Balak: Fasting

hero image

The 17th of Tammuz is one of the four major fast days. As the name suggests, the primary way we commemorate tragic anniversaries is through fasting. Why is a temporary abstinence from eating such a vital aid to repentance? Here are two related approaches to this question.


There are two practical reasons for eating. One is to provide ourselves with sustenance, and the other is because eating is enjoyable. These practical reasons have religious significance: We eat to give us strength to carry out HaShem’s commandments, and in order to experience G-d’s kindness towards us through the enjoyments of this world.

We may ask, if eating healthy and appetizing food is an essential part of G-d’s service, then why would we ever want to abstain from it? One answer is that we don’t always eat food with the proper intentions. When we sin, we are not using our strength to carry out HaShem’s will, but rather to defy it.

And when we eat gluttonously, we are not enjoying this world in order to elevate ourselves, but rather in order to debase ourselves like the animals who eat without any thought of the Divine source of their enjoyment. In this case it would be better to avoid eating altogether, until we can get our thoughts and intentions back on the proper track.


When Rav Sheshet would fast, he would append to his prayers the following request: “When the Mikdash existed, a person who sinned would bring a sacrifice; its fat and blood were offered on the altar, and the person received expiation. Now I have sat and fasted, and my fat and blood have been diminished [from not eating and not drinking]; may it be Your will that the diminishment of my fat and blood be considered as if they were offered before You.” (Berakhot 17a.)

Rav Sheshet teaches us that fasting is not merely a negative act of abstaining from food, but can also be viewed as a positive act of sacrificing ourselves, offering our bodies to HaShem. This rationale is related to the previous one: the normal way of sanctifying our bodies is not by weakening and diminishing them but rather by using them in G-d’s service. But when a person sins this method of sanctification is not active. Then a person can resort to a fast in order to devote his body to G-d.


One case in which fasting is particularly recommended by our Sages is a “dream fast”, undertaken on waking from a dream in which we perceive a threatening portent. The Talmud says that “A fast is good for a [bad] dream like fire to tow (flax dust).” (Shabbat 11a)

The Maharsha explains that while tow, a waste product in making linen, is the exemplar of something extremely flammable, the linen fabric itself is not easily burned. A fast weakens us and reduces our strength both for good and for evil. But the tendency to evil is likened to the waste products, the wispy tow, whereas the tendency to good is likened to the sturdy linen. The mild affliction of a fast is enough to eliminate the bad omen of a nightmare, but barely makes an impression on our might to exert ourselves in G-d’s service.

So this adage from the Talmud expresses our firm belief in the ascendancy of good over evil.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

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