Post – Mosaic Festivals
These were arranged in public and private, with a private fast being appropriate on occasions of personal calamity or felt need. But here we want to talk about the public fast.
There was only one Divinely-ordained public fast, and that was on the Day of Atonement. But the Jews felt it was totally in the Will of God that when great national wants arose, or great national sins were to be confessed, a day of public fasting and humiliation should be proclaimed.
During the Babylonian captivity, the Jews added what might be called memorial-fasts, which were celebrated on the anniversaries of great national calamities. This turned into an unhealthy religious movement, however, because they ended up celebrating the sin instead of celebrating the fact that they had turned from their sins in true repentance to God.
This was evidently the meaning of Zechariah’s reply in Zechariah 7 & 8 to those who inquired whether the fasts of the 4th, the 5th, the 7th, and the 10th months were to be continued after the return of the exiles from Babylon.
The Four Great Fasts
There are four great Jewish fasts besides the Day of Atonement and the Fast of Esther, that are still kept, that were observed as early as the Babylonian captivity.
The ‘fast of the fourth month’ took place on June or July 17th in memory of the taking of Jerusalem y Nebuchadnezzar which resulted in the interruption of the daily sacrifice. This tradition adds that it was also the anniversary of making the golden calf and of Moses breaking the Tables of the Law.
The ‘fast of the fifth month’ was kept on account of the destruction of the first and second Temple. It is significant that the second Temple, that of Herod, was destroyed on the first dayn of the week. Tradition has it that on that day God had pronounced judgment that the carcasses of all who had come out of Egypt should fall in the wilderness.
The ‘fast of the seventh month’ is said by tradition to be in memory of the slaughter of Gedaliah and his associates at Mizpah in Jeremiah 41:1.
The ‘fast of the tenth month’ was observed because of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar commenced.
Besides the above four fasts, the Day of Atonement, and the Fast of Esther, the Jewish calendar at present contains 22 other fast days. But that is not all – according to Luke 18: 12 it was customary to fast twice a week between the Paschal week and Pentecost, and between the Feast of Tabernacles and that of the Dedication of the Temple.
The days appointed for this purpose were on Monday and Thursday of every week because according to tradition, Moses went up Mount Sinai the second time to receive the Tables of the Law on a Thursday, and came down again on a Monday.
On public fasts, the practice was to bring the ark which contained the rolls of the law from the Synagogue into the streets, and to strew ashes upon it. The people all appeared covered with sackcloth and ashes. The ashes were publicly strewn on the heads of the elders and judges, while another person got up and preached a sermon about the people of Nineveh turning from their wicked ways and God saving their land.
An older man who had spent much time in service to God and prayer was chosen to lead the people in confession of sin and ask for repentance before God.
In Jerusalem they gathered at the eastern gate, the priests blew their horns seven times as the voice of prayer ceased. The people then went to the cemeteries to mourn and weep.
A proper fast was continued from one sundown till after the next sundown when the stars appeared, and for about 26 hours there was a rigid abstinance from all food and drink.
Even though the fasts were taken seriously, over time they degenerated into mere formalities and became works of self-righteousness which they could brag about. The more penitent and unwashed they looked, the more they were able to make it a matter of boasting.
This is the condition they had become when the public ministry of Jesus started. They did everything right outwardly, but with an inner heart that was corrupt and unrepentant. They were filled with spiritual pride and had become alienated from God.