|May 13, 2011 / 10 Iyar, 5771
Rabbi David Greenspoon
Introduction To Mishnah Ta'anit
The tractate of Fast-days, or Ta'anit offers the contemporary reader an avenue into the spiritual lives of our ancestors. We, like they, struggle with balancing good and evil in the public and private arena. Our ancestors in Israel where dependent on rainfall during a clearly proscribed rainy season. They believed that a cause and effect relationship existed between man and God. God gives explicit warning in Deuteronomy 11- later brought into the liturgy as the second passage of the Shema - that rainfall signifies Divine response to human behavior.
The absence of rain was not simply a natural calamity. It was a national wake-up call that God was displeased. The response to this spiritual crisis is recorded in the Mishnah and is likely one of the oldest formal collections of popular liturgy generated by the people outside of the Temple precincts and beyond control of the Temple priesthood.
Chapter 1, Mishnah 4
Who fasted, and what was their practice? If ten days of the rainy season have gone by without rain, then individuals would begin a three-fast. Our commentators both ancient and modern explain this differently. Albeck suggests that these individuals were the sages and communal notables. Kehati cites the Talmud and believes this to refer to the Talmidei Chachamim, the Students of the Sages. I'd think it means exactly what it says: individuals, without any other qualifications.
Consider: Calamity was brewing. The desperate spiritual climate required all-hands, everyone to work together to avert catastrophe. This plain reading of the Mishnah is reinforced by the text that states that “Relief comes with evening nourishment and none of the rest of the mourning practices associated with fasting are mandated.” The simple language of the Mishnah suggests that in everyone had a part in times of potential national catastrophe. One can only imagine if the responsibility to avert a drought was on the shoulders of the religious elite, or even their students, the threshold would have been significantly higher. It would have at least included Torah study!
The ancient Jewish practice of day-fasting is closely paralleled by the contemporary Moslem practice at Ramadan. What other close parallels can you identify between Christianity and Islam and Judaism?
This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi David Greenspoon
Rabbi Greenspoon serves Baltimore's Beth El Congregation as the new Assistant Rabbi, Director of Congregational Programming. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A passionate educator across the spectrum of learners, he is a veteran Florence Melton Adult Mini-School faculty member, has served as Rabbi-in-Residence for Camp Ramah (Canada) and as an adjunct rabbinic instructor at St. Joseph's High School in Tarentum, PA as part of the American Jewish Committee's Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Program. He is a U.S. Navy veteran with both enlisted and officer service. Rabbi Greenspoon and his wife Anne live with their two children in Owings Mills, MD.
The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.
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