Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


The Fasts.

by Isaac Leeser

O God of Israel hear! Father of truth, listen to the words of our prayer; Thou who ever hearest, Thou who ever art attentive to the entreaties of thy children. And if even we are guilty in thy eyes, do not avert thy view from us, do not close up thy ear, but regard us with favour, and forgive our iniquities, and accept our prayer, though it proceed from polluted lips. For where is the one that is pure in thy sight? where the heart that is not laden with guilt? Were it then that Thou wouldst judge only to condemn, all would needs meet the awful doom of thy displeasure. In this confidence do we then approach Thee, not denying our guilt, not hiding our transgressions, but as humble suppliants of mercy which we have rejected, as petitioners for grace which we do not deserve. O hear us, then, in this hour! and let us experience in our inward heart the consolation of thy mercy and thy truth, which guide thy servants securely upon the dark path of life’s troubled ocean, which have preserved Israel from the snares which have beset them from their origin as a people. Save us, Father! save us from our own perverseness; save thy heritage from the evil that is in their own souls; purge thy household from those who bring destruction into it, and single out those who are true to thy will as thy peculiar treasure, as the brilliant jewels whose light shineth for ever in the diadem of majesty that encircleth thy glory. Be it also thy will to let the truth of their sinfulness be made manifest to the sinners of Israel, that they may return unto Thee with a pure repentance, a repentance in which there is no love for past iniquity, which abhors the evil which was perpetrated in the days when the soul slumbered darkly, unconverted to thy law, untouched by thy light. So that thy kingdom may be established over us all, and we indeed be called thy people, the first of thy fruit, holy unto thy service. Amen.


In the days when the crown of our head was struck to the ground, at the time that, exhausted with slaughter, sunk fainting the weary sons of Zion, those who had been spared, and they were indeed few from many, felt inwardly that it was not the prowess of the enemy which had prevailed over them, but the weight of their iniquities which paralysed their arm and blunted their sword; and thus they conceived it their duty to humble themselves, before the Judge who had made them conscious of their guilt, and to return to the Father whose favour they had blindly rejected. Now in what did the sin of our forefathers of the first temple consist? It was in chief sensuality which had led them captive; they followed the customs of the heathen, which were interdicted in the law, and their very idolatry was greatly owing to the freedom from restraint which they coveted, that they might be like the other nations around them. Of the correctness of this view, the denunciations of the prophets are the best evidence which we can have, and they speak in eloquent language of the derelictions of the men of those times. When, therefore, the evil which had been threatened did actually befall us: it was at once felt that it was a natural consequence of the long series of Israel’s transgressions; just as the convulsions of poison are the natural result of swallowing the substances that are inimical to human existence. That there always was known among us a remedy against the death of the soul, as soon as she found herself stumbling through sin, and this antidote is the system of repentance which was revealed to us, from time to time, by the prophets of the Lord. These have taught us, not alone that a man should forsake his evil way and return to the Lord, in words and thoughts; but that he should curb within himself the propensities to carnal indulgence, not to mortify the flesh, but to elevate the spirit. And indeed when the flesh becomes weak, and lassitude creeps over the bodily organs, the high enjoyment in things merely of this life is greatly blunted, and the sinkings of a mortal’s nature will then impress themselves upon his conviction; and he will feel that the spirit needs some other source of tranquillity than the constant round of enjoyments and pleasurable engagements which are so much prized by the world at large; especially will this be the case if this mortification of the body is done from a premeditated resolve, in order to curb desire, and to avoid causes of sinful temptation. Fasting, therefore, and abstinence from pleasure are proper remedies against the too greedy indulgence in perishable things, against the over-anxiety to live for this life only. In addition to this, when we are engaged in such an act of active penance, we are paying, so to say, in kind for the evil before perpetrated; and, by subduing our desires, we become fit to re-enter the path of righteousness which we have forsaken. But Israel had, at the destruction of Jerusalem, not sinned alone as individuals, for the nation also had violated the law; the roads to Jerusalem were not trod during ages of prosperity by those who hastened up to the house of God to offer there devotion and sacrifices; the mad and frantic orgies of heathen worship had enchained the multitude; and, in addition to this, the courts of justice were converted into tribunals that looked with indifference upon infringements of religion, and did not pronounce judgment to restore to their rights those of the people who were suffering unjustly the tyranny exercised over them by the proud and wealthy, who considered their strong hand all-sufficient for them in their dealings with their fellow-men.

