Fast of the Firstborn

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Fast of the firstborn
Turnertenth.jpg
J. M. W. Turner's depiction of the Plague of the Firstborn (The Tenth Plague of Egypt, 1802)
Official name Hebrew: תענית בכורות (Ta'anit B'chorot) or תענית בכורים (Ta'anit B'chorim).
Observed by Judaism and Jews
Type Judaism
Significance This fast commemorates the salvation of the Israelite firstborns during the Plague of the Firstborn
Observances fasting
Begins 14th day of Nisan at dawn (12th day of Nisan whenever Passover begins on Sunday)
Ends 14th day of Nisan (or the 12th day as above)
2013 date March 25
2014 date April 14
Related to Passover

Fast of the Firstborn (Hebrew: תענית בכורות‎, Ta'anit B'khorot[1] or תענית בכורים, Ta'anit B'khorim[2]); is a unique fast day in Judaism which usually falls on the day before Passover (i.e. the fourteenth day of Nisan, a month in the Jewish calendar. Passover always begins on the fifteenth of the Hebrew month). Usually, the fast is broken at a siyum celebration (typically made at the conclusion of the morning services), which, according to prevailing custom, creates an atmosphere of rejoicing that overrides the requirement to continue the fast (see Breaking the fast below). Unlike most Jewish fast days, only firstborns are required to fast on the Fast of the Firstborn.

This fast commemorates the salvation of the Israelite firstborns during the Plague of the Firstborn (according to the Book of Exodus, the tenth of the ten plagues wrought upon Ancient Egypt prior to the Exodus of the Children of Israel), when, according to Exodus (12:29): "...God struck every firstborn in the Land of Mitzrayim (Ancient Egypt)...."[3]

Origins[edit]

The origins of the Fast of the Firstborn are found in the Talmud, and the custom may have existed even prior to Talmudic times. The primary Talmudic source quoted for this custom is found in Tractate Soferim (21:3), where it is stated that firstborns fast "in commemoration of the miracle that they were saved from the Plague of the Firstborn."[4] Rabbeinu Asher, in his comprehensive halakhic commentary on the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 10:19), as well as Rabbeinu Aharon HaKohein in his Orchot Chayyim (p. 76, §13), quote the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 68a) as an additional source for the fast.[5]

The Chatam Sofer suggests that the firstborn Israelites fasted in trepidation in advance of the Plague of the Firstborn; despite a divine guarantee of safety, they felt a need to fast in repentance to achieve greater divine protection. The Chatam Sofer thus posits that this was the precedent for the Fast of the Firstborn.

Meaning of the fast[edit]

In Judaism, there are essentially three potential purposes in fasting, and a combination of some or all of these could apply to any given fast. One purpose in fasting is the achievement of atonement for sins and omissions in Divine service. Fasting is not considered the primary means of acquiring atonement; rather, sincere regret for and rectification of wrongdoing is key (see Isaiah, 58:1-13).

Nevertheless, fasting is conducive to atonement, for it tends to precipitate contrition in the one who fasts (see Joel, 2:12-18). This is why the Bible requires fasting (lit. self affliction) on Yom Kippur (Jewish holiday of atonement) (see Leviticus, 23:27,29,32; Numbers, 29:7; Tractate Yoma, 8:1; ibid. Babylonian Talmud, 81a). Because, according to the Hebrew Bible, hardship and calamitous circumstances can occur as a result of wrongdoing (see, for example, Leviticus, 26:14-41), fasting is often undertaken by the community or by individuals to achieve atonement and avert catastrophe (see, for example, Esther, 4:3,16; Jonah, 3:7). Most of the Talmud's Tractate Ta'anit ("Fast[s]") is dedicated to the protocol involved in declaring and observing fast days.

The second purpose in fasting is commemorative mourning. Indeed, most communal fast days that are set permanently in the Jewish calendar fulfill this purpose. These fasts include: Tisha B'Av, the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the Tenth of Tevet (all of the three dedicated to mourning the loss of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem), and the Fast of Gedalia. The purpose of a fast of mourning is the demonstration that those fasting are impacted by and distraught over earlier loss. This serves to heighten appreciation of that which was lost. This is in line with Isaiah (66:10), who indicates that mourning over a loss leads to increased happiness upon return of the loss:

Be glad with Jerusalem, and exult in her, all those who love her; rejoice with her in celebration, all those [who were] mourners over her.

