The Music of Halacha-Fasting and Repentance
The commandment of repentance, as required by the Torah, is simply the abandonment of sin. The sinner must resolve with his whole heart never again to revert to to folly and rebelled against God’s rule, and never again to violate the King’s command, God forbid, neither a positive nor a negative commandment.
This is the basic meaning of the term Teshuvah: to return to God with all one’s heart and soul, to serve Him and keep all His commandments. “Let the wicked abandon his way, and the sinful his thoughts, and return to God (Isaiah 55:7).” Such statements abound: “Return to God, your Lord and hearken to His voice with all your heart (Deuteronomy 30:2),” and, “Return, O Israel, to God, your Lord (Hosea 14:2),” and, “Bring us back, God, to You (Lamentations 5:22).”
This is not at all the common conception that repentance is identified with fasting. Even where the completion of the process of atonement requires suffering, as in the case of sins punished by excision or execution, this means that God brings the sufferings on the sinner. For when the repentance is acceptable to Him, as man returns to God with all his heart and soul out of love, then following the “Initiative from Below,” human initiative, there is an “Awakening from Above,” Divine response, arousing the love and kindness of God, to scour his sin through affliction in the world. “For whom God loves, He chastises (Proverbs 3:12).”
Therefore, Maimonides and Sefer Mitzvot Gadol make no mention of fasting in connection with the mitzvah of repentance, even for sins involving the punishment of excision or capital sins. They cite only confession and the plea for forgiveness: “They shall confess their sins (Numbers 5:7).”
But what of the verse, “Return to Me with all your hearts, with fasting and weeping (Joel 2:12)?” This was to nullify the heavenly decree that had already been issued, to expunge this sin of that generation through the affliction of locusts. That is the justification for all fasts undertaken because of any trouble threatening the community, as in the Book of Esther.
There are descriptions in the Mussar literature, particularly the Rokeach and And Sefer Chassidim, of numerous fasts and mortifications for excision and capital sins. The same is true of sins punished by death by Divine agency. These fasts and mortifications are intended to avoid the punishment of suffering at the hand of Heaven, and also to urge on and expedite the end of the process of atonement of the sinners soul.
However, all this refers to atonement and forgiveness of the sin; even without these ascetic practices, he is pardoned completely for having violated the command of the King once he has fully repented. No charge or semblance of accusation is made against him on the day of judgment to punish him for his sin in the World to Come. He is completely exonerated from the judgment to come.
Nevertheless, that he may be acceptable before God, as beloved of Him as before the sin, that his Creator may derive the light from his service, in past times he would bring a burnt offering (Leviticus 1:3). This offering was brought even for violating an ordinary positive commandment that involves no excision or execution. It is a “gift” that the penitent offers to God after he has done penance and the punishment has been commuted.
If one displeases his King and appeases him through an intercessor, and the kingdom does forgive him, still he will send some token gift to the king that the kingdom might agree that he appear again before his sovereign.
Today we have no offerings to call forth God’s pleasure, so fasting replaces the offering. The Talmud says, “May my loss of fat and blood be regarded as though I had offered before you (Berachot 17a).” Therefore there are many cases of Talmudic sages who, to expiate some minor transgression, underwent a great many fasts.
With this precedent, the Ari taught his disciples, according to Kabalistic principles, the number of fasts for many transgressions, though they entail no excision or death by Divine agency.
In general, the mystery of the fast is remarkably effective for the revelation of the Supreme Will, similar to the offering, of which it is said, “And aroma pleasing to the Lord (Leviticus 1:13).” In Isaiah we find, “Do you call this a fast and a day desirable to the Lord (58:5)?” Obviously, and acceptable fast is a “desirable day.”
However, all this applies to the strong and healthy, whose physical vigor would not be sapped at all by repeated facts, as in past generations. But who ever would be adversely affected by many fasts, and might suffer illness or pain, God forbid, as in contemporary generations, is forbidden to engage in many fasts. This band concerns even fast for sins of excision or execution, and certainly the positive and negative commandments that do not involve excision. Instead, the criterion for fasting is one’s personal estimate of what he is sure he can tolerate.
For even in those early Talmudic generations, only the robust who could mortify themselves fasted so frequently. But whoever cannot fast and nevertheless does so, is called a sinner (Taanit 11a). This applies even to one who fasts for specifically known since, as Rashi explains there.
It goes without saying that a student of Torah who fasts is a sinner and is doubly punished, for the weakness resulting from his fast prevents him from properly studying Torah. What, then, is his alternative? “Your sin redeem with charity (Daniel 4:24).” The codifiers of Torah law specified for each fast day of repentance approximately 18 coins (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 334:26). The wealthy should add to this, each according to his means.
Nonetheless, every man of spirit who desires to be close to God, to repair his soul, to return it to God with the finest and most preferred repentance, should be stringent with himself. He should complete, at least once during his lifespan, the number of fasts for every grave sin incurring death, if only death by Divine agency.
Briefly, then, he may redeem his fast with charity if he cannot mortify himself, as noted. Though this might amount to a considerable sum, he need not beware the injunction, “Do not distribute more than 1/5 (Ketubot 50a).” For these circumstances are not “distribution” to charity, since he does this to release himself from fasting and affliction. This is no less necessary than medicine for his body or his other needs.
The number of fast enumerated in the above-mentioned penances is exceedingly great. Therefore, all who revere the word of God are now accustomed to being unstintingly generous with charity, for the prevalent lack of hardihood prevents them from mortifying themselves over much (The Alter Rebbe; Iggeret haTeshuvah)