Tsum/Tsom: FASTING on Tisha B’Av

To FAST: Tsum. Verb (Strong’s 6684); A FAST: Tsom. Masculine Noun (Strong’s 6685). 

Root: צום

Sounds like: tzoom & tzohm

Today is Tisha B’Av… the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Why is it the saddest day? Because many of the most tragic Jewish events occurred on this one singular day in the Jewish calendar, including:

  • the Babylonians destroying the Temple by fire (which blazed for 24 hours) in 423 BCE
  • the falling of the second Temple to the Romans in 70 CE
  • the defeat of the Jews, by the Romans, in what was known as the Bar Kochba revolt, in 133 CE
  • the slaughtering of a group of Jews from Betan in 135 CE
  • the expulsion of Jews out of England in 1290 CE
  • and the expulsion of Jews out of Spain in 1492 CE

Today, Jews and Messianic Jews around the world are commemorating Tish B’Av with a full day of fasting and prayer. But what is fasting, according to the Bible?

Fasting and Human Mortality

It was quite late in life when I realized the meaning of breakfast. While we sleep we do not eat, it’s a fast of sorts, but when we wake up we break that fast. By eating in the morning we are fast-breaking… or, having our “break-fast”. 

Of course Biblical fasting was much more than resisting a bagel and a glass of OJ first thing in the morning. Fasting was a symbolic reminder of human mortality and it wasn’t exclusive to Jewish worship.

The pagans also fasted. Jezebel ordered a fast to occur, in order to center out Naboth and have him killed (1 Kings 21:8, 12). Jezebel’s husband was also familiar with the practise of fasting and so when Elijah warned Ahab of the impending downfall of his family, Ahab fasted and prayed to YHWH (1 Kings 21:27). As a result of Ahab’s humble fast, God withheld His judgement on Ahab, but allowed His judgement on Ahab’s sons to stand (1 Kings 21:29). 

Even the imposing Assyrian nation prayed and fasted to YHWH after Jonah warned them of God’s impending judgement on the city of Ninevah (Jonah 3:4-10). Their fasting blocked their impending death, for a time. However, both Ahab and the Assyrians would turn back to their ways of denying God and embracing destruction, and they would, eventually, fall back under God’s judgement. 

Fasting Death-Feasting Life

Fasting was often associated with death, and on the opposite spectrum, feasting was associated with life. Death and fasting often went hand in hand. It was generally practiced after a loss in a great battle, before a great battle was about to begin, and during a personal tragedy. For example:

After a loss: The tribes of Israel lost 18,000 soldiers to the tribe of Benjamin during the Civil war. As a result, they turned to fasting and prayer:

Judges 20:26

Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel, and they wept and remained there before YHWH, and fasted [wai-ya-tsumu] that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before YHWH.

After their fasting, they prayed to God, seeking answers (see Judges 20:27-28, 35) and YHWH delivered them.

Before a great battle: When the Hebrew people faced the Philistines in battle, Samuel helped the people realize that they had abandoned their God, who was the only one who could truly help them. To regain God’s favour Samuel called on the people to recommit their lives to YHWH through prayer and fasting: 

1 Samuel 7:3-6

Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you are returning to YHWH with all your heart, then remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you, and direct your hearts to YHWH and serve Him alone; and He will save you from the hand of the Philistines.” 

So the sons of Israel removed the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and served YHWH alone.

Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah and I will pray to YHWH for you.” So they gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before YHWH, and fasted [wai-ya-tsumu] on that day and said there, “We have sinned against YHWH.” And Samuel judged the sons of Israel at Mizpah.

With their honesty and humility, YHWH heard them and saved them.

During a Personal Tragedy: When David’s infant son was on the brink of death, David fasted with great lament:

2 Samuel 12:15-18a, 20-23

Later YHWH struck the child that Uriah’s widow bore to David, so that he was very sick. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; and David fasted a fast [wai-ya-tsam David tsom] and went and lay all night on the ground. 

The elders of his household stood beside him in order to help him up from the ground, but he was unwilling and would not eat food with them

Then it happened on the seventh day that the child died…

…So David got up from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of YHWH and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and when he asked, they served him food, and he ate.

Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted [tsam’ta] and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you got up and ate food.” 

And he said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted [tsam’ti] and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, YHWH may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast [tsam]? Can I bring him back again? I am going to him, but he will not return to me.

David unlocked the secret; there was a time to fast. When we feel the weight of our own mortality upon us, we ought to fast. In deep-felt prayer, we ought to fast. But when we are reminded of the joy of going home to the Father, we ought to feast. Of his son, David said, I am going to him, but he will not return to me.” Someday we’re all going back to our loved ones, but they are not coming back to us. That is a good thing. It’s worth celebrating! It’s worth a feast!

