|Fast of the Firstborn
|Hebrew: תַעֲנִית בְּכוֹרוֹת (Ta'anit B'chorot) or תַעֲנִית בְּכוֹרים (Ta'anit B'chorim). Translation: "Fast of the firstborn"
|Judaism and Jews
|This fast commemorates the salvation of the Israelite firstborns during the Plague of the Firstborn
|14th day of Nisan at dawn (12th day of Nisan whenever Passover begins on Sunday)
|14th day of Nisan (or the 12th day as above)
Fast of the Firstborn (Hebrew: תענית בכורות, Ta'anit B'khorot or תענית בכורים, Ta'anit B'khorim) 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 begins on the fifteenth of Nisan). In modern times, the fast is usually 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 all other Jewish fast days, only firstborn children 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)...."
The primary source quoted for this custom is 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". Asher ben Jehiel and Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen quotes the Jerusalem Talmud as an additional source for the fast, though the same passage can also be understood to mean that firstborns do not fast.
The Shulchan Aruch records the custom of fasting. However, Moses Isserles records that some people instead "redeem" the fast. Later commentaries suggest that this redemption could be done by holding a siyum or by giving charity. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin suggests that since the custom is absent from the Babylonian Talmud, it is not universally binding but rather depends on current practice, allowing the current practice of replacing the fast with a siyum or charity (Henkin preferred charity).
Meaning of the fast
Fasts in Judaism can have a number of purposes, including atonement for sins; commemorative mourning, and commemorative gratitude (see Ta'anit).
The Fast of the Firstborn incorporates commemorative gratitude for salvation from the Plague of the Firstborn, as detailed above.
According to Rabbi Jacob Emden, the Fast of the Firstborn also commemorates the salvation of the Jews from the plot of Haman. This is because Haman advanced his plot on the thirteenth of Nisan, and Esther reacted by instructing all Jews of Susa to undertake a three-day fast beginning the next day, the fourteenth of Nisan. For this reason, even some non-firstborns maintain the custom of fasting on the fourteenth of Nisan.
According to Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the Fast of the Firstborn also includes an aspect of mourning: firstborns fast to mourn the loss of their priestly status which had initially been granted them on the fourteenth of Nisan. 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 kohenim and Levites.
Yehuda Grünwald, the rabbi of Satu Mare and student of Avraham Shmuel Binyamin 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. Grunwald thus posits that this was the precedent for the Fast of the Firstborn.
Qualifications for fasting
There is disagreement among the early halakhic authorities (authoritative scholars of Jewish law) as to who qualifies as a firstborn 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 Joel Sirkis, Alexander Suslin, and arguably Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, 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. 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 Pesahim 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. Moses Isserles 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, Isserlies 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 codifies that a firstborn to only the father is obligated to fast, while most printings of the Arba'ah Turim 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. Yechezkel Landau maintains that this only applies if the oldest child had been born prematurely or was not born viable.
Many authorities, including Isserlies, 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 Yaakov ben Moshe dispute this and rule in such a scenario that the mother need not fast. Avraham Gombiner ruled 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.
Jacob ben Joseph Reischer ruled 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) Nathaniel Weil disagreed. He wrote 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 posqim (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. Jacob Reischer (470:2) suggests that such a firstborn may be required to fast, while Yaakov Chaim Sofer (470:3) rules that he need not fast. To circumvent this question, as well as a dispute regarding a firstborn proselyte, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv suggests that such firstborns participate in a seudat mitzvah.
Duration of the fast
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 somewhere between 20-40 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
In modern times, however, this fast is rarely observed, as most firstborns opt to attend a siyum (festive meal celebrating the completion of a tractate of the Talmud) instead. This is considered a legitimate form of "breaking" the fast, and therefore the firstborn may eat during the rest of the day.
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 a redemption of the firstborn. According to the third custom, based upon the Maharshal, 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. Other authorities allow a firstborn to break his fast under such circumstances. 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. 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.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein extends the possibility of breaking the fast to include even breaking it at a festive meal celebrating the completion of any mitzvah that 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 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.
Nevertheless, there are communities, including many North African communities and the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, where the firstborns do fast.
When Passover begins after Shabbat
If the eve of Passover is on Shabbat, many authorities rule that the fast is not observed at all, which is common practice in Sephardic communities. Others fast on the previous Thursday, which is common practice in Ashkenazi communities. This is because it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat except when Yom Kippur falls on it, and fasts are preferably not set for Friday.
In such a scenario, the ritual of Bedikat 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 Bedikat Chametz. However, for a firstborn who is fatigued or uncomfortable from the fast, the Mateh Moshe and Yaakov Moelin 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.
Moshe Feinstein (OC 4:69:4) raises the possibility, based on Isserlies that one who breaks the adjusted Thursday fast might be required to fast on Friday, as perhaps the fast is considered to have been moved to whichever earlier day is more appropriate, and not to Thursday specifically. Since many opinions dispute Isserlies, Feinstein wrote that practically speaking, one should not fast on Friday in such circumstances. This rationale may be based on Nathaniel Weil, who wrote 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. For a firstborn who eats on Thursday to comply with the ruling of Issserlies, the Piskei T'shuvot suggests participating in a second siyum on Friday, while Tzvi Pesach Frank suggests partaking on Friday of leftovers from the previous day's siyum.
