Taanit Tzibbur: Communal Fast in Time of Calamity: drought, famine, war, etc

By Lee Moore (as of June 2010, Rabbi) & Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[I have made a few revisions in this (as of July 22, 2014). Some of the comments continue to be specifically connected to the period in 2002 before the US invaded Iraq; but these can be taken as pointers toward the outlook appropriate in 2014, in the midst of another Israel-Palestine War. The photo was taken by Robert Corwin in 1991, when Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi led P'nai Or Religious Fellowship in Calling for a Communal Fast in Time of Calamity as the US prepared to enter the first Gulf War. With Reb Zalman in this photo are (now Rabbi) Arthur Waskow, (now Rabbi) Phyllis Berman), and Greg Robbins, then executive director of P'nai Or-- AW, editor]

Long ago, Jews chose when they were facing the calamities of drought, or plague, or famine, or war, to call the community to fast.
By the time of the framing of the Mishnah (around 200 CE), this tradition had been shaped into a liturgy for calling such a Fast. What follows below is a liturgy or service that draws upon this special service as it is described in Mishnah Ta'anit (Chapters 1-3). The service can be used on the actual day of fasting, or can be used to proclaim a later day of fasting.
We welcome other religious and spiritual communities, especially those stirred by the Multireligious Call to a Fast for Peace, to use whatever parts of this liturgy appeal to them.
There are further comments about communal fasting after the liturgy below. With blessings of shalom,
Lee Moore, Program Coordinator
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center
Ta'anit Tzibbur al HaTzarah:
Call to a Communal Fast to Avert Calamity

Finding ourselves pressed down by the possibility of war, we gather to support each other and to strengthen our courage. Regardless of our political views, we know that wars cause the death of innocents — mothers and children, fathers and grandparents. We know that the world is an interconnected whole, and that what we do to one part of it will in turn affect us, too.
The Rambam teaches that all fasts assist in the holy process of T'shuvah — turning ourselves toward the One. By turning away from filling our bellies, we more easily open our hearts to compassion, our minds to wisdom, and our hands to acts of peace. Today, we ask the question — what tshuvah, what turning, is it that we want to turn to, in light of this potential calamity of war? Near the end of the service, each person in the circle will be asked to share what they intend to turn to.

Bringing Out the Ark

Since ancient times, the Call to a Communal Fast has begun by bringing out the Ark into an open space and strewing wood-ashes on the Ark, on the foreheads of the secular and religious leaders of the community, and then everyone else. [Pause to do this, skipping anyone who prefers not to have the ashes. If the community has not brought an Ark outdoors, ashes may be strewn on the Torah cover or on a cloth surrounding it.]

The eldest member of the group speaks:

Today, as the Prophet Joel (2:13) teaches, "Karu l'vavchem v'al bigdeichem" — we gather to rend our hearts, not our garments as we do upon a death. We have not experienced a death, but in the darkened air there hovers the possibility of many deaths. By rending our hearts — tearing them more open — we hope to prevent the needless killing that could happen during war. Let us rend our hearts now, so that we will not need to rend our garments later. May our hearts and the hearts of our leaders soften so that we make life-affirming choices in these difficult times. As we learn (Jonah 3: 8-10), when Nineveh repented from the violence of their fists, God saw not their sackcloth and ashes — but instead "God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil path."
We call ourselves to alarm by blowing the shofar in the sound of alarm; we call ourselves to compassion by blowing the shofar in its wailing and its sobs.


We remember the Power of the One to re-member us, to make us whole again.
"God remembered Noah and every living creature, and all the life-forms, all the animals that were with him in the ark; God brought a rushing-wind across the earth, and the waters abated." May we, living in a world flooded by an overflow of violence, remember now our covenant for life.
Just as God heard our groaning under slavery in the Narrow Place, re-membering the covenant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, so may we re-member our own part in that covenant.
Blessed are You, YHWH our God, Ruler [Breathing-spirit] of the world, who has made us holy through connectedness, and has connected us through the hearing of the shofar. Baruch attah YHWH elohenu melech [ruach] ha'olam asher kidshanu b'mitzvot vitzivanu lishmoa kol shofar.
First blowing of the shofar — Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah.
Blessed are You, YHWH our God, Who re-members the covenant.
Shoferot/Shofar-Transformations Today, we blow the shofar to awaken ourselves and our leaders to the transformative possibilities of peace. For as we are taught, "All you who dwell upon the planet and live throughout the earth shall see when the banner is lifted on the mountain, shall hear the Shofar when it is sounded forth." (Isaiah 18:3).
Second blowing of the shofar — Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah Gedolah
For You hear the sound of the shofar and You heed its call. There is none like You. Blessed are You, YHWH, who in compassion hears the shofar sounding of Your people.

(The "little Yom Kippur" before the New Moon or on any communal fast. Note the acrostic.)
(by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)

You my God, my Helper
Ordering my life is not easy
My struggles are before You

Keep at my side as I strive
I am not as good as I wish to be
Put forth Your light and lead me
Please guide my steps on Your path
Up to the level I can live on
Raise my actions to my values

Kindness plant in my heart
Attention to the ways I am relating
To others who cross my path
And help me to live in balance
Neither in haste nor in sloth

And give me joy in Your service
Making bright the lives of my loved ones
Embracing the lot You give me —
Night and morning in Your service.

How may I come to You / If I did not heed Your word?
What You have made pure / I have polluted
What You have loved / I despised
What You have ordered / I have disrupted
What you have intended / I have opposed
Take my ways and turn them
So that I might make pure/ What I have polluted
That I may love / What You love
That I may order / What I have disrupted
That I might intend / What You intend
May I be renewed like the moon.
May I reflect Your light ever waxing.