The third purpose in fasting is commemorative gratitude. Since food and drink are corporeal needs, abstinence from them serves to provide a unique opportunity for focus on the spiritual. Indeed, the Midrash explains that fasting can potentially elevate one to the exalted level of the ministering angels (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, 46). This dedication is considered appropriate gratitude to God for providing salvation. Additionally, by refraining from such basic physical indulgence, one can more greatly appreciate the dependence of humanity on God, leading to appreciation of God's beneficence in sustaining His creations. Indeed, Jewish philosophy considers this appreciation one of the fundamental reasons for which God endowed mankind with such basic physical needs as food and drink. This is seen from the text of the blessing customarily recited after consuming snacks or drinks:

You are the Source of all blessing, O' Eternal One, our God, King of the universe, Creator of many souls, who gave [those souls] needs for all that which You created, to give life through them to every living soul. Blessed is the Eternal Life-giver.[6]

Fasting on the Fast of the Firstborn incorporates the first purpose (as do all fasts) and the third, as detailed in the introduction to this article. Additionally, according to Rabbi Jacob Emden, the Fast of the Firstborn, like the Fast of Esther (which occurs approximately a month prior), commemorates the salvation of the Jews from the plot of Haman. This is because Haman advanced his plot on the thirteenth of Nisan (Esther, 3:12), and Queen Esther reacted by instructing all Jews of Shushan to undertake a three-day fast beginning on the following day (the fourteenth of Nisan) (ibid, 4:16). For this reason, even some non-firstborns maintain the custom to fast on the fourteenth of Nisan.

Additionally, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Sh'lomo 3:179-180) suggests that the Fast of the Firstborn incorporates the second purpose mentioned above; firstborns fast to mourn the loss of their priestly status (see Numbers, 3:40-51) which had initially been granted them on the fourteenth of Nisan (ibid., 3:14). Furthermore, during the Temple period, this loss was most profoundly felt on the fourteenth of Nisan, which was the busiest day of the year for the Temple priests and Levites (see Pesachim 58a).

Qualifications for fasting[edit]

There is disagreement among the early halakhic authorities (authoritative scholars of Jewish law) as to who qualifies as a firstborn (Bechor) for purposes of the Fast of the Firstborn. All authorities agree, however, to the conditions of halakhic adulthood (generally speaking, this is 12 years for a female and 13 years for a male) and sanity, preconditions for all positive mitzvot, to obligate one to fast. (Other rare conditions, such as deaf-muteness, also exempt one from positive mitzvot).

According to the Bayit Chadash, the Sefer Agudah, and arguably the Maharil, both men and women are obligated to fast. This is based upon the Midrash, which states that both men and women among the firstborn Egyptians perished in the plague (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, 7; Exodus Rabbah, 18:3). Following a precedent common in Jewish commemorative rituals, the above authorities ruled that all those who were miraculously saved should participate in commemoration (see also Pesachim 108b). Since both men and women died from the plague, all firstborn Jewish men and women alive at that time are considered to have been miraculously saved. The Rema and the Vilna Gaon rule that women are exempt from the fast. As the Book of Exodus (13:12-15) mentions the biblical commandment of Redemption of the Firstborn as commemorative of the salvation of Jewish firstborns in Egypt, and as this command only applies to firstborn males, the Rema and the Vilna Gaon rule similarly that only males are obligated to fast. Common practice is that only males fast.

While a firstborn to both parents, or a firstborn to only the mother, must fast according to all authorities, there is a dispute among the early halakhic authorities regarding the status of a firstborn to only the father. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 470:1) codifies that a firstborn to only the father is obligated to fast, while most printings of the Arba'ah Turim (ibid.) indicate that such a person would be exempt. Common practice follows the Shulchan Aruch.

Typically, if the oldest in the family died, the next oldest is not required to fast. However, if the oldest child had died within 30 days of birth, the next oldest is required to fast. (The Dagul Mervavah maintains that this only applies if the oldest child had been born prematurely or was not born viable).

