The seventeenth of Tammuz falls this year a mere week after the summer solstice, making for a very long fast. It will thus come as a relief that the Talmud states that in certain situations, the “minor” fast days (the 17th of Tammuz, Tzom Gedaliah, and the 10th of Tevet) are optional.
- But can we actually choose not to fast nowadays?
The source for these fasts is the Tanach itself. After the destruction of the first Temple, the exiled Jewish community began to observe certain mourning practices during the month of Av each year. But the Jews were unsure if these practices should continue upon restoration of the Beit HaMikdash (Zechariah 7:1-3). To clarify this doubt, Zechariah receives the following prophecy: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth [month], and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons; therefore love truth and peace” (8:19).
In other words, God himself ruled that the building of the second Temple was grounds to cease observing the four fast days commemorating the destruction. These four days were none other than the fasts we know today: the “fast of the fourth [month]” is the seventeenth of Tammuz (which is the fourth month counting from Nisan), the fast of the fifth month (Av) is Tisha B’Av, the fast of the seventh (Tishri) is Tzom Gedaliah, and the fast of the tenth (Tevet) is the tenth of Tevet (Tosefta, Sotah 6:10; also quoted in the Yerushalmi, Taaniyot 4:5; Bavli, Rosh Hashana 18b; Sifri, Va’etchanan 31).
Now that the Beit HaMikdash is again destroyed, it would seem that all these days revert to being obligatory fasts. The Mishnah, however, seems to contradict such an assumption (Rosh Hashanah 1:3). The Mishnah records that when the Sanhedrin still declared the date of Rosh Chodesh by observation of the moon, the court would send messengers to inform the various Jewish communities of the correct date of the new month. However, they would only go through the trouble of sending messengers if a religiously significant day occurs during that month: Nisan (for Pesach [and consequently Shavuot]), Av (for Tisha B’Av), Elul (for Rosh Hashanah), Tishri (for Yom Kippur and Sukkot), Kislev (for Chanukah), and Adar (for Purim).
The Gemara (18b) points out that by omitting Tammuz and Tevet from the list of months announced by messengers, the Mishnah implies that knowing the correct date for these months is not absolutely essential. This is surprising, considering that both months contain fast days. The Gemara explains that messengers did not announce Tammuz and Tevet because the halachic status of the fasts vacillates. In a time of “shalom” (peace), Zechariah’s instruction to turn the fast days into joyful holidays kicks in. In a time of “shmad” (persecution), the fasts revert to being fully obligatory. When the situation of the Jewish people is intermediate – neither at peace nor subject to persecution – observing these fasts is optional.
The Gemara then wonders why messengers went out to announce the correct day of Av. After all, Tisha B’Av is included in the prophet’s list of the four fasts; as such, it should become optional as well when there is neither shalom nor shmad, and thus undeserving of messengers. The Gemara answers that since numerous tragedies occurred on Tisha B’Av, its observance is obligatory even when Jews are not being actively persecuted.
What, then, is the status of the three “minor” fasts today? Rashi (s.v. sheyesh shalom) defines “peace” as “the nations do not control the Jewish people.” Since we have our own state today, perhaps we are considered to be in shalom. This is, however, a bit farfetched, since the State of Israel is very religiously lacking and has not yet succeeded in building the Beit HaMikdash. Indeed, many Rishonim explicitly define shalom as meaning that the Temple is in existence. and even Rashi implies in his previous comment that this is a criterion of shalom. As such, it is clear that our situation today is not one of “peace,” and we may not turn the fast days into festivals.
As for shmad, although there is much antisemitism in the world, one would, thank God, be hard-pressed to think of a Jewish community nowadays that is prevented from observing Judaism or that lives under immediate threat of physical danger. It thus appears that the Jewish people today are living in a state of “neither peace nor persecution,” and the three fasts are therefore optional.
But do we truly have the power to dispense with the three fasts nowadays? According to some authorities, the answer seems to be yes; at a time when the fasts are optional, each person may choose whether to fast or not (Rambam, commentary to Mishnah Rosh Hashana 1:3; see also Rashba, Rosh Hashana 18b). Others, however, rule that it must be a communal decision or one made by a rabbinical court (Tosafot HaRosh and Ritva, ad loc.). Yet others state that it must be a national consensus of the entire Jewish people (Tur, Orach Chayim 550).
Regardless of how we analyze the optional nature of the fasts, the actual practice of the Jewish people since the earliest post-Talmudic times has universally been to observe them, even in the absence of persecution (see Shibbolei Haleket 278; Tosafot, Megillah 5b s.v. ve’rachatz; Ritva, Rosh Hashana 18b). The Geonim write that since the situation of the Jewish people is precarious and shmad could return at any time, it is proper to fast even if not technically required (Geonic Responsa, Shaarei Teshuvah, 77). It appears that no one entertains, in practice, the possibility of declining to fast (although the Rashba [Rosh Hashana 18b] maintains that this must be a viable option. Rabbeinu Tam also used the fasts’ optional nature as a consideration for leniency in certain situations, see Or Zarua 109).