Status of the fast
In halakha, there are two general types of fast: the communal fast and the individual fast. Among other differences between the two, a special prayer is added by the hazzan or prayer leader on communal fasts whenever both ten fasting individuals congregate and the hazzan is fasting. While Avraham Gombiner treats the fast as an individual's fast, the Chaim Benveniste, Hezekiah da Silva, and Isaac ben Moses of Vienna 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 many other fasts established in the Jewish calendar in that this fast is not indicated in the Tanakh. 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 Isserlies).
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 and its practice was discouraged by Moroccan-Israeli rabbi Joseph Messas.
Amongst Conservative Jews, the custom is endorsed by various communities and cited positively in their responsa.
Jacob Petuchowski at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, taught that Tsom B'chorot was the clearest example of a fast with a moral, social action message. Concern for life, even the lives of enemies and oppressors, is the reason for the fast.
Notes and references
- 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
- 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
- See also Exodus 12:13, ibid. 12:23, ibid. 12:27, ibid. 13:15
- 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.
- Asher ben Jehiel, commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 10:19
- Orchot Chayyim, p. 76, §13
- Pesachim 10:1 (68a in Vilna edition)
- 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
- Eliezer ben Joel HaLevi, 525
- Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 470:1
- Darchei Moshe, Orach Chaim 470
- Gevurot Eliyahu, Orach Chaim 143
- Esther 3:12
- Esther 4:16 according to Rashi on 4:17; according to Esther Rabbah 8:7, the fast began on the 13th but included the 14th.
- Halichot Shlomo 3:179–180
- See Numbers 3:40–51
- Numbers 3:14
- See Pesachim 58a
- Zichron Yehuda, vol. 1. §133
- Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, 7; Exodus Rabbah, 18:3
- Orach Chaim 470:1
- Tur, Orach Chaim 470:1
- Pesachim 10:19:80
- cited in HaSeder Ha'aruch, vol. 3, p. 44
- Mishnah Berurah 470:10.
- Yam Shel Sh'lomo, Bava Kamma 7:37
- Ben Ish Chai 1:96:25; Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Elyashiv, Siddur Pesach K'hilchaso, p. 168; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Chazon Ovadiah, p. 99
- Minchas Yitzchak 9:45; Teshuvos V'hanhagos 1:300, 2:210 in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky
- Minchas Yitzchak, ibid.; Chazon Ovadiah, ibid.; Teshuvos V'hanhagos, ibid.
- Siddur Pesach K'hilchaso, ibid; Rabbi Yehoshua Menachem Mendel Ehrenberg, Devar Yehoshua 2:81
- OC 1:157, based on the N'mukei Yosef (Bava Batra 53b), the Ran (ibid. 121b), the Rashbam (ibid), and the Eliyah Rabba
- Pesachim 107
- Shulchan Aruch OC 470:2.
- 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
- Rema, Orach Chaim 686:2 (regarding a year when Taanit Esther was observed on Thursday instead of Shabbat, but a person celebrated a circumcision on this Thursday); this is supported by a similar ruling of the P'ri M'gadim
- such as the Shulchan Aruch, Turei Zahav, Eliyah Rabba, Chayei Adam, Sh'vut Ya'akov, Mor U-K'tzi'a
- See here and here for more discussion on the adjusted fast and its ramifications
- "The Fast of the Firstborn on the Eve of Pesah: An Exposition on the Custom of the Jews of Yemen. Rason Arusi, p. 1" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-04-01.
- Mayim Haim, Orah Haim, Siman 109
- Responsa Concerning Pesah Eve – R. David Golinkin, Vol. 5, section 9
- The Book of Our Heritage Eliyahu Kitov, Feldheim Inc., 1968 (hardcover: ISBN 0-87306-763-0; paperback: ISBN 0-87306-764-9)
- The Festivals in Halacha Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Mesorah Publications, 1981 (ISBN 0-89906-908-8)
- Halachas of Tanit Bechorim
- Laws and customs of the Fast of the Firstborn
- Audio lecture on Fast of the Firstborn by Rabbi Michael Taubes
- Elaboration on the meaning and laws of the fast by Rabbi Daniel Travis
- Firstborn caesarian section births, firstborn converts, and the required degree of participation in a siyum
- Fast of the Firstborn when Erev Pesach falls on Shabbat
- Women and the Fast of the Firstborn Archived 2008-05-12 at the Wayback Machine
- Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple on Fast of the First-Born
- My Jewish Learning article on the Fast of the Firstborn
- Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Peninei Halakha Laws Of Pesach, Pages 217–223, Ta’anit Bekhorot – the Fast of the Firstborns, Who Is Included in the Custom to Fast?, The Custom to Rely on a Siyum Masekhet