Many authorities, including the Rema, note the custom that the father of a firstborn should fast on his child's behalf until the child reaches halakhic adulthood. The Rema rules that if the father is a firstborn himself, the mother should fast on behalf of the child. The Mateh Moshe and Maharil dispute this and rule in such a scenario that the mother need not fast. The Magen Avraham rules that it is appropriate to follow the lenient opinion if fasting causes the mother excessive discomfort or if she is pregnant or nursing, but he adds that a mother who begins following the former opinion must maintain that custom and fast in subsequent years.

The Sh'vut Ya'akov (1:17) rules that the above-cited custom of the father fasting for the child goes into effect as soon as the child is born, except where the child is born after chatzot ha'laila (halakhic midnight, which generally corresponds to solar midnight) on the 14th of Nisan of that year. (Since the child had not yet been born by the equivalent time that the Plague of the Firstborn had occurred in Egypt, the father need not fast for his child until the following year) The Korban N'tan'el (Pesachim 10:19:80) disagrees. He writes that the custom only goes into effect from the time the child is 30 days old. This relates, again, to the command to redeem the firstborn, which does not go into effect until the child is 30 days old.

There is some discussion among the poskim (halakhic authorities) regarding whether a firstborn born through caesarean section is required to observe this fast, given that he is not obligated in the Redemption of the Firstborn. The Chok Ya'akov (470:2) suggests that such a firstborn may be required to fast, while the Kaf HaChayyim (470:3) rules that he need not fast. To circumvent this question, as well as dispute regarding a firstborn non-Jew who converts to Judaism, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (cited in HaSeder Ha'aruch, Vol. 3, p. 44) suggests that such firstborns participate in a seudat mitzvah (see here and here below).

Duration of the fast[edit]

As with most Jewish fast days, the fast begins at dawn. The common practice is that it is subsequently broken in the morning at a seudat mitzvah (celebratory meal) following a siyum. If the fast is not broken at a seudat mitzvah, there is a dispute among halakhic authorities regarding the duration of the fast. Normally, all Jewish fasts continue until nightfall (most authorities rule that this is approximately 40 minutes after sunset, but varies by location and time of year). However, the presence of a fast immediately before a holiday presents a unique quandary. Normally, one may not enter a Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath) or Yom Tov (Festival) in a state of fasting. The Talmud (Eruvin 41a) discusses what one should do when a formal fast day (other than Yom Kippur) falls directly before Shabbat or Yom Tov. The sages of the Talmud are divided over two options: Either one should break the fast shortly before sundown, or one should fast through nightfall, regardless. Since the Talmud arrives at no clear conclusion, disagreement arose among halakhic authorities. The Maharil rules that the fast continues until nightfall, while others rule that it should be broken before sundown.

Breaking the fast[edit]

The Mishnah Berurah quotes three opinions regarding circumstances in which the fast may be broken. According to the first, a healthy individual must fast if he can sustain the fast without undue suffering and without any subsequent weakening that would affect his ability or inclination to heartily partake of his Passover Seder meal (and specifically the matzah). (If one is obligated to partake of a festive meal that day, such as if he is the father of an infant on the day of circumcision, this opinion requires him to undertake a reciprocal fast at the soonest opportunity.) According to the second custom (quoted by the Magen Avraham in the name of the Maharash Levi), the fast may be broken at any festive meal celebrating a circumcision or (interestingly) a redemption of the firstborn. According to the third custom, based upon the Maharshal (Yam Shel Sh'lomo, Bava Kamma 7:37), the fast may even be broken at a seudat mitzvah for a siyum celebrating the completion of study of a tractate of Talmud. The latter custom is commonly observed.

If a firstborn attending a siyum does not hear the completion of the tractate, or if he does not understand what he hears, or if he is in the shiva period of mourning and is thus forbidden from listening to the Torah material being taught, some authorities rule that subsequent eating would not qualify as a seudat mitzvah and he would therefore be forbidden to break his fast (Ben Ish Chai 1:96:25; Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Elyashiv, Siddur Pesach K'hilchaso, p. 168; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Chazon Ovadiah, p. 99). Other authorities allow a firstborn to break his fast under such circumstances (Minchas Yitzchak 9:45; Teshuvos V'hanhagos 1:300, 2:210 in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky). The Minchas Yitzchak (ibid.) suggests that a firstborn in such a position should at least try to contribute to the siyum in some way, such as by sponsoring or helping to prepare the meal.

