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Z’manim in Halacha, Part 3

September 7, 2016

When does a fast end? You may have noticed that the modern printed calendars offer a number of alternatives. For example, the Ittim L’vina calendar gives three, all claculated as some time after sunset. Here is how the issue is presented in the Talmud (Taanith 12a):

R. Hisda further said: A fast over which the sun has not set cannot be deemed a fast. An objection was raised against this. The men of the watch fast but do not complete [the day]. [Their fasting] is merely in order to afflict themselves [in sympathy with the community].

Seemingly, R’ Hisda means to say that a fast should go on until sunset, but it does not need to go beyond that. In early halachic literature, the running assumption is that the fast ends when the day ends, which is usually assumed to be sunset.

There is another source in the Yerushalmi that says that when the moonlight is bright enough to shine on the earth, the fast is certainly over. On the tenth of Teveth or the ninth of Av, when the moon is basically large and high in the sky shortly after sunset, this threshold is reached not considerably later.

Here is where the issue becomes kind of fuzzy. As we mentioned earlier, Rabbeinu Tam’s position concerning a second sunset was widely accepted, and therefore for many years the practice followed his opinion, namely that a fast is only out at the end of that second “sunset”, at what Rabbeinu Tam deemed nightfall, roughly an hour after the nightfall described by the G’onim and Maimonides. Therefore, for example, the Tur and the Shulhan Aruch declare that public fast days end at what they call nightfall, which is much later than what is now the standard practice, while Maimonides and other Rishonim would tell you that the fast comes to an end actually at sunset. We also read about the influence of the Vilna Gaon and the Chofetz Chaim led to a renaissance for the use of the old system of calculating times based on actual sunset and sunrise, we would think that the old practice of ending fast days at sunset would have also made a comeback, but instead the calendars use a strange compromise: fast days end at nightfall, as per Rabbeinu Tam’s position, but nightfall is defined according to the G’onim’s position, and because it is a later compromise, it does not fit with a classic understanding of the sources. A practical example: if the sun were to set at 6pm on Tzom Gedalya, then according to G’onim the fast would end at sunset,* while according to Rabbeinu Tam and the Shulchan Aruch it would end about an hour later, while the calendars say that the fast would be over at 6:18., 6:27, or 6:36pm. 

This is yet another example of what we have seen in other cases about how tzeith hakochavim, nightfall, used to only matter for purification, the departure of the sabbath and holidays, and for reading the sh’ma, but came to be the time for the performance of other commandments.

*Public policy would likely be to wait a few minutes after that because of the common cases of when it might be difficult to determine exactly when the sunsets, but it would not need to be more than a few minutes, because on most days the sunset is visible, and even when it is obscured, darkness begins to set in.

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