Fast days…


Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

At sundown tonight, we broke our fast.  The fast was in observance of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month called Av, which “commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel.” (from Wikipedia).  Traditionally, all the other incidents of Jewish persecution – the Crusades, the Pogroms, the Holocaust – are included in this day of remembrance.

Most folks, both Jews and non-Jews, are aware of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is observed every year with a complete fast – no food, no water.  The Yom Kippur fast lasts for approximately 25 hours, starting before sundown on the evening of the Hebrew date, and ending after sunset the following day.  Yom Kippur is also a day of no work, and most of the day is spent in prayer with one’s community, so there is a degree of focus and distraction from the physicality of fasting.

Tisha B’Av is different.

Although avoidance of work is ideal, work is not prohibited, so most people I know do work on this day.  I had clinic today, and rounds to make in the hospital, and I hadn’t requested the day off, so, going in today, I knew was going to be a bit of a challenge.  On a very basic level, not drinking water for 25 hours in the middle of a DC summer is more difficult than doing the same in the fall, when Yom Kippur typically occurs.

We all went to services last night as a family.  The evening service that marks the commencement of Tisha B’Av is a beautiful and dramatic ritual.  The entire Book of Lamentations is chanted by candle-light, using a uniquely mournful melody.  Everyone who is able to sits on the floor.  We hadn’t planned on the boys coming to this service, which is not particularly kid-friendly, but they wanted to come, so we all went.

J fell asleep in my lap during the chanting of Lamentations, and S was up.  We got home, and everyone went to sleep.  This morning, when we rose, S announced that he intended to fast.  We weren’t sure what to make of it.  Children younger than Bar Mitzvah age (13 years old) are not required to fast.  He had announced a similar intention last Yom Kippur, and made it as far as about 10am, so we figured it might go the same way today.

I went to work.

My own fasting experience went as it usually does.  Around 3pm, I find that my hunger dissipates, and I feel as if I could fast forever.  My mind starts toying with the idea that food is really not necessary, and why all the bother about food, anyway?  Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just didn’t eat at all?  Eating every day requires so many choices.  Such a waste of time and effort.

My hospital rounds in the afternoon involved a fair bit of walking, and by the time I was finally ready to make the 45 minutes drive home, I was feeling a bit light-headed, and, for the sake of safety, I decided to break my fast with an iced coffee to keep me awake and hydrated.

I walked into the house, and found S sitting on the sofa in the family room, reading.  He said “I’m waiting until 8:57, so that we can eat.”

“Did you fast all day?” I asked.


“How are you feeling?” I asked.

No answer.

8:57 arrived.

We sat down to eat a simple meal of quesadilla and steamed corn.

S complained that he was full, and that he didn’t feel good.  I felt terrible for him.   But I also am so impressed with his resolve.  In part, I’m sure he was inspired by our 13-year-old friend who we hired to babysit the boys today, who was fasting, as a post-Bar Mitzvah boy.  But, the fact that S made it all the way to the end amazes both me and his father.  When S makes a decision, he sticks to it.  I hope that resolve will serve him well throughout his life.

On Fast Days, we traditionally wish one another an easy and meaningful fast.  Certainly, on this day, when the news of the past weeks has been full of the crisis in Israel and Gaza has filled our ears and consciousness, we have much to ponder on a day of mourning and remembering the persecution of the Children of Israel.  And, there’s no question, my consciousness was on the situation in the Middle East for much of the day.

But, it feels strange to realize that my overriding emotion right now is pride in my stubborn son, who has such capacity to commit himself to a decision that is uncomfortable and not even required of him.

I can’t wait to see who this amazing individual grows up to become.

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