shabbat, concluding that he will have to fast a second time as repentance for having “desecrated” the holiness of Shabbat by fasting.

Given Shmuel’s ruling that dreams are not to be seen as carrying with them any significance, the Ritva explains that the underlying idea of fasting because of a dream is that a very disturbing dream should be seen as a heavenly call to examine one’s actions. Thus, it is essential to act while the feeling of dread is still fresh. But how can one fast on Shabbat?  Here the Ritva explains that eating on Shabbat is the fulfillment of the mitzva of oneg Shabbat – making Shabbat pleasurable. Under such circumstances, a festive meal would not be enjoyable, and fasting is a more appropriate expression of oneg Shabbat.

Ta’anit 13a-b

Aside from actually refraining from food, fast days that are established – either for an individual or for the community – are days of prayer and introspection. Extra petitionary blessings are added to the amidah prayer. On fast days connected with a lack of rain in Israel, for example, 24 blessings are recited (see dapim 1516). Our Gemara asks whether an individual who accepts a personal fast will add an extra blessing to the amidah, or will simply add a prayer within the “catch-all” blessing of shome’ah tefillah, in which we ask God to accept our prayers. (Our tradition today has individuals including a prayer for the fast day within the shome’ah tefillah blessing, while the shaliach tzibbur, who represents the congregation in his repetition of the amidah, says it as a separate blessing between the brachot of go’el [redemption] and rofeh [healing].)

To respond to this question, the Gemara quotes a baraita, which rules that on an individual fast day the person will say an amidah of 18 blessings, while on community fast days, 19 blessings are recited.

Aside from the concern of the Gemara with the additional blessing for the fast, use of the term shemonah esrei, i.e. 18, when referring to the amidah is, itself, interesting. Although we traditionally call the amidah prayer by that name – shmoneh esrei – a quick check of any prayer book shows that there are 19 blessings in the standard amidah. Tosafot R”id discusses at length the common name shmoneh esrei, pointing out that the additional blessing of birkat ha-minin was added in Yavneh, making it a long-standing part of the amidah.

The explanation for this anomaly seems to be based on differences between the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi (and, apparently, the tradition in Israel as opposed to the Diaspora). In Israel the two blessings before shome’ah tefillah -which deal with the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the reestablishment of the Davidic monarchy – were combined into one bracha. In that way even after the addition of birkat ha-minim there still were only 18 blessings in the standard amidah. In Bavel these two brachot were recited separately and 19 brachot were said in every prayer. Nevertheless, the prayer was still called shmoneh esrei based on the original count of blessings.

Ta’anit 14a-b

Up until this point the Gemara has discussed fasting in the event of drought. Obviously, other calamities deserve a response as well. The baraita on our daf teaches that regarding other misfortunes (aside from drought), such as itching, locusts, flies, hornets, mosquitoes or a plague of serpents and scorpions, no “alarm” was raised, but a “cry” was raised. The “alarm” is understood by the Gemara as blowing the shofar, which was part of the fasting ritual; the “cry” is the recitation of additional prayers.

What were these calamities enumerated in the baraita?

A plague of the insects that are mentioned stems from specific weather conditions that encourage the growth and development of these pests. Zevuvim – flies – were considered so problematic that some ancient tribes had specific rituals and idols whose purpose was to protect them from flies. Yitushim – mosquitoes – are disturbing not only because they are pests, but also because they are carriers of malaria. The tzir’ahvespa orientalis, or hornet – is mentioned in the Tanach as one of the instigators of the emigration of the Canaanite nations from the land of Israel (see Shemot 23:28 and Yehoshua 24:12). There is historical evidence that entire cities were abandoned by their populations because of swarms of flies or hornets.

Plagues of serpents and scorpions are also often weather related. If conditions are right and there is an ample food supply, the sheer number of sustained, live births rises. Under such circumstances we find that these creatures are forced into closer proximity to the places where humans live, and there is more opportunity for interactions with them than we would have under normal circumstances, thus increasing the likelihood of attacks on humans. On occasion the simple fact that there is overcrowding in their natural habitat will lead these creatures to become more attack-prone, as well.

Ta’anit 15a-b

The second perek (chapter) of Masechet Ta’anit begins on today’s daf (page). Based on descriptions of fast days that we find in the Tanach (see I Melakhim 8:35-36 and Yo’el 2:15-19) it is clear that aside from abstaining from food, fast days were times of prayer and introspection. This chapter describes the unique prayer services that were established by the Sages for severe fast days, which include ceremonies intended to inspire the people to repentance, and, in particular, the additional blessings inserted into the amidah prayer.

