Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Nissan 5765 - April 13, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Joyous Fasting: Understanding the Fast of the Firstborn

by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis

Fasting in Nisan

On the first day of the month of Nisan, the Mishkan was erected by the Jews in the desert, and on each of the twelve ensuing days, the leaders of the twelve tribes brought offerings to Hashem.

This historic event, combined with the annual festival of Pesach, transforms the whole of Nisan into a joyous time. Fasting is prohibited throughout the entire month.

On erev Pesach, we have an exception to this rule, and every firstborn male fasts Ta'anis Bechoros — the Fast of the Firstborn (Maseches Sofrim 20, 3). (This year because erev Pesach is on Shabbos, the Fast is on Thursday, 12 Nisan.)

In general, national fasts are either a sign of mourning over the destruction of the Temple, or to facilitate repentance. Ta'anis Bechoros was established to commemorate the miraculous salvation of the Jewish firstborns when Hashem passed through Egypt killing all firstborn (Tur 470).

On Chanukah and Purim the Jewish people faced complete annihilation — Chanukah on a spiritual and Purim on a physical level. In both instances, joyous festivals were instituted to remember the miracles that Hashem performed for us. If so, why did our Sages treat the miracle of the Plague of the Firstborns differently and mark it with fasting rather than with rejoicing?

On the night of the 15th of Nisan as the Jewish people were celebrating their first Seder and preparing to leave Egypt, the threat of death loomed over all firstborn in Egypt. Every Jewish household was commanded to take an "agudas ezov" (a bundle of hyssop) and to use it to wipe lamb's blood on the doorposts of their homes from the Korbon Pesach. This would distinguish the Jewish from the Egyptian homes as the miraculous plague passed through.

Even though Hashem had promised that the Jewish people would be spared from this punishment, the firstborn Jewish males felt some degree of trepidation on the night of the plague. In order to guarantee their protection, all of the Jewish firstborns fasted on the 14th of Nisan. Their actions established a precedent, and as a result our Sages established a fast on that day (Chasam Sofer, Pesochim 108a).

Bon Appetit

The Sage Rav Sheishes would fast the entire erev Pesach. We do not base the general halacha on Rav Sheishes' actions for he was an istenis (someone who is easily satisfied by food). If Rav Sheishes would even taste something in the morning he would not be able to perform the mitzvah of eating matzoh with an appetite at night (Pesochim 108a). Most of us are not like that. However, a firstborn who will not have an appetite at night, if he eats in the day, should fast on erev Pesach. (Tur 470)

As long as erev Pesach is on a weekday, any istenis (even not a firstborn) can deal with his weak appetite by joining the firstborns in their fast. However, when Pesach starts on Saturday night (like this year), he is obligated to eat Shabbos meals beforehand. What is the correct course of action in such a situation?

Regarding such situations our Sages say, "a wise person has eyes in his head." A person with such a constitution should eat the minimum amount required to fulfill the mitzvah of the Shabbos meals (slightly more than a kebeitzoh). This should leave him with enough appetite for the matzoh later on (Mishna Berurah 470,1).

Making a Siyum

Some authorities suggest that if a firstborn is invited to a bris milah on the 14th of Nisan he can participate in the festive meal and is not obligated to make up the fast at a later date (Mogen Avrohom 470). Others extend this to any seudas mitzva (Pri Chodosh). Based on this ruling, on erev Pesach most firstborns attend a siyum of a maseches and consider that this frees them from their obligation to fast. Even though they personally did not study the material, since they are joining the celebration of a person who did, they are permitted to eat (Mishna Berurah 470,10).

Must one finish a tractate of Talmud in order to make a siyum?

HaRav Moshe Feinstein said that there is a mitzvah to make a siyum upon completing any section of Torah which was studied over an extended period of time. Therefore even if one finishes just one of the twenty-four books of Bible, a celebration may be held.

Rav Moshe adds that in order to make a siyum on a book of the Bible, one must learn it with one of the accepted commentaries of the Rishonim, and not with a lesser commentary. Similarly, one should try not to learn the material quickly just as an excuse to make a siyum. The underlying principle is that one should only make a celebration if the book took long enough to learn that one naturally feels joy upon its completion (Igros Moshe 1,157).

Fasting or Eating

The Oruch HaShulchan notes that the practice to join a siyum has become so widespread that almost no firstborns fast nowadays. If, however, our Sages established erev Pesach to be a day of fasting for firstborns, do we really have the power to eliminate this entirely? He suggests that the tremendous amount of work we do on erev Pesach combined with the consumption of morror on Seder night makes it very difficult to fast on erev Pesach. Since this fast is only a custom and is not mentioned in the Talmud, the rabbis did not see fit to protest its virtual non-observance (Oruch HaShulchan 470,5).

