Taanit, Chapter Two, Mishnah One
In the previous chapter we learned about the series of fast days declared in order to petition God for rain. In this chapter we learn the rituals that were observed on those days.
What is the order [of service] for fast days?
1) They take the ark out to the open space of the city.
2) And they put ashes on the ark and on the head of the Nasi and on the head of the head of the court (av bet din).
3) And everyone [else] puts ashes on his own head.
4) The elder among them says in front of them words of admonition, Brothers, it does not say of the people of Nineveh, And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting, but, And God saw their deeds, for they turned from their evil way. (Jonah 3:10) And in the prophets it says, And rend your heart and not your garments (Joel 2:13).
Section one: They bring the ark with the Torah or Torahs outside to the open space where they will have a very public ceremony. This is part of their attempt to achieve as broad of a spectrum of involvement as possible.
Section two: The leaders of the community ceremonially put ashes on the heads of the two main leaders of the community and on the ark as well. It seems that by putting ashes on the ark, it is as if they were putting ashes on Gods head as well. Perhaps they might even be trying to show that God is sharing in Israels distress. Theologically, this creates somewhat of a paradoxwe are praying to God for rain, rain that God is withholding, and yet at the same time we believe and we demonstrate that God is sharing in our distress. The image is one of a parent, punishing a child and yet at the same time feeling the childs pain.
Section three: Everyone else puts ashes on their own heads. The ritual application of the ashes is performed only for the two leaders and for the ark.
Section four: The elder among the people now reminds them that the external motions are meant to invoke inner teshuvah, repentance. When God sees that Nineveh has repented, He says that He has seen their deeds and not that He has seen their external signs. Similarly, Joel tells the people that they should rend their hearts, meaning tear their hearts so that they repent, and not merely their external garments. Note that the mishnah emphasizes this message at the very point at which they are describing the intricate ritual of the Taanit. It is as if they wish to warn us of the danger of slipping into ritualisma fixation on the external at the expense of the more important internal.