Taking up ancient ritual for times of distress, Jews are fasting in response to attack on Israel

By Jackie Hajdenberg

A Neilah service in 2017. Neilah was part of the ancient liturgy for communal fast days called in times of distress. (Courtesy Anna Carson-DeWitt)

(JTA) — Never before had Douglas Sagal, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson, New Jersey, heard of a call for a communal fast in a moment of crisis for the Jewish people.

But on Thursday, he will join more than 600 rabbis and Jewish leaders — most of them around the United States — who have signed up to participate in a Taanit Tzibur, Hebrew for communal fast. The fast is being organized by the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian Jewish educational institution in New York, to unite communities in prayer for the more than 100 Israelis taken captive by Hamas in its invasion on Saturday, which also killed and wounded thousands of Israelis.

“We stand in horror as Hamas has taken over 100 Israelis and other citizens hostage, among them infants, toddlers, entire families, the elderly and Holocaust survivors,” the call for the fast reads. “While political and military leaders are pursuing pathways to their release, we have a religious and communal obligation to stand up for the victims and to cry out to God.”

Sagal sees the fast as a way for Jews in his community and beyond to demonstrate that they are attached to Israel.

“My congregation, like any Jewish community in the Diaspora, is reeling and is still trying to process this horrific event,” Sagal told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And our bodies may be here in the west, but our hearts and souls are definitely in the east.”

The list of participants, which quickly swelled after it opened for signups Wednesday morning, is meant to be both a physical and spiritual means of connecting to the pain of the attack, explained Rabbi Avi Killip, Hadar’s executive vice president and organizer of the dawn-to-nightfall fast.

“You’re trying to say there is something happening that needs dire attention, and I’m calling attention to that and I’m willing to sort of put my body and my own physical needs on the line in order to say that,” Killip said.

“There’s a longstanding tradition in Judaism of decreeing additional fast days in moments of communal crisis and need,” she added. “In facing these attacks, which were so deliberately against Jews, it feels powerful to have an ancient Jewish ritual mode of response, and I just feel grateful to have that outlet.”

In ancient times, public fasts were called in moments of distress, and the shofar was blown at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Prayers were added to the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer recited thrice daily, and Jews gathered to pray the Neilah service, which is held at nightfall once a year, at the end of Yom Kippur.

Because there is no Temple today, the liturgy for a public fast in times of distress is the same as that of Judaism’s minor fast days, which occur four times over the course of the year. Congregants participating in this fast will also recite chapters of the Book of Psalms, as well as Avinu Malkeinu, a set of prayers traditionally recited during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Avinu Malkeinu, which is also recited on fast days, was written by the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva during a time of drought. In contemporary times, fasts have been called for severe droughts by rabbis in California.

Hadar’s call is being taken up not just by rabbis and their congregants but also by individual Jews who want to act in response to what has happened in Israel.

“They used to do it in ancient times in times of distress,” the Jewish comedian Alex Edelman said on Instagram about the fast. “I’m doing it because I think it might be a meaningful experience, and clearly this is a time of distress.”

Sagal is encouraging his congregants to participate in the fast, but emphasized that it is up to individuals to take part, though everyone is welcome to join for prayer services on Thursday. On Sunday, the day after the attack, Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue, hosted a vigil attended by hundreds of members in person and online, and the community is also hosting a fundraiser for Israel next week.

“The teachers and rabbis at Hadar were very prescient using this ancient idea of the public fast to give those of us in the Diaspora an opportunity to feel connected to our brothers and sisters in Israel,” Sagal said.

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