According to the Ramban, however, the fact that these fasts are theoretically optional in a persecution-less time does have some practical significance. The Ramban writes that when there is shmad and the fasts are truly obligatory, they attain the full status of public fast days and, like Tisha B’Av, begin at nighttime; washing, anointing, wearing shoes, and marital relations are also prohibited (Torat Ha’Adam, Aveilut Yeshanah). After all, the prophet mentions all four fasts in one breath; it stands to reason their rules are similar (see also Bei’ur HaGra, Orach Chayim 550:2).
The Ramban records that the custom in his day, like today, was to begin the three fasts at dawn and to forbid eating and drinking only. The Ramban notes that this lenient approach makes sense at a time when the three fasts are optional – since, in theory, fasting is a matter of choice, the Jewish people could choose to observe the fasts only partially. However, the Ramban actually considered his time to be one of shmad, since persecution was re-encroaching upon the Jewish people. Although the Ramban concludes by deferring to the minhag, it seems that he really held that the fasts were obligatory in his time and should be observed with the stringencies of Tisha B’Av.
The Rashbetz, however, disagrees with the Ramban’s stringent approach (Responsa Tashbetz 2:271). The Rashbetz notes that the Ramban held that if any known part of the Jewish people is subject to shmad, then the fasts become fully obligatory for all Jews. In the Rashbetz’s own view, it is more reasonable to assume that fasting is only truly required for those Jews who are actually experiencing persecution. To trigger a requirement for all Jews to fast, it would have to be that the Jewish people as a whole were experiencing shmad, which certainly did not exists in the Ramban’s day. As such, the three fasts remained technically optional for the vast majority of Jews and they did not have to treat them with the severity of Tisha B’Av.
Other authorities, however, completely deny that the three fasts must ever be observed in the manner of Tisha B’Av. The Rambam, for example, states clearly that the three fasts begin at dawn despite the fact that he never mentions their optional nature (Hilchot Taaniyot 5:5). The Netziv, through creative exegesis, also argues that the three fasts never follow the rules of Tisha B’Av, even in a time of shmad (Ha’amek Sh’eilah 158).
In fact, the Talmud itself alludes to the idea that the three fasts are treated leniently, stating that Tisha B’Av is the only full public fast day observed in Babylonia (where they did not declare fasts due to lack of rain) (Pesachim 54b). Another passage states that R. Yehuda HaNasi bathed on the seventeenth of Tammuz (Megillah 5a). These passages, however, refer to times without shmad (a full discussion is beyond our purview).
Although the common practice has always been to treat the three fasts leniently in all cases, the Shelah, followed by other Acharonim, recommends that a pious individual begin all four fasts at nighttime and refrain from washing, anointing, and marital relations (Eliyah Rabba 550:2, Mishnah Berurah 550:6). However, even these poskim limit the scope of the stringency: They permit wearing shoes so as not to appear ridiculous (assuming non-leather shoes are unavailable), and they permit marital relations on mikvah night. Some suggest that when a fast (other than Tisha B’Av) falls on Sunday, one should certainly not adopt the stringency to begin fasting at night so as not to neglect the mitzvah of melaveh malkah (see Yerushalayim beMoadeha, Bein haMetzarim p. 173).
In any event, it seems that nowadays there is no room at all to treat the “minor” fasts like Tisha B’Av. In past generations, the climate was closer to shmad; even if it was not shmad per se, it made sense on some level to accommodate the opinion of the Ramban. Although the situation of the Jewish people is far from perfect today, the fact remains that there is really no shmad to speak of, and there is even a Jewish country in the land of Israel. There is thus no doubt whatsoever that the three fasts are theoretically optional and no one would assign to them the stringencies of Tisha B’Av.
In conclusion: From time immemorial, universal Jewish practice has been to fast on all the “minor” fast days even in the absence of shmad. Thus, we must continue to observe these fasts today despite the relative tranquility of the Jewish people. In fact, one could argue that these fasts are especially essential nowadays, as we are in need of opportunities to encourage our longing for the Temple and Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel in its full religious glory.
 Taanit Esther is a post-Talmudic custom (according to almost all authorities) with no kinship to the four other fast days. Yom Kippur, a Torah commandment, is obviously not included in this discussion at all.
 Originally, they may have fasted on the ninth of Tammuz, which is when the walls of Jerusalem were breached during the first destruction (according to the simple reading of the biblical verses).
 This statement is difficult since the Mishnah elsewhere states that the same number of tragedies (five) occurred on both Tisha B’Av and the seventeenth of Tammuz (Taanit 4:6). Although the tragedies that occurred on Tisha B’Av were more severe, the Gemara does not say this and simply focuses on the number. Commentators offer various answers to this question.
 It is not clear whether this means that the rabbis formally ordained the observance of Tisha B’Av, or that the Jewish people accepted never to opt out of it (R. Chananel). The fact that the Mishnah lays out the halachot of Tisha B’Av and the surrounding time in detail – clearly giving it a special status – would seem to support the former assumption.
 Many authorities record a separate custom not to bathe for pleasure on fast days (see Raaviyah 854; Bach, Orach Chayim 550). This custom does not apply at all to the routine showers that are taken today for hygienic purposes. When a fast day falls on Friday (i.e. the tenth of Tevet), one may bathe as usual, even in a pleasurable manner, in honor of Shabbat (Eliyah Rabba 550:2).