Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fasting on Rosh Hashanna, and Yahrtzeits on Rosh Hashanna

Orach Chaim 597 is one of the most oblique simanim in Shulchan Aruch. One should not fast on Rosh Hashanna. But if one fasts on Rosh Hashanna, he must fast for the rest of his life. And what is the makor that one should not fast? Well, of course there is no remez in Shas that anyone fasted, and there are several stories in Tanach that imply that the nevi'im and melachim did not fast, and there's the passuk from the Shir shel Yom of Thursday, Tiku bachodesh shofar bakese leyom chageinu, and Chazal darsher this refers to Rosh Hashannah, so presto, Rosh Hashanna is called Chag! And of course one does not fast on a chag.

These rayos are like climbing a smooth wall. Chag? The word chag refers to the chagiga, and there sure wasn't a chagiga on Rosh Hashanna. The stories in Tanach, as the Chasam Sofer and the Shagas Aryeh say, prove only that stories can mean one thing, or maybe they mean exactly the opposite. Unfortunately, nobody says good svaros to build some kind of logical structure to address the question. There's not even a she'ailas chacham, it's just "can you or can't you?" The closest thing to a svara is the tzushtell to the Rosh in Rosh Hashanna that discusses whether one should say "es birkas mo'adecha" on Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur.

The Aruch Hashulchan says a very interesting pshat. He says that fasting on Rosh Hashanna is dangerous, and it brings upon one a strict scrutiny min hashamayim. If one fasts and then he dies before the year ends, then it wasn't a good idea to fast. If he survives, that proves that in Shamayim they liked his taanis, and so he is obligated to fast Rosh Hashanna for the rest of his life.

And, remarkably, there's a tremendously large two volume sefer called Kol Bo Le'Yahrtzeit, by Harav Aharon Levin. This sefer collects and organizes everything anyone has said in the last two thousand years on the topic of Yahrtzeit. He brings, of course, the psak of the mechaber and the Rama that one should fast on a Yahrtzeit, and discusses the halacha if it falls out erev Tisha Ba'av, or Rosh Chodesh Sivan or Av, or Chol Hamoeid, almost every yahrtzeit/yomtov/taanis permutation possible-- it's in there.

Except one.

A Yahrtzeit on Rosh Hashanna.

This tells me two things: A, that nobody discusses it. And B, that he has the good sense to avoid getting mired in what is clearly a question that does not have any black and white answer.

Rav Boruch Epstein, the mechaber of the Torah Temimah, wrote a book called Mekor Baruch, translated and titled "My Uncle the Netziv." In one of the early chapters, he says that as a young boy, he stayed in a room with the Beis Halevi. Several talmidei chachomim once visited, and one of the visitors was a maskil type. This fellow complained (a classic "lo mei'chachma" complaint)that "today's gedolim" are not like the gedolim of old. There was a time, he said, that gedolim had the knowledge and courage to be mattir, but now all they do is asser, asser, asser. The Beis Halevi agreed, and said that in his own sefer, (which, at that time, had not yet been printed,) he is mattir in seven places where the Shulchan Aruch assers. The maskil asked, what kulos do you have? The Beis Halevi answered that one of his kulos is that the Mechaber assers fasting on Rosh Hashannah, and in his sefer he is mattir.

As far as I can tell, the psak didn't make it into the Beis Halevi that we have. If I'm wrong, please send the mareh makom.

Say what you want about Reb Baruch Epstein, but Harav Moshe Soloveichik, son of the Harav Aharon Soloveichik Zatzal, told me that his father told him that they have a mesorah that the Beis Halevi did, indeed, fast on Rosh Hashannah, but Reb Chaim Brisker did not.

I asked Harav Reuven Feinstein whether I should fast, and he did not dismiss the idea out of hand. But he did say that it is a lifetime decision, and he discouraged me from fasting because it would not be fair to impose the effect of my taanis on those that are entitled to hear kiddush from me.

I'll be back.


  1. What about the Gemara in Arachin on daf 10a that says Rosh Hashana is a "MOED" (see Rashi ibid.). Does that not indicate some reference to it being a day which would be no "lower" in status as any other MOED (on which it would be prohibited to fast). Or am I missing something??

  2. I have read that Rosh Hashona is different from other yomim tovim, allowing for a fast.

    I remember that shortly after the book My Uncle the Netziv came out, there were some major objections to it, though I don't recall what they were. One yeshiva that sent it out as a fundraiser supposedly asked people to send it back in a voluntary "recall" of something dangerous.

  3. Harav Shandalov, I was mekatzeir where I should have been ma'arich, but you know what the web is like--chad vecharif, or you're toast. But you are right; and there are achronim that bring that rayah. I'll try to get a kitzur of the mar'eh mekomos in an update.

    Mrs. B.-- the Mechaber does not allow fasting, but he definitely wrote this psak with more than the usual intentional ambiguity.

    Reb Baruch Epstein was a great talmid chacham. But he was a maverick. He was one of those classic illuyim who loved to elicit the raised eyebrow, and he has a clear disdain for the 'accepted wisdom.'

  4. Mateh Efraim 597:15.

    A similar question arises on Rosh Chodesh Nissan and Av, see Chochmat Adam 171:11 who's machmir; Kaf Hachayim 568:97 disagrees.

    It also seems the only Heter for fasting on RH is Tshuva; whether Yahrzeit fast is Tshuva or not is arguable, Chochmat Adam above follows the Ri'a Mazlei.

    I'd like to acknowledge my desktop's Bekius without which I could't have made it.