Recitation of Psalms

from Psalm 120:
In my distress, I called to YHWH and I was answered.
God, rescue my soul/ breath from lips that lie, from a tongue that deceives...
Too long has my soul/ breath dwelt with those who hate peace.
I am peace, but when I speak, they are for war.

from Psalm 121:Song: Esai Einai

I lift up my eyes unto the mountains
From where, from where will my help come?
I lift up my eyes unto the mountains
From where, from where will my help come?
My help will come-come from the One,
Maker of the heavens and the earth.
My help will come-come from the One,
Maker of the heavens and the earth.
Esai Einai, el ha-harim
Mei-ai'yin, mei-ai'yin yavo ezri?
Esai Einai, el ha-harim
Mei-ai'yin, mei-ai'yin yavo ezri?
Ezri me-im Hashem oseh shamaiim v'aretz (x2).

from Psalm 130:
From the depths have I called You, O Eternal.
YHWH, hear my voice.
May your ears attend to the sound of my pleas.
For if you were to keep track of all misdeeds,
Oh God, who could breathe?
Yet with You comes forgiveness
That fills us with awe.
In You I place my hope,
With every breath I place my hope in You,
And for Your word I yearn.
My every breath awaits You,
More than watchmen wait for the dawn —
Yes, more than watchmen yearn for dawn.
You who wrestle God, take hope in YHWH!
For with the Source of Life is loving-kindness
And many forms of freedom —
For the Breath of Life will free us from all our unjust acts.

from Psalm 102:

You Who Hear prayers, hear my prayer now,
Let my outcry reach to You.
Do not hide your face from me on this day of distress.
Lend me Your ear.
On the very day I call out, answer me.
Reading from the Prophets —
Yeshayahu, Isaiah 56
What is the fast that I demand of you? —
What is a day that truly presses down your ego?
Is it bending down your head like a bulrush?
Sitting on sack-cloth and ashes?
This is the fast that I have chosen:
Break the handcuffs put on by wicked power;
Undo the yoke of heavy burden;
Let the oppressed go free.
Share your bread with the hungry;
Bring the homeless to your own house.
When you see the naked, clothe them;
Don't hide yourself; they are your flesh and blood!

And from a child of the Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing in 1943:
“Emblazoned over the gates of the world in which we live is the escutcheon of the demons. The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God. Ashamed and dismayed, we ask: Who is responsible?
“All may be guided by the words of the Baal Shem: If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.
“Indeed, where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?
“Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience. We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil. We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.
“When greed, envy, and the reckless will to power, the serpents that were cherished in the bosom of our civilization, came to maturity, they broke out of their dens to fall upon the helpless nations.
“The conscience of the world was destroyed by those who were wont to blame others rather than themselves.”

What acts of ours will respond wholeheartedly to Isaiah's voicing of God's desire? What acts of ours will respond to Heschel's call that we become responsible?

Let each of us now look into the hearts we have torn open, and bring forth one action that we intend as an act of turning toward the One. — Each of us is welcome now to say what deed we intend to do in order to lessen violence, seek peace, and prevent war.
[Wait for words of commitment from members of the community.]

We call upon our community to undertake a communal fast and thoughtful action in the hope of averting the calamity of war, focused on the hours from dawn to dusk on _________ [insert date according to the Jewish and Western calendars].

Closing song (by Debbie Friedman; Zechariah 4: 6,)

Not by might, and not by power,
but by Spirit alone
Shall we all live in peace.
The children sing, the children sing —
And their tears may fall
But we'll hear them call
And another song will rise (x3).
Not by might, and not by power,
but by Spirit alone
Shall we all live in peace.
The liturgy above and the comments below were shaped by Lee Moore, Program Coordinator for The Shalom Center, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, its director.
Some of them applied chiefly to the moment shortly before the US invaded Iraq; other comments continue to be directly relevant.

The Shalom Center encourages communities — whether Jewish or multireligious — to gather to fast, to reflect, to pray, and to act. We encourage you to use the service above, and to modify it as befits your situation.

It is a mitzvah to call out to God any time danger looms. In ancient times, the rabbis would call for a fast to engage the whole community in changing its behavior. In so doing, the people hoped to re-establish right relationship with the Divine and avert an impending calamity. The liturgy above is based on this traditional practice of calling for a fast in times of calamity.

The call is timely this year. In ancient times, if the rains did not come by the first of the month of Kislev, the entire community would be called to fast for three days from dawn to dusk. This year, we need inward rains of healing — our own tears of contrition and compassion — and so we inaugurate a season of conscious fasting.

The first fast could be held on Yom Kippur Katan — the daylight just before Rosh Chodesh begins, the new moon of Kislev. Ta'anit Tzibbur is not intended for private, individual reflection. It aims at communal recognition of the impending calamity, and communal transformation. The root of the word "ta'anit" relates to the notion of being pressed, afflicted, like the bread of affliction during Passover. It's crucial that we come together in this time in groups of three or more to acknowledge that we feel pressed by the threat of war. And then, as a community we can break the fast together, with hopes of a brighter immediate future.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'anit 1:1-2) highlights a fast day as one of teshuvah, or turning/ returning. Constraints on eating focus attention upon our behavior and the resulting crisis.
Mincha-time, late afternoon, is a critical moment for teshuvah during a ta'anit. Ezra (9:5) writes, "During the Mincha time I arose from my ta'anit, tore my clothing, fell upon my knees, and spread my hands upward to YHWH my God."

This liturgy is perhaps best used, then, by a community of fasters who assemble if possible during the day to study and reflect and act. Then in the late afternoon or early evening, they might pray together for a shifting of the winds away from destruction and possible further destruction, and finally in celebration of community together break their fast.

With blessings of shalom,
Lee Moore and Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center


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