To Fast or Not to Fast - A Personal Reply to Rabbi Elliot Dorff

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on July 18, 2022

Note: This drash references an earlier contribution written by Rabbi Elliot Dorff. Please click here to read.

This year, my husband and I heard Parashat Aharei Mot twice, on two consecutive Shabbat mornings – or rather, would have, if we hadn’t come down with Covid in the interim and so had to stay home the second of those two weeks. How so? We spent Passover in Israel, visiting and celebrating the holiday with our son, who made aliyah after spending his gap year on Nativ. In Israel, there is no second day of hag, and so Passover ended on Fri., April 22 and the following day was an “ordinary” (if still hametz-less) Shabbat rather than Yom Tov Sheni as it was in the Diaspora. Israelis read Aharei Mot that Shabbat, while elsewhere it was not read until the following Shabbat (by which time we were back in the U.S.). Thus began a number of weeks, still on-going until several weeks from now, in which communities in Israel are a week “ahead” of all other Jewish communities in the annual cycle of Torah readings (why the discrepancy persists for so long despite opportunities to bring the two communities into sync sooner is itself a fascinating topic, but not one I can take up here).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately – and frankly pretty much all of my adult life since I ultimately did not make aliyah after my time on Nativ – about what it means to live in the Diaspora at a historical moment when it is easier than any time in at least a millennia and a half to live in the Land of Israel, under Jewish sovereignty. The calendrical quirk of the weekly parashah schedule that I’ve just described, along with the second day of Yom Tov that engendered it, are practices that remind us that we live in what Jewish tradition has always considered Galut, Exile. No matter how at home we are in the places we have settled – places in which Jewish communities have sometimes thrived for significant periods of time and contributed greatly to Jewish development, culture, scholarship (Babylonia under the Sassanians of Late Antiquity and into the early Islamic caliphate, Islamic medieval Spain and North Africa, modern North America…) – we are supposed to consider ourselves as not being in our true home. However, in very modern times, particularly since the establishment of the State of Israel, many Jews have questioned these distinctions. Perhaps we should celebrate the existence of a Jewish state by acting in concert with our Israeli family, and adapt our customs to theirs.

The 17th of Tammuz is yet another occasion to ponder this question of contemporary Jewish life. This is one of the four communal “minor fasts” on the Jewish calendar, three of which are connected to the destruction of the first and second Temples (the fourth is the fast of Esther just prior to Purim). Although other calamities are also assigned by the rabbis to the 17th of Tammuz (most notably the incident of the Golden Calf and Moses smashing the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments), this date is perhaps the most “obviously” connected to the destruction, in that it marks the day the outer walls of the city were breached by the Romans, thus dooming the second Temple, resulting in the dispersal of the Jewish people that continues to this day and forever transforming Jewish life and practice. This day initiates the period of semi-mourning known as the three weeks, which culminate in the 9th of Av – the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies in Jewish history as well.

But should we be mourning the Temple in this day and age? Should we instead be acknowledging the return of our people to the Land?

Rabbi David Golinkin wrote a halakhic responsum on this question for the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Masorti Movement in Israel in the mid-1980’s (see the revised and expanded translation on-line from 2010, In brief, he demonstrates that the fast of Tisha b’Av was observed in the Second Temple period – that is, even though the Temple had been rebuilt and was currently standing – and in the classical rabbinic period (in both the Land of Israel and Babylonian Jewish communities); thus it should continued to be observed too today, in all Jewish communities wherever they may be. The status of the other fasts, however, is more ambiguous. Particularly relevant here is a Talmudic text, Rosh haShanah 18b, discussing a verse from Zekhariah (8:19):

For Rav Hanna bar Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Hasida: What is meant by the verse:  “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month [that is, Tevet, presuming that Nisan is counted as the “first” month of the year] and the fast of the fifth month [Av], the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness for the House of Judah.” – It is called “fast” and it is called “joy and gladness” [but how can they be both?] – when there is peace, they shall be days of “joy and gladness,” when there is no peace, they shall be a “fast.”

Said Rav Pappa: The verse is saying: When there is peace, “they shall become occasions for joy and gladness.” When there is persecution, “fast.” If there is neither persecution nor peace – “if they wished, they fast; if they wished, they need not fast.”

The question that rather obviously follows, then, is what sort of era do we live in? In Golinkin’s estimation, ours remains a time of “neither persecution nor peace.” We have a state, but it remains imperiled and under the threat of violence or even war. Thus in answer to his own question, “What should we do?” he writes, “We should fast all day on Tisha B’av, while ruling that the other three fasts are optional… By doing so, we acknowledge the miracles of the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948 and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 by downplaying the three fast days, while indicating that we are still far from peace by fasting on Tisha B’av.”

And does it matter whether we find ourselves in Israel (the community for whom Rabbi Golinkin was writing) or elsewhere? Two years ago, my dear colleague and friend, the Beloved Rector of the American Jewish University (yes, that is the full and correct title!), Rabbi Elliot Dorff, wrote of his own considerations and decision not to fast on the 17th of Tammuz (

My own practice – and I stress that it is only my own – is based on my feeling that these minor fasts obscure the importance of the establishment of the third Jewish commonwealth in Israel in 1948… That is, my Zionism argues that observing these fasts places too much emphasis on the loss of the first and second Jewish commonwealths in the past and recognizes too little the importance of the establishment of the new Jewish commonwealth in Israel.gail

But with all due respect to my friend and teacher (who is indeed due great respect as one of the outstanding scholars of our time and also a true mensch of a human being), I feel less certain of this conclusion, and perhaps especially this year. Like Rabbi Dorff, I consider myself a Zionist and one who cares deeply about the State of Israel, even or especially as I am cognizant also of its struggles and problems and injustices. But I do not live there, and I accept my own responsibility for having made my personal and professional life in the United States instead. Many good things have come of that choice personally; moreover, for a long time this country has been one of the freest and most accepting places for Jews to live outside of having our country (indeed, perhaps even freer and more accepting than Israel if one is a practicing non-Orthodox Jew). And yet in recent years, I am less and less sure that we live, or will continue to live, in a time of no persecution, let alone peace, here in the U.S. As I write, rights to reproductive choice and bodily autonomy once protected by Roe vs. Wade have been stripped from American women, and from Jews whose tradition explicitly not only permits but mandates abortion in certain circumstances. Many of us feel that the wall of separation between Church and State in the U.S. has been seriously breached in recent Supreme Court rulings. White nationalist groups that target racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people are on the rise, and these groups are typically anti-Semitic as well. American Jews are still waiting to learn if – and many strongly suspect that – a community in Highland Park, Illinois, was attacked in yet another American mass-shooting, on the country’s Day of Independence, particularly because of the large Jewish and/or politically liberal population there. I find the feeling growing that I live not just outside of Israel, but in Exile. Perhaps this is davka a moment when my Zionism demands of me to grapple with the paradox of supporting an ideology that Jews should live independently as Jews in the historical Jewish homeland, while failing to do so myself. Perhaps I, perhaps we, need mismatched Torah readings, and extra days of holidays – and this fast – precisely to keep these paradoxes of our lives in the forefront of my (our) mind(s).

An easy fast to all those who choose (and are able) to observe it.