In order to break one's fast on a seudat mitzvah, many authorities rule that one must partake of at least a kotevet of food (around 1.5 to 2 oz.) or a melo lugmav of liquid (at least around 1.7 oz.) at the seudah (Minchas Yitzchak, ibid.; Chazon Ovadiah, ibid.; Teshuvos V'hanhagos, ibid.). Other authorities rule that a firstborn need not eat anything at the siyum itself, and that he may break his fast anytime after the siyum (Siddur Pesach K'hilchaso, ibid; Rabbi Yehoshua Menachem Mendel Ehrenberg, Devar Yehoshua 2:81).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (OC 1:157), based on the N'mukei Yosef (Bava Batra 53b), the Ran (ibid. 121b), the Rashbam (ibid), and the Eliyah Rabba, extends the possibility of breaking the fast to include even breaking it at a festive meal celebrating the completion of any mitzvah (commandment) that had required regular, continual involvement. According to these authorities, such a meal would be considered a seudat mitzvah of adequate caliber to exempt one from continuing the fast.

Additionally, the Mordechai (Pesachim 107) quotes the ruling of his father-in-law Rabbeinu Yechiel that firstborns need not fast at all on the day before Passover; firstborns need only limit their diet to snacks. (The Bigdei Yesha commentary suggests the rationale behind this ruling was to avoid holding a fast during the month of Nisan, which is generally prohibited.) The Mishnah Berurah states that it is appropriate for a weak individual to follow this ruling.

When Passover begins after Shabbat[edit]

If the day before Passover falls on Shabbat, most authorities rule that the fast is set for the previous Thursday, and this has become common practice.[7] This is because it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat (except for where Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat), and fasts are preferably not set for Friday.[8] In such a scenario, the ritual of Bedikas Chametz (the formal search for forbidden leaven that is conducted before Passover) is set for Thursday night. Normally, it is forbidden to eat (starting from nightfall) before conducting the Bedikas Chametz. However, for a firstborn who is fatigued or uncomfortable from the fast, the Mateh Moshe and Maharil rule that some food may be eaten before the search or that another person may be appointed to perform the search on behalf of the firstborn.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (OC 4:69:4) writes, based on the Rema (who is supported by a similar ruling of the P'ri M'gadim), that one who breaks the adjusted Thursday fast might be required to fast on Friday. Since there are many opinions that dispute the Rema (such as the Shulchan Aruch, Turei Zahav, Eliyah Rabba, Chayei Adam, Sh'vut Ya'akov, Mor U-K'tzi'a), Rabbi Feinstein writes that, practically speaking, one should not fast on Friday in such circumstances. This rationale may be based on the above cited Korban N'tan'el, who writes that excessive strictures regarding keeping the Fast of the Firstborn should not come at the expense of possibly fasting unnecessarily during the month of Nisan.

The above halakhic quandary is avoided completely if a firstborn fasts the entire day on Thursday. However, Rabbi Feinstein makes no mention of this requirement. In order for a firstborn (who eats on Thursday) to comply with the ruling of the Rema, the Piskei T'shuvot suggests participating in a second siyum on Friday, while Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank suggests partaking on Friday of leftovers from the previous day's siyum.[9]

Status of the fast[edit]

In halakha, there are two general types of fast: the communal fast and the individuals' fast. Among other differences between the two, a special prayer is added by the Chazzan (leader of the prayers) on communal fasts whenever both ten fasting individuals congregate and the Chazzan is fasting. While the Magen Avraham treats the fast as an individuals' fast, the Shiyurei K'nesset Ha-G'dolah, the P'ri Chadash, and the Or Zaru'a view it as a communal fast. To avoid the practical implications of the controversy, the Mishnah Berurah suggests that a firstborn should not serve as Chazzan on the day of the fast.

Additionally, this fast differs from most other fasts established in the Jewish calendar in that this fast is not indicated in the Hebrew Scriptures. This lessens the severity of the fast, and someone who experiences significant discomfort as a result of fasting may break his fast (Mishnah Berurah based on the Rema).

