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  • Ian Gamse

Don't be daft: thoughts on fasting during a heatwave

In case anyone didn’t get the memo, Sunday is going to be hot. Not as hot as Monday or Tuesday, but hitting 30 degrees in suburban London – not to mention Leeds and Manchester. In Met Office-speak, that’s an amber warning for Sunday and Red warning for Monday and Tuesday. General advice for this period states:

Population-wide adverse health effects are likely to be experienced, not limited to those most vulnerable to extreme heat, leading to potential serious illness or danger to life. Government advice is that 999 services should be used in emergencies only; seek advice from 111 if you need non-emergency health advice.

And Sunday also happens to be Shiva Asar b’Tammuz, quaintly described as a “minor” fast, despite the fact that it seems to go on for ever. So what advice to our spiritual leaders have for us in these circumstances?

Photo by Andrzej Kryszpiniuk on Unsplash

The message from the United Synagogue is worth reproducing in full:

Please see the following statement from the Dayanim of the London Beth Din regarding the Fast of Tammuz:-

The Fast of Tammuz commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple. It also marks the beginning of the three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha B'Av.

Advice for Fasting During a Heatwave:-

As higher than normal temperatures are forecast for the Fast of Tammuz this year (Sunday 17.07.22), particular care should be taken when fasting. Hydration prior to the fast and remaining in cooler areas throughout the day should be prioritised. Furthermore, anyone feeling unwell or finding themselves dehydrated should not continue fasting. If anyone has pre-existing health conditions, they should seek medical advice before fasting during a heatwave. This advice applies to Tisha B’Av this year as well. It should be noted that different laws apply regarding Yom Kippur.

A few thoughts.

  1. This statement is presented as authoritative, coming from the Dayanim of the LBD. I hadn’t realised that a “yadin yadin” semicha was necessary to give decisions in Orach Chayyim. What are local rabbis for?

  2. Why is it necessary to remind us what the Fast of Tammuz is about? Surely anyone who may be contemplating fasting has some idea of what the day is for.

  3. The assumption is that despite the circumstances, everyone should be fasting – until they feel unwell.

  4. What is a pre-existing health condition? And if I ask a medical practitioner about “fasting”, will they understand that I mean not drinking as well as not eating?

  5. The advice applies to Tisha b’Av as well “this year”? Does that mean only this year? And, if so, why?

  6. And thanks for mentioning “different rules on Yom Kippur” – what are they and, again, why the difference?

I have seen advice from three other sources.

Rabbi Zobin of Ner Yisrael wrote:

This Sunday is the deferred Fast of Shiva Assar BeTammuz (“nidche”) and the weather is forecast to remain extremely hot. Clearly hydrating well before the fast, and, to the degree possible, taking it easy and remaining in cool areas is advised. A fast that is deferred has several leniencies, and this, in combination with the extreme heat, means that the following people should not fast: • Pregnant, post birth and nursing women • One with poor general health, suffering from ongoing health challenges, recently recovered from a more serious illness, or currently unwell (examples include heavy cold, flu, covid or long covid) • Older, vulnerable, or frail people • Young teenagers post-Bar or Bat mitzva who are struggling • Those with childcare responsibilities who feel they are struggling. It need not be said that pre-Bar or Bat mitzva children should certainly not fast. If you start fasting and feel ill, or see any signs of dehydration (unusual thirst, reduced urination, dark coloured, significantly dry mouth, lips and eyes, feeling dizzy, lightheaded or excessively tired etc.) you must break.

Again, a few thoughts.

1. Rabbi Zobin explains that as the fast is deferred, there are leniencies

2. He instructs certain categories of people not to fast. Not to wait until they feel ill (by when it may be too late). And these are wide categories.

3. He does not see any need to ask for medical advice – and this is particularly important given that the NHS is warning that resources will be hugely strained during the heat wave.

OK, I hear you say – but Rabbi Zobin is a bit “modern”, isn’t he. So of course he would say this.

Enter Rabbi Yaakov Hamer, Rov of Bridge Lane. His letter to congregants explains that “we are not used to such hot weather in the UK”, countering anyone who wants to point out that temperatures in Israel are routinely this high, and that the fast is much longer, concluding after 10pm. Then that on a normal fast day (not Yom Kippur), someone who is unwell is “exempt from fasting” – a crucial point that people may not be aware of. The fasts instituted by the rabbis are captured by the rule “bim’kom choli lo gazru rabanan”, the rabbinic decree does not apply in a case of sickness. Unlike Yom Kippur, there are no half measures – there is no merit in fasting, or even attempting to fast, in this case. Then Rabbi Hamer lists “examples of situations in which one can/should be lenient this year”. These include a woman within 24 months of childbirth, anyone over 80, anyone with “generally poor health”, someone caring for a number of children who is “concerned how they will manage”.

And finally, a short letter from Rav Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, Av Beis Din of the Federation, previously Gateshead Rov. He again notes the leniency of the postponed fast, then states:

The following people may NOT fast:

  • Ill people (including those suffering from “long Covid”)

  • Pregnant women

  • Any woman who has given birth within the last 24 months

  • Anyone over the age of 70

  • Young children, even over Bar/Bas Mitsvah, who are finding the fast particularly difficult

Again, the instruction to vulnerable people is NOT to fast – and I love the race to the bottom on the age of vulnerability. Do I hear 60?

So the charedi world is capable of giving clear, prudent advice, while the LBD wants the old and weak to wait until they feel ill before having a glass of water. Why?

Is it just me, or is this part of a pattern of behaviour? The LBD talks down to its audience, won’t offer information or explanation, won’t allow any autonomy to the rabbis of the shuls, and above all, won’t actually make a decision on what is really a very straightforward matter. What are they afraid of? Is the London Beth Din’s reputation (in whatever world it cares about, which is certainly not that of United Synagogue members) dependent on never permitting anything that somebody else might prohibit, even in a case where it would be hard to find such a person? Or would they rather see their followers debilitated, dehydrated and, God forbid, endangered than admit that in the scheme of things fasting on Shiva Asar b’Tammuz when it’s actually the 18th is less important than the preservation of health? Or, indeed, that there are generally very few absolutes in halakha?

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16 jul 2022

Excellent analysis of the current situation that is seeing the young and observant leaving the US. Mind you at least the US sent out something to acknowledge the unusual heat which is more than can be said for the S&P. (But maybe the assumption is that its members are used to plenty of hot air or don't even know that there is a fast!)!

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