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The Fast of the First Born

Ta’anit Bekhorim
By Shlomo Phillips © 04.21.2016

Pesach, also known as Passover, is a biblically mandated observance for all Jews. Because this period commands Jews (Klal Y'israel) to reflect on how HaShem delivered us from Egyptian bondage -- How He lead us through the Sea of Reeds, and to Mount Sinai where we received the Torah -- the observance discussed in this piece is only applicable to Jews according to our rabbis.

Inherent in the message of Pesach is the assurance that come what may, HaShem will not allow his chosen people to perish from the earth. Despite the dark times we recall during these annual observances, the message is ultimately positive: Am Y'israel Chai! -- We live on!

In the Exodus account we read the following:

דוַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה אֲנִי יוֹצֵא בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם:
הוּמֵת כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכוֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיּשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ עַד בְּכוֹר הַשִּׁפְחָה אֲשֶׁר אַחַר הָרֵחָיִם וְכֹל בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה:
ווְהָיְתָה צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר כָּמֹהוּ לֹא נִהְיָתָה וְכָמֹהוּ לֹא תֹסִף:
זוּלְכֹל | בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֶחֱרַץ כֶּלֶב לְשֹׁנוֹ לְמֵאִישׁ וְעַד בְּהֵמָה לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּן אֲשֶׁר יַפְלֶה יְהֹוָה בֵּין מִצְרַיִם וּבֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Translation:
Exodus 11:4 Moses said, "So said the Lord, At the dividing point of the night, I will go out into the midst of Egypt,
11:5 and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn animal.
11:6 And there will be a great cry throughout the entire land of Egypt, such as there never has been and such as there shall never be again.
11:7 But to all the children of Israel, not one dog will whet its tongue against either man or beast, in order that you shall know that the Lord will separate between the Egyptians and between Israel.
The "Firstborn"
The Hebrew text says the "firstborn," from the royals of Egypt to the commoners, and even the captives, would die unlike they place their trust in HaShem. It has traditionally been understood that this refers only to the firstborn sons, not the daughters. As the rabbis discussed who should take part in this fast their determinations varied. Some say the command applies only to males and that if the firstborn child is female she is not obligated to fast, neither is the first son born after her. Others say that all firstborn, male or female, must do the fast. Chabad offers the following:
There are different customs that are associated with this fast. Some maintain that every firstborn, male and female, whether the firstborn is that of the mother or of the father, must fast. 1
If there are no firstborn still alive in a family the oldest member is encouraged to fast, health permitting of course. This is because every Egyptian household was struck by the plague whether there was a firstborn son or not. In blended families the firstborn of each parent is encouraged to fast. Again, traditions or minhag vary on this. The balanced advice is to observe the minhag of your community unless you feel specifically drawn to observe the fast, then do so. It certainly is no sin for all firstborn of either gender to observe it.
Why did the firstborn commoners and captives die?
While there seems to be some justification for punishing the firstborn of the royals of Egypt in this terrible way, why did the commoners of Egypt and even the captives lose their firstborn as well? The consensus of the rabbis is that had they been spared they would have doubtless given the credit to their gods. HaShem was making it clear to everyone in Egypt and to all who would hear about this miraculous deliverance of the Hebrews throughout time that He alone is sovereign in all the worlds. In part as a result of this show of power and glory many people from the nations left Egypt with our people and became Noahides and Ger Tzadkim. This adds the question, should Noahides (Noahidim) fast. The general consesus seems to be that they should not. The miracle inspired many of the Gentiles to leave Egypt and join with the Israelites, but they did not take direct part in it.
When is the fast
The rabbis agree that while the date of this terrible plague was the fifteenth of Nissan, because Pesach has already begun on that date and we are not permitted to fast on festival days, the appropriate day for the fast is Erev Pesach, or the fourteenth of Nissan. There are good reasons for this universally accepted tradition. We are commanded to trust in HaShem's protection and to prepare ourselves through righteous acts and teshuvah (repentance). Since we know the plague is/was coming, the firstborn of the Jews prepare themselves by fasting and prayer. By observing the ta’anit (fast) bekhorim (of the firstborn) firstborn sons and daughters are given the opportunity to humble themselves with thanksgiving and to acknowledge in a special way that without HaShem's protections none of the Jews would have survived the millennia of persecution our people have endured, from the firstborn to the last born.
Exceptions
Jews never fast on Shabbat because it is our day of joy and of looking forward with emuna (active faith) to the Olam Haba (the Messianic World to Come). In years when Pesach begins on a Sunday therefore, the fast is moved back to the previous Thursday (lest on Erev Shabbat ones hunger might linger into Shabbat, may God protect us).

Based on the principle that fasting is prohibited on all joyous occasions, when a firstborn Jew attends a religious feast, wedding, etc. he/she is permitted to forego the fast. Again, as with everything, it is best to check with your local rabbi for advise when in doubt.

In many synagogues it is customary to complete the study of a Talmudic Masechta (tractate) and celebrate the siyyum with a festive meal, giving the firstborn the opportunity to waive their fast in order to participate in this mitzvah-feast 2.
May your fast be easy and your blessings be abundant.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Notes:

  1. The Fast of the First Born, By Eliyahu Kitov
  2. From Azamra.org

Be the Blessing you were created to be
And
Don't let the perfect defeat the good


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