Fasting was a reminder of impending death. Feasting was a reminder of impending life… eternal life, so when Yeshua entered the scene, it’s not surprising that fasting came into question. Yeshua announced that His ministry was meant for feasting, not fasting:

Luke 5:33-35 (see also Matthew 9:14-15 & Mark 2:18-20)

And they [the scribes and Pharisees] said to Him [Jesus], “The disciples of John often fast [Greek: nesteuousin] and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” 

And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the groom fast [Greek: nesteusai] while the groom is with them, can you? But the days will come; and when the groom is taken away from them, then they will fast [Greek: nesteusousin] in those days.”

The imagery of a marriage feast made the point. You do not mourn at a wedding, you celebrate. Yeshua was the groom and everyone who was hungry was invited to the wedding feast! Yeshua was the long-awaited Messiah; His arrival was the best news! It was not a time to fast, it was a time to feast and celebrate!

Fasting in the Wilderness

Although Yeshua’s arrival on earth was meant to be a celebration, at the beginning of His ministry He wandered into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and forty nights:

Matthew 4:1-4

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted [Greek: nesteusas] for forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 

But He answered and said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God.’”

At the end of the 40-days Yeshua faced the Tempter, YHWH’s chief Adversary. The God of Life faced the “god” of death, and it happened at the end of a fast. Trying to benefit from Yeshua’s weakened state, the Adversary “suggested” that He should help Himself:

“If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 

Yeshua’s response to the Tempter was this, [paraphrased], “food doesn’t fulfill your life, but the Word of God does!”

Why did Yeshua fast for forty-days and forty-nights? Why did He deny Himself sustenance before the beginning of His ministry? There’s symbolism there that we are missing.

Fasting 40-Days & 40-Nights

The miracle of fasting for forty days and forty nights happened two other times in the Hebrew Bible. The first was when Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mt. Sinai with YHWH:

Exodus 34:28 

So he [Moses] was there with YHWH for forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

This was the first mention of the practice of “fasting”, although technically the word tsum wasn’t used, it was just implied by the words “did not eat”.

Centuries later, the prophet Elijah was fleeing Jezebel’s army who were out to kill him. The Angel of YHWH came to Elijah and encouraged him to eat. The meal he ate would sustain his 40-day, 40-night fast, as he headed to Mt. Horeb, (1 Kings 19:4-8). 

Moses feared death by being in the presence of YHWH; Elijah feared death at the hands of the very human Jezebel. Yeshua faced physical death at the hands of humans and spiritual death when He bore the sins of humanity and subsequently finding Himself torn apart from His Father. 

In essence, Yeshua’s 40-day/40-night fast benchmarked the beginning of His ministry, which would lead to His death on the cross. A fast was a physical reminder of His newly acquired humanity and highlighted what it truly felt like to hunger, both physically and spiritually. It was symbolic of death in the wilderness and a reminder that He would continue to face the wilderness of death even while He delivered the garden of life to those around Him. 

This connection between Yeshua, Moses and Elijah was rekindled a week before Yeshau headed to Jerusalem to die. He had a transfiguring encounter on a mountain-top alongside Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-8). To transfigure, means to elevate and/or illuminate. The three individuals who fasted for 40-days and 40-nights met in one place, on a high mountaintop, and they stood together, glowing. Then YHWH announced, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!”  (Matthew 17:5).

This was Yeshua’s commissioning moment, it was time to descend the mountain and go to the cross. The feasting of Yeshua’s life was coming to a close, and a fast was about to begin. As they descended down the mountain Yeshua warned Peter, James and John:

Matthew 17:9

“Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” 

David: Fasting in the Psalms

It was from David that the line of the Messianic would come. He was God’s anointed (mashiach) king, and he held the title of “messiah” (anointed one). Yeshua was the final “anointed one” in a long line of “anointed ones”, beginning with David. 

David, God’s anointed king, was a serious faster and he reflected that in his Psalms. David understood the gravity of fasting. It was to be done sincerely and with humility. Fasting without humility and sincerity was not a fast that God recognized because it was for your own glory, not His. God would not respond to an empty fasting prayer.

David knew this, and so when he fasted he highlighted his humility to God. David truly believed that when God saw his sincere fasting and prayer, He would respond in kind:

Psalm 69:8-18

[David:] I have become estranged from my brothers, and a stranger to my mother’s sons. For zeal for Your house has consumed me, and the taunts of those who taunt You have fallen on me.

When I wept in my soul with fasting [ba-tson], it became my disgrace. When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a proverb to them. Those who sit in the gate talk about me, and songs of mockery by those habitually drunk are about me.

But as for me, my prayer is to You, YHWH, at an acceptable time; God, in the greatness of Your mercy, answer me with Your saving truth.