Modern practice[edit]

The custom of the Fast of the Firstborn is today observed nearly universally throughout Orthodox Ashkenazic communities. However some Sefardic and Mizrahi communities have not fully adopted the custom. It is not traditionally observed by Yemenite Jews[10] and its practice was discouraged by the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Haifa, R. Yosef Messas.[11]

Amongst Conservative Jews, the custom is endorsed by various communities and cited positively in their responsa.[12]

See also[edit]

Recommended reading[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ This variant of the term is used where the suffix im is replaced by ot or os, as in Ta'anis Bechoros. In a grammatical peculiarity, both the Tanakh and the Talmud use this generally female suffix to modify a male or gender neutral object
  2. ^ This variant of the term is often alternatively transliterated as Ta'anit Bechorim, Taanit Bechorim, Ta'anis B'chorim, Ta'anis Bechorim, or Taanis Bechorim
  3. ^ See also Exodus 12:13, ibid. 12:23, ibid. 12:27, ibid. 13:15
  4. ^ Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Zidichov emended the passage from Tractate Soferim from "habechorot mit’anin b’erev pesach" (“the firstborn fast on Erev Pesach”), but "habechorot mit’an’gin b’erev pesach" (“the firstborn indulge on Erev Pesach”)(Zimmels, HJ. Ashkenazim and Sephardim). This is presumably a homiletic treatment. An actual emendation is not likely given the context of the passage, nor is an emendation widely accepted halakhically.
  5. ^ The passage from the Jerusalem Talmud alluding to the Fast of the Firstborn reads "Rabbi would eat neither leaven nor matzah [on the day before Passover].... Rather, it is because he was a firstborn. Rabbi Muna countered: Rabbi Yonah was a firstborn, yet he would eat! Rabbi Tanchuma said: [Rabbi would avoid eating] for none of the reasons mentioned above. [Rabbi avoided eating because] he had a sensitive constitution [and needed to avoid eating in order to maintain his appetite for the upcoming Passover Seder]." As the conclusion of the passage appears to indicate that firstborns need not fast, the S'deh Yehoshua and the Korban Ha'edah question the position of Rabbeinu Asher and others who cite the Jerusalem Talmud as a source for the fast. The Chida (Birkei Yosef, OC 470:1) posits that the rejected suggestion of the Talmud (that Rabbi fasted because he was a firstborn) proves that the custom of firstborns to fast was widespread enough to provoke the original assumption that it was Rabbi's custom. This, writes the Chida, was the reason for Rabbeinu Asher's citation of the Jerusalem Talmud
  6. ^ Minor variations exist in both the text of this blessing and its potential translations
  7. ^ This differs from the ruling of Rabbi Joseph Karo's father, Rabbi Ephraim Karo, who maintains that the fast is canceled entirely when the day before Passover is Shabbat. This ruling of Rabbi Ephraim Karo's accords with the Sefer Ha'agur (§771), who supports his position with a deduction from the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 68b) - a deduction challenged by the Terumat HaDeshen (§126)
  8. ^ The Maggid Mishneh (Hil. Ta'aniyot 5:5) explains the reason for this based upon the above cited passage from Eruvin; it is best to avoid holding a fast immediately before Shabbat so as not to dishonor the Shabbat by entering it in a state of fasting (see also Midrash Tanchuma, end of §2). This explanation is widely accepted. Nevertheless, the Maharam Provençal (Responsum §71) disagrees and suggests that fast days are generally not pushed to Friday so that extra selichot (fast day supplications) do not interfere with Shabbat preparations. Since there are no selichot for the Fast of the Firstborn, the Maharam Provençal rules, based on the Meiri, that the fast is pushed to the previous Friday rather than to the previous Thursday. This latter ruling is generally not accepted among poskim
  9. ^ See here and here for more discussion on the adjusted fast and its ramifications
  10. ^ The Fast of the Firstborn on the Eve of Pesah: An Exposition on the Custom of the Jews of Yemen. Rason Arusi, p. 1
  11. ^ Mayim Haim, Orah Haim, Siman 109.
  12. ^ Responsa Concerning Pesah Eve - R. David Golinkin, Vol. 5, section 9

External links[edit]