Masechet Ta’anit Introduction & 2a-3b

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04 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


Introduction to Masechet Ta’anit

Most of Masechet Ta’anit deals with the laws and background of fast days – public and private, whether they occur on established dates or are instituted according to need.

With the exception of Yom Kippur, there is no mention of fast days in the Torah, although they are the subject of significant discussion in the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim. From these writings we can glean much about the significance and purpose of fast days, both public and private, as they were kept in ancient times. Thus, many of the principles found in Masechet Ta’anit are based on oral traditions going back to Mount Sinai as we find them described in the prophetic writings.

The underlying theory behind a fast day is the idea that worldly occurrences are not happenstance. Just as there is a physical, rational explanation for a given event, so there is a spiritual explanation for it, as well. This includes a basic belief in reward and punishment as well as hashgaha peratit – attention bestowed by God on every individual, community and nation. Thus, a disaster or tragedy must be seen either as a warning or as punishment (as is described in detail in Chapter 26 of Vayikra), both of which demand a response of prayer and repentance. A ta’anit is a time of subjecting oneself to inuy, which is defined by the oral tradition as a day on which we neither eat nor drink, and by the Sages as a time when one also refrains from other physical pleasures – specifically abstaining from washing, anointing, wearing shoes and engaging in sexual relations. Nevertheless, it is clear from both the Talmud and the words of the prophets (see, for example, the description of the ideal fast day in Chapter 58 of Yeshayahu) that the physical inuy is not the end goal of the ta’anit. Limitations on physical pleasures are merely a vehicle used to reach the true purpose of the ta’anit, which is repentance and purification of the soul. Thus Masechet Ta’anit does not focus merely on the technical aspects of the fast days, but also on ways to raise the spiritual level of the participants through prayer and introspection.

In Israel, the most common natural disaster is a drought, which is the focus of a large part of this tractate. A lack of rain is indicative of the wrath of God (see Devarim 11:17) as both punishment and warning. More than any other calamity, when there is no rain, one has no recourse other than to turn to God in prayer. Moreover, drought does not merely affect a single individual for a limited amount of time; rather it is a catastrophe that can have long-tem impact on the entire land. Thus Masechet Ta’anit describes a series of fast days that become more stringent and severe with the passage of time. The general rule is that we view the fast days described in Masechet Ta’anit as days of sadness bordering on mourning, whose purpose is to inspire the people to repent. As such, included in these fast days are public gatherings that include prayer and Torah reading, as well as a call to teshuvah, both communal and individual.

Aside from the fast days that focus on future improvement, there are also established fast days of remembrance that commemorate tragedies of the past. Even these fasts, which focus on national tragedies – in particular those connected with the destruction of the first and second Temples – are intertwined with future aspirations, as remembering the past is a first step to recognizing and looking forward to the future redemption. It should also be noted that these days take on stronger elements of mourning. Tisha b’Av in particular is representative of all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, given the many misfortunes that we have suffered on that day.

Ta’anit 2a-b

Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of Sadie Kaplan (20 Tevet).

The first Mishnah in Masechet Ta’anit opens with a discussion of the prayer for rain, distinguishing between two different parts of the amidah prayer. Towards the beginning of the Amidah we recite gevurot geshamim (mashiv ha-rua’h u’morid ha-geshem – He who makes the winds blow and brings down the rain) in the blessing of mehayye ha-metim (He who revives the dead). In the middle of the Amidah, in the blessing of mevarekh ha-shanim (He who blesses the years) we also add a specific request for rain. Although Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua disagree whether we should begin praising God for His deliverance of rain at the beginning of Sukkot, it becomes clear in the Gemara that all are in agreement that the request for rain should wait until after the Sukkot holiday is over. According to Rabbi Eliezer, it is appropriate to praise God for His works at any time, while according to Rabbi Yehoshua, since rain is not wanted during Sukkot it would be inappropriate to mention it in any way until after the holiday.

The idea that rain during Sukkot is a siman kelalah – a curse – is explained by Rashi to refer to the Gemara in Sukkah (28b), which teaches that a person who becomes uncomfortable in his sukkah because of the rain is permitted to leave his sukkah. A parable is told in which a person who is forced to leave his sukkah because of the rain is compared to a servant who pours a cup of wine for his master and then has the wine flung in his face by the master, who clearly rejects his service. Thus, rain on Sukkot is a siman kelalah because a Jew forced out of his sukkah by rain experiences the rejection of his desire to serve God by means of the sukkah. The Me’iri suggests a much simpler explanation, pointing out that simply missing out on the opportunity to perform a mitzvah is, itself, indicative of a siman kelalah.

Placement of gevurot geshamim in the blessing of mechayei ha-metim is understood by the Ritva as signifying the revival that the rainy season offers the land after a dry summer. Moreover it is a reminder to us of God’s power and His ability to change the reality of the world based on His establishment of a natural cycle.

Ta’anit 3a-b

Although asserting God’s greatness based on gevurot geshamim – i.e. stating mashiv ha-rua’h u’morid ha-geshem (He who makes the winds blow and brings down the rain) in the blessing of mehayye ha-metim (He who revives the dead) – is an essential part of our Amidah prayer, the baraita on our daf teaches that it is not essential to relate similarly to the falling of dew or the blowing of wind. Rabbi Chanina explains that this is because dew falls continuously throughout the year.

Dew is created by condensation of moisture in the air. Most objects – including plants – radiate (and lose) more heat than the air surrounding them, and thus become colder than the air. At that point atmospheric moisture condenses at a rate greater than that at which it can evaporate, forming water droplets. Although there are specific conditions that may limit the development of dew (e.g. low clouds, strong winds, etc.), since dew is created locally and is not connected with the larger water system, there is almost always some dew created.

The amount of dew that falls differs with climate and region; there are places in Israel where the amount of dew is almost equal to the amount of rainfall in a given year. In such places, it is only because of the dew that agriculture can be maintained.

Although an overabundance of dew can occasionally cause damage to produce at certain times of the year, generally speaking dew is seen as valuable – both in the summer when it acts as a water source, and in the winter when it protects the ground from frost.

Winds are created by a variety of different factors. Differences in temperature between the ground and the air, between the sea and the land, and between the Arctic Circle and the Equator all play a role in the creation of wind. Although the systems that create winds that carry rain are complicated, the agents involved in creating wind are constant; there is always some movement of air and never a total cessation of wind.

Rashi explains that the ruling of the baraita that one is not obligated to mention dew or winds refers to the winter. The Ritva, however, understands that it is a reference to the summer, when gevurot geshamim is not recited, and the ruling is that even in places where the custom is to mention these natural phenomena, it is not essential to do so. In fact, there are different traditions regarding this question. Sephardim and Chasidim do insert morid ha-tal in their Amidah, while the traditional Ashkenazi position is to leave it out. In Israel the custom is for everyone to include it in their prayers (see Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 114:7).

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.