Introduction to Taanit


Tractate Taanit is about the practice of fasting and offering special prayers in times of trouble, especially during a drought.  The Bible is full of examples of the Israelites fasting, praying and engaging in other forms of supplication in order to entreat God to respond to their needs.  The most famous of these cases is probably Esther who calls for a three-day fast to ensure her success and safety when entering in to speak to the king.  See also Joel 1:14; Jeremiah 14:11-12; Jonah 3:5-8; Nehemiah 9:1; Daniel 9:3 and others. 


Numbers 10:9 was used by the rabbis as toraitic proof for this concept.  The verse states, “And when you come into battle in your land against the foe who assails you, you shall let out a long blast with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God and be rescued from your enemies.”  According to the rabbis the specific example of blowing trumpets in times of war is a paradigm for all times of trouble.  There is a positive commandment in the Torah to cry out to God in all times of trouble, to blow shofars and to fast as well.  The days of fast described in our mishnah were accompanied by special prayers, by trumpet and shofar blasts and sometimes by work-stoppages. 


As we study the tractate we shall constantly note how important rain was in the land of Israel in mishnaic times.  Rain is still critical to the well-being of those who live in this arid region, although modern technology has to a certain measure alleviated short-term crises.  In ancient times, a season with no or little rain would have been an utter disaster. Crops would have failed, livestock would have died or been in danger of dying, and people would not have had enough water to drink.  By the sheer amount of material that the rabbis devote to this subject, we can see just how important this was for their lives.


Finally, Taanit is a text rich in theological significance.  The very choice of Canaan as a home for the Israelites is of theological import.  In a land dependent upon rain, people’s live are tentative—they never know whether the coming year will be one of abundance or one of famine.  In such a land a person’s eyes would literally always be turned towards heaven. The rain was and continues to be out of human control.  In contrast, in Egypt or in the Mesopotamia, lands in which the water comes from rivers, humans have a certain amount of control over their water.  It is no historical accident that monotheism arose in Canaan while paganism thrived in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. This is expressed well in Deuteronomy 11:10-12, “For the land into which you are coming to take hold of it is not like the land of Egypt from which you went out, where you sow your seed and water it with your foot like a garden of greens.  But the land into which you are crossing to take hold of, it is a land of mountains and valleys. From the rain of the heavens you will drink water—a land that the Lord your God seeks out perpetually, the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it from the year’s beginning to the year’s end.