What with the apples and honey, the diverse edibles that are nibbled in order to symbolize blessings for the coming year, and the lavish family repasts that are de rigueur on any self-respecting Jewish holiday—it is all but impossible to imagine Rosh Hashanah without conjuring up visions of food-laden tables and sated bellies.
However, this observation was not always as obvious as it may seem to us today. Over the centuries some Jews were convinced that the most appropriate way to observe the solemn day of judgment is by refraining from eating food.
This approach was especially widespread among the residents of the holy land in the early middle ages. At that time, as the newly completed Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds were competing vigorously for acceptance by world Jewry, a Babylonian scholar named Pirḳoi ben Baboi composed a fascinating letter devoted to denouncing the religious practices of the Jews in the land of Israel. Among the customs that he singled out for censure was that of fasting on the two days of Rosh Hashanah as well as on the Sabbath of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Indeed, a responsum by a leader of the Palestinian rabbinate acknowledged that practice with perceptible pride, adding that his community also refrained from food on the seven days preceding Rosh Hashanah (even on the Sabbath that occurred during that week). He expressed his fervent hope that all Jews would do the same.
In support of this custom, the rabbi cited a passage from a midrash that enumerated the stages of atonement during the High Holy Day season: “Prior to New Year’s day the most distinguished men of the generation begin to fast, at which point the Holy One grants atonement for one third of the people’s sins. From New Year's to the Day of Atonement individuals begin to fast, at which point the Holy One grants atonement for another third of their sins. When Yom Kippur arrives, all Israel fast—men, women and children ...and the Holy One is now overwhelmed with compassion for them. He grants atonement for all their sins and accepts their repentance.”
Ben Baboi now proceeds to to quote a well-known passage from the Babylonian Talmud that interprets the words of Isaiah “Seek you the Lord while he may be found” as referring to the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are designated as a time that is appropriate for fasting. Those ten days include Rosh Hashanah itself—which, he claims, proves that the Talmud recommended fasting on the festival as well as on the intervening Sabbath!
Among the writings of the medieval Babylonian rabbis we find several attempts to refute the Israeli custom of fasting on Rosh Hashanah. Pirḳoi ben Baboi himself insisted that there was no basis for equating repentance with fasting; and as evidence for this, he cited passages from the Bible in which prophets castigated people who foolishly believe that they can achieve forgiveness by means of ritual fasting that is not accompanied by sincere moral repentance.
Saadiah Ga’on amassed a rich collection of scriptural proof texts against fasting. He noted, for instance, that in the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is designated a feast [ḥag] (according to the traditional rabbinic interpretation of Psalms 81:4), which implies that it is subject to the Torah’s command to “rejoice in your feast.” He also noted how, on Rosh Hashanah, Ezra instructed the exiles returning to Zion from the Babylonian captivity to “eat the fat, and drink the sweet...for this day is holy to our Lord.”
Even after the Babylonian custom became the normative standard, we find evidence that some Jews persisted in refraining from food on Rosh Hashanah. Thus, Rabbi Nissim ben Jacob, writing in eleventh-century Kairouan, Tunisia, cited a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud in which Rabbi Ḥiyya advised his nephew Rav that if he can observe the stringency of eating food in a state of ritual purity only seven days a year, they should be on the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—but not on Rosh Hashanah itself, because one should not be eating anything at all then. Rabbi Nissim concluded that this counts as a valid precedent for those who are accustomed to fasting. In Provence, Spain, Italy and France, even authors who were themselves opposed to fasting were forced to concede that several great scholars and pious men did fast on the two days of Rosh Hashanah and on the subsequent “Shabbat Shuvah.”
Rabbi Zedekiah the Physician of Rome, author of an influential compendium of Jewish liturgical customs, reported hearing from a young man named David who had received a tradition that anyone who originally observed the fast, but then ceased doing so, will not live through the coming year. That tradition was eventually incorporated into the authoritative Shulḥan Arukh code of religious law.
The rabbis of Germany were particularly divided on this question. Some drew an analogy from the fact that the important fast of the Ninth of Av must be postponed if it falls on a Sabbath. On the other hand, Rabbi Abraham Hildik of Bohemia cited the institution of “dream fasts” that are permitted even on shabbat in order to avert the fulfilment of an ominous dream. Even though the seriousness and source of the dream are altogether in doubt, Jewish law nevertheless allows a person to violate the joy of the sabbath for its sake. How much more, then, should this be true of Rosh Hashanah when we know that we are standing in judgment before the supreme and omnipotent judge of the universe!
This line of reasoning was rejected by Rabbi Abraham ben Azriel: after all, perhaps dreams should be treated more seriously because they are sent down to sinners precisely in order to impel them to fast and thereby to merit forgiveness; whereas normal, decent Jews stand a good chance of being exonerated by the All-merciful on Rosh Hashanah—in which case fasting would be a superfluous violation of the rejoicing appropriate to a festival.
Rabbi Jacob of Marvege, the author of “Responsa from Heaven,” submitted the question to the Almighty in one of his visions. He was informed in no uncertain terms that it is proper to rejoice on the festival by partaking of food.
Apart from the authority of various scholarly proof texts, there are a number of different reasons that might account for the persistence of the custom of fasting on the festival. For one thing, we must bear in mind that the early forebears of German and French Jewry had migrated from localities such as southern Italy that accepted the authority of the Jerusalem Talmud which, as we have seen, encouraged fasting on Rosh Hashanah.
We must also take into account the ascetic and mystical pietistic movement known as “Ḥasidut Ashkenaz” that evolved in the Rhineland communities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and exerted strong influences on the patterns of religiosity that defined the Jews in central and eastern Europe. The austere character of their piety is apparent in the way that they justified fasting on Sabbaths and festivals. Some argued that, for a person who is accustomed to fasting throughout the week, it would be too much of a shock to their systems if they were to suddenly start stuffing themselves with food on holy days!
As for the rest of us who are not quite so pious, we should probably just face the fact that our New Year resolution to begin a diet will likely have to be postponed until after the holidays.
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