Rescue me from the mud and do not let me sink; may I be rescued from those who hate me, and from the depths of water.

May the flood of water not overflow me nor the deep swallow me up, nor the pit close its mouth on me.

Answer me, YHWH, for Your mercy is good; according to the greatness of Your compassion, turn to me, and do not hide Your face from Your servant, for I am in distress; answer me quickly. Come near to my soul and redeem it; ransom me because of my enemies!

As the anointed king, David loved the people of his kingdom, but not all loved him in return. Even though they showed him contempt, David prayed and fasted on their behalf:

Psalm 35:11-17

[David:] Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me things that I do not know. They repay me evil for good, to the bereavement of my soul.

But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting [ba-tson], but my prayer kept returning to me.

I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down in mourning, like one who mourns for a mother. But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered themselves together; the afflicted people whom I did not know gathered together against me, they slandered me without ceasing. Like godless jesters at a feast, they gnashed at me with their teeth.

Lord, how long will You look on? Rescue my soul from their ravages, my only life from the lions.

David sought God with fasting in all humility. He asked for help and he gave all the glory to God when it was accomplished:

Psalm 109:21-27

[David:] But You, YHWH, the Lord, deal kindly with me for the sake of Your name; because Your mercy is good, rescue me; for I am afflicted and needy, and my heart is wounded within me. I am passing like a shadow when it lengthens; I am shaken off like the locust.

My knees are weak from fasting [mi-tson], and my flesh has grown lean, without fatness. I also have become a disgrace to them; when they see me, they shake their head.

Help me, YHWH my God; save me according to Your mercy. And may they know that this is Your hand; You, YHWH, have done it.

David was the forerunner of Yeshua the Messiah. He was mocked and hated, and people wanted him killed. In many ways David was much like his great descendant grandson to come. David fasted, prayed, trusted in YHWH, and gave all the glory to God, his Father.

Image by Aris Subowo (Pixabay.com)

Fasting, A Group Activity

Individual fasting didn’t occur that often. David, Yeshua, Moses, Elijah, Daniel (Daniel 9:2-3) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:1-9), fasted individually, but for the most part fasting was a group activity.

Group fasting was usually done in order to gain God’s favour. For example:

  • When it was discovered that the Moabites and Ammonites were planning to attack Jerusalem, king Jehoshaphat turned to God and proclaimed a period of fasting for the people (2 Chronicles 20:3-4).
  • On their return to Jerusalem (after a long exile in Babylon) Ezra proclaimed a fast for the people in order to gain God’s protection during their travels (Ezra 8:21-23).
  • When the Jews living in Persia were under the threat of annihilation they fasted to support Esther and be saved (Esther 4:1-3, 16-17)

Good came out of all these moments of fasting. YHWH saved Judah from the Moabites and Ammonites; He delivered the people safely to Jerusalem; and with Queen Esther’s bravery the Jews were rescued from total extermination.

However, God did not always respond positively to the fasting of the people. When they fasted with insincere hearts, YHWH called them on it:

Jeremiah 14:10-12

This is what YHWH says to this people: “So much they have loved to wander; they have not restrained their feet. Therefore YHWH does not accept them; now He will remember their wrongdoing and call their sins to account.” So YHWH said to me, “Do not pray for a good outcome on behalf of this people. When they fast [ya-tsumu], I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather, I am going to put an end to them by the sword, famine, and plague.”

Fasting: A Physical Prayer with Tangible Results

YHWH said, When they fast I am not going to listen to their cry. Fasting was a physical mode of prayer, a way to cry out to God with your whole body. But in this instance the people’s desire was not to align themselves with YHWH but to get what they wanted. They wanted to win wars, gain power, and be recognized for their piety.

Yeshua warned his disciples about self serving, look-at-me, fasting:

Matthew 6:16-18 (see also Luke 18:9-14)

“Now whenever you fast [Greek: nesteuete], do not make a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by people when they are fasting [Greek: nesteuontes]. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But as for you, when you fast [Greek: nesteuon], anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting [Greek: nesteuon] will not be noticed by people but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Fasting was only effective when it was paired with sincerity. Without humility and sincerity God would not pay attention to their self-serving piety:

Isaiah 58:3-5

[The people to YHWH:] ‘Why have we fasted [tsam’nu] and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’

[YHWH to the people:] “Behold, on the day of your fast [tsom’kem] you find your desire, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast [ta-tsumu] for contention and strife, and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast [lo ta-tsumu] like you have done today to make your voice heard on high!

Is it a fast [tsom] like this that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast [tsom], even an acceptable day to YHWH?

YHWH called them on it. Their fast was not about humbly calling on God. Instead they used this traditional method of gaining God’s favour to cause strife and contention with other humans. YHWH expected a better kind of fast from His people:

Isaiah 58:6-9a

[YHWH:] Is this not the fast [tsom] that I choose:

To release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the ropes of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke?