Another issue discussed is the circumstances under which fasts cannot be declared. According to the Mishnah, aside from Shabbat and Yom Tov, the minor holidays that are enumerated in Megilat Ta’anit are also days on which fasts cannot be established, and, depending on the significance and level of the holiday, the day before and after them may not be appropriate for fasting either.

Megilat Ta’anit is a little known collection of statements about minor holidays and fasts that commemorate events which took place during the Second Temple period. On the minor holidays, fasting and eulogies were forbidden. Most of the events that are commemorated are from the period of the Hasmonean monarchy – a prime example being the story of Hanukkah – although there are also events from earlier and later periods included, as well.

This work is set up chronologically, and it includes the date and a brief account of the incident written in Aramaic, followed by a fuller description of the event in Hebrew.
It appears that this work is the oldest example of the Oral Torah being committed to writing; the Sages of the Mishnah do not only discuss the rulings that appear in it, but also the language that was used. (Although it is not part of the standard texts of Talmud, the Steinsaltz Talmud includes it as an addendum to the volume that contains Masechet Ta’anit).

Ta’anit 16a-b

As was taught in the Mishnah (15a), the procedure for a fast day called because of severe drought involved bringing the ark out of the synagogue and into the public thoroughfare. The elders of the town would speak, and the prayer service was made up of the usual 18 blessings of the amidah prayer with an additional six berakhot inserted. The Mishnah continues, relating times that this was actually implemented by Rabbi Chalafta and Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, who recited these blessings and ended the service with a series of shofar blasts. The Mishnah concludes, however, that when the Sages heard that this had been done by Rabbi Halafta and Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, they objected, arguing that this procedure was only appropriate for use in the Temple.

What exactly was inappropriate about the activities led by Rabbi CHalafta and Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon?

The Tosafot R”id says that the problem stemmed from their blowing the shofar. Outside of the Bet ha-Mikdash trumpets are sounded during times of need, rather than a shofar.
The Rambam explains that in the Temple the shofar was sounded between each of the additional blessings, while outside the Temple it was only supposed to be blown at the very end of the service.

The Geonim argue that the problem was the way the shofar was sounded. In the Temple the tradition was to blow a series of varying soundsTekiah-Teru’ah-Tekiah – while outside of the mikdash a Tekiah – a single, simple blast – was appropriate.

Rashi has a different understanding of the story. In his view, Rabbi Halafta and Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon did not allow the traditional response of Amen to be said after the blessings. Although we respond with Amen after every blessing that we hear recited, in the Temple Amen was never said; rather the accepted response in the Temple was barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed (which we say immediately after the first line in our daily recitation of Keriyat Shema). According to Rashi, by instructing the congregation to respond barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed instead of the usual Amen, Rabbi Chalafta and Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon broke with tradition, which angered the other Sages.

Ta’anit 17a-b

The kohanim were split into 24 groups called mishmarot, each of which worked one-week shifts in the Temple twice during the year (on the holidays of Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot, all of the kohanim would come to the mikdash to work). Each mishmar was broken into batei av, which were made up of families who were more closely related to one another than they were to the rest of the mishmar.

According to Rashi, each mishmar was broken into six batei av, and each group was responsible for the Temple service on one of the days that they worked in the mikdash. On Shabbat, the entire mishmar performed the service. According to others (Rabbenu Hananel and the Me’iri, for example), every mishmar was broken into seven batei av, each of whom was responsible for one day of the week. From the Tosefta it appears that there was no standard number of batei av; some mishmarot had just four batei av, while others had as many as nine separate groups. Furthermore, it seems likely that some priestly families – perhaps those that did not come with the first waves of returnees at the beginning of the Second Temple period with Ezra and Nehemiah – did not belong to any of the mishmarot.

Every bet av had a leader, the rosh bet av, who was responsible for distributing the various responsibilities among the members of his group.  He also had a measure of privilege in the mishmarot, where he received honors like standing next to the kohen gadol during certain Temple ceremonies.

The Mishnah (15a) teaches that, even on fast days that are established due to drought, the bet av that is actually involved in the Temple service on a given day may not participate in the fast – depending on its severity – due to their focus on the Temple service.  The entire mishmar would limit their fast in case they needed to assist the bet av that was working. Similarly, even on days when a fast had not been declared, limitations were established on the bet av and mishmar drinking wine, since someone who had drunk wine could not participate in the Temple service.

Our Gemara closes with Abayye‘s comment that, since we do not know which mishmar and bet av kohanim belong to today, kohanim should never be permitted to drink wine, since the Temple may be built miraculously and they will be called to participate in the service. Nevertheless we do not restrict kohanim in this way because of the teaching of Rabbi, who said that the years of destruction do not allow us to legislate such a restriction.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.