Another point is that fasting has an effect on the stomach, making it constrict. So fasting makes it difficult to perform the mitzvos of eating on Seder night afterwards (Olas Shmuel 28). Thus, it is the general custom to be lenient and to avoid the fast by making or attending a siyum. However if a firstborn knows that he has the strength and stamina to fast on erev Pesach and still participate fully in the Seder, it is praiseworthy to follow the time-honored custom of fasting (Igros Moshe 4,89,4).

The Mishna Berurah adds that if one feels very sick as a result of not eating, he may break the fast even if he didn't attend a siyum. So too if he knows that fasting will hinder his ability to eat matzoh and morror and to drink the four cups of wine, he is not obligated to fast. Nonetheless, he should avoid eating bread (which is only permitted until about 9 a.m.), as explained in the following section (Mishna Berurah 470,2).


There is a fundamental dispute amongst the Rishonim as to the nature of Ta'anis Bechoros. Most agree that it is a regular fast day. Therefore if one did not attend a siyum and has no other exemption, e.g. feeling sick, he is not allowed to eat anything during the day.

But some Rishonim maintain that this fast differs from all other fasts, and one is only forbidden to eat filling foods such as bread or other wheat products. According to this view, foods such as fruits and vegetables may be consumed (Rabbeinu Yechiel as cited in the Mordechai). What is the meaning of a fast on which it is permissible to eat?

All Jews must refrain from eating these types of foods in the afternoon of erev Pesach so that we have an appetite for the matzoh (Shulchan Oruch 471,1). As a further precaution (that the mitzva should be performed with the proper enthusiasm), firstborns are instructed to watch what they eat for the entire day.

Ultimately, we follow the first opinion and firstborns are not allowed to eat on Ta'anis Bechoros at all. However, as mentioned previously, if one did not attend a siyum and knows that the mitzvos of erev Pesach and Pesach will tire him out (to the point that he will not fulfill his obligations properly), he may eat. However, since some Rishonim reason that one is only forbidden to eat wheat products and other satisfying foods on this day, it is preferable to eat only fruit, vegetables and other lighter foods (Mishna Berurah 470,2).

Who is a Firstborn?

Our Sages tell us that during the Plague of the Firstborn at least one person died in every Egyptian household, and in some homes there were a number of deaths. As is well known from the halachos of pidyon haben, there are many factors that can exclude a child from being considered a bechor. Therefore, it is very unlikely that there was a bechor in every household. But surely it is impossible that there was more than one firstborn in one family?

The Midrash states that as a result of the prevalent immorality in Egypt, some parents had firstborn children from more than one partner. Since all of these children shared firstborn status, they all died during the plague. Based on this, the custom is for every firstborn child to fast, be he the firstborn of his father or of his mother (Shulchan Oruch 470,1).

In a house where there was no bechor in Mitzrayim, the eldest child of the family died. Nonetheless, nowadays an oldest child who is not a firstborn does not fast. Even if there is no other bechor in the household he may eat without attending a siyum (Tur as cited by Mishna Berurah 470,2).

The Midrash relates that the firstborn Egyptian girls also died during the Plague of the Firstborn. Based on this, the Shulchan Oruch cites an opinion that firstborn women are also obligated in Ta'anis Bechoros. Does this mean that women must attend a siyum in order to eat?

Since many opinions hold that they are not obligated to fast, some Sephardic authorities write that a women may eat on erev Pesach as long as she ate food from a siyum, even if she did not attend the actual celebration (Yechaveh Daas 4,42). The Ramo rules that women are not included in this fast, since they do not have the bechor status regarding other matters (470,4).

A birth via a Caesarean section presents a fascinating halachic issue, and the poskim discuss whether a child born this way is obligated to fast on Ta'anis Bechoros. Such a child is not considered a firstborn with regard to receiving a double portion of inheritance, but there are some who argue that because he is the firstborn child of his mother he should fast (Chok Yaakov 470,2). Others write that since his status is uncertain, he need not fast (Kaf HaChaim 470,3).

Averting Danger

Our Sages chose to commemorate dates when terrible tragedies befell the Jewish people with fast days. On a personal level, the Ramo recommends fasting on the yahrtzeit of one's parents. On a national level, we are instructed to fast on the 17th of Tammuz, the 10th of Teves, the 3rd of Tishrei and the 9th of Av — all dates when devastating calamities took place.

Perhaps this is a further reason why firstborns are instructed to fast on erev Pesach. After the Plague of the Firstborn took place on the 15th of Nisan, this date became a time of historic foreboding for firstborn children. The merit of Ta'anis Bechoros on erev Pesach continues to protect them from all harm.

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.