Is it not to break your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will spring up quickly; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of YHWH will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and YHWH will answer; You will cry for help, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’

In this passage, YHWH completely changed the meaning of fasting. It was time for this physical act to have tangible results. The fast that God proclaimed was to no longer deny yourself, but instead to give to others. He desired that His people break bread with the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. It wasn’t about not eating; it was about giving up a bit of yourself to others. It was a sacrifice “self”… giving a portion of yourself in order to raise others up. That’s the kind of fast YHWH would respond to. If we do these things (feed, clothe and house those in need) and call on Him for help, He will be right there with us. 

Zechariah 7:5-6

[YHWH:] “Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, ‘When you fasted [tsam’tem] and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted [tsam’tuni]? And when you eat and drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?’“…

Their fasting was all wrong. They ate for themselves and they also didn’t eat… for themselves. Again, YHWH was looking for a different kind of fast, not a fast of denying yourself food, but a fast of denying yourself by giving yourself over to others through justice, kindness and compassion:

Zechariah 7:9-13

”This is what YHWH of armies has said: ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’ 

But they refused to pay attention, and turned a stubborn shoulder and plugged their ears from hearing. They also made their hearts as hard as a diamond so that they could not hear the Law and the words which YHWH of armies had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from YHWH of armies. And just as He called and they would not listen, so they called and I would not listen,” says YHWH of armies.

Relationships are meant to be interactive. When YHWH calls on us, we ought to listen, so that when we call on YHWH He will afford us the same respect. If we reject Him, He will respect our wishes and stop connecting with us. When we fast for ourselves and our own esteem, YHWH lets us stand on our own, and fall on our own.

When Fasting Turns to Feasting (Death to Life)

The prophet Joel often focused on “the Day of the LORD”… the day where YHWH would set things straight. The hope for YHWH’s return and the fixing of this broken world is a thing worth praying and fasting for:

Joel 1:14-15

Consecrate a fast [tsom], proclaim a solemn assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of YHWH your God, and cry out to YHWH.

Woe for the day! For the day of YHWH is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.

Joel 2:12-15, 18

“Yet even now,” declares YHWH, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting [u-v-tson], weeping, and mourning; and tear your heart and not merely your garments.”

Now return to YHWH your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in mercy and relenting of catastrophe.

Who knows, He might turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, resulting in a grain offering and a drink offering for YHWH your God.

Blow a trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast [tson], proclaim a solemn assembly…Then YHWH, zealous for His land, will have compassion for His people.

This was the meaning of fasting… be sincere and turn your hearts back to YHWH and you will be rewarded with a lifetime of His compassion an mercy. But we fail, as God’s children, all the time. It is part of being human. Fasting was a way to re-dedicate ourselves to our Creatorut, b fasting was not meant to be a never-ending sacrifice. In YHWH’s Garden Kingdom there would be no need for fasting and no place for it either. The Table in YHWH’s Kingdom was always full:

Revelation 22:1-5

Then the angel showed me a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the main street of the city. On either side of the river stood a tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit and yielding a fresh crop for each month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be within the city, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night in the city, and they will have no need for the light of a lamp or of the sun. For the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever.

In the final garden scene YHWH provided the water of life and a continual feast of fruit. There would be no famine and no fasting in YHWH’s Garden Kingdom. The curse of death had no place there and so there was also no place for fasting. We no longer needed to be reminded of our mortality, because we would no longer be mortal. In other words, in YHWH’s house we are to eat, drink and be merry… and you will never be hungry again!

Next week: Revisiting SUN

Disclaimer and post-script: Fasting should only be practised by those who are healthy and have sound, established, eating habits. I would also suggest that it is best to fast as a group, so you can be accountable to each other, and watch out for each other’s health and safety. In fact, you may opt for the alternative “fasting” of Isaiah 58, which is not about giving up food, but is instead about the giving of yourself to others… feeding, clothing, and housing those in need. I’m recently widowed, and this past week I was hit hard with Covid-19. As a result, my friend did this alternate kind of “fasting” for me. She brought part of her meal that she had made for herself and left it at my door. I was in need and she fed me… that’s the “fasting” that God encourages us to do. Thank you, Doris, for bearing God’s image to me and to all who are blessed to have you in their lives. Shalom!


4 thoughts on “Tsum/Tsom: FASTING on Tisha B’Av”

  1. Thank you so much for all the work that goes into teaching us God’s word so clearly. I have just discovered your website and I am so grateful for your hard work. I am so terrible sorry to hear of the loss of your husband. May our God of comfort be there to give you his love and help you to get through this terrible time. Deut 31:6


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