When now our fathers awoke from their long mental slumber, and saw how their guilt had destroyed the sanctuary, ruined their cities, overthrown their government, and surrendered multitudes to famine and slaughter: they did not ascribe all this to fortuitous circumstances, to the accidental prevalence of their enemies over them, but to the effects of divine wrath, to the withdrawal of the favour of God, which had thus left them an easy prey to those who devoured them in all their dwellings. Thus admonished, they aroused themselves to thought, they evoked the energy of their mind to reflection, and catered into a covenant with themselves to forego the pleasures of this world, only to be led back to the safe guidance of their blessed but neglected religion. They thus met in their places of dispersion, and poured out their hearts before God, abstained on stated days as one man from carnal enjoyment, and asked, as a community, for mercy, because as a community they had transgressed. And well did they choose to act thus; no matter where the Israelite lived, if alone in the midst of a heathen community, or in the fellowship of numerous believers, on one and the same day he called with his dispersed brethren on the honoured and fearful Name, that He might have compassion of Zion, and visit again his people in mercy. And thus acting, he was reminded that there was something else to live for than the fleeting hour; that the Israelite’s resting-place was not the land of his captors, nor this earthly state the final abode of his spirit. He was reminded, when fasting for the misfortunes which befell our fathers in their obduracy, that sinfulness is a state of warfare against the Deity; that long indulgence, the withholding of retribution, is no sign of exemption, no token that the Lord has overlooked to let his violated will be avenged on the transgressor, and that it is best therefore for man to bear the sweet burden of religion in his youth, that he submit whilst it is yet time to listen to the breathings of divine instruction which is preached to him from a thousand sources, all appealing to him to walk in the path of life and earn for himself everlasting salvation. He was reminded when he entered into the house of prayer, where other sons of Israel wept and mourned for Zion, that he and they had lost a country lovely in its products, blessed by the overshadowing providence of the Creator; that they had lost in the day of strife that for which the patriot’s heart beats high—the sovereignty and independence of their native land;—that through this they were compelled to forego the worship of the King in glory in his sanctuary, which He had chosen for the dwelling of his name, and that they were compulsory sojourners far from their loved heritage, and that they could not be united again as one people in any other spot, no matter how large the land, or fertile the soil, except in that small margin of the great ocean which the Lord had given to Abraham. He was reminded, when his soul fainted within him, that the earth one day must fade from his view, that he must then leave what his heart clung to as a legacy to those who laboured not for it, and that of all his toil there will be nothing left to him as his own save the labours of righteousness and the acquisition he may have made in the knowledge of the law of God. And who can aver that a day of penitence, passed with such feelings, which induced man to survey the past, the present, and the future, could have been otherwise than wholesome in its influence? It taught the Israelite to abhor the sin which banished his fathers from their home; it admonished him to regard with kindness those who like him were wanderers over the face of the earth, and it breathed into him hopes to look forward to the restoration of the good things taken from him by the loss of fatherland, and then it bade him look upward unto his Father in heaven as the final rest of his soul, in whose presence all the acts, words, and thoughts of life would ultimately see their final perfection.

To those therefore who felt for their religion and its departed glory, the fasts of Israel have always been seasons sacred to the memory of the past, and incentives to hope for the future. And not alone this,—the true believers felt in humbling themselves before God, that in all their trials HE would be with them to preserve them from annihilation. Whenever then calamities thickened around us, when the wrath of man burnt fiercer than the lightnings of heaven: the servants of the Lord forgot not the presence of their Almighty Redeemer, and they resumed the pious course of their fathers, and they went in fasting and prayer unto the house of assembly; and if even in the dungeon, they lifted up there the heart and soul above the cares and sorrows of their existence; and they obtained enlargement; not always, it is true, in a deliverance from earthly sorrows, for many a holy spirit succumbed in the body to the sufferings which passed over us like mighty streams, but in the exaltation which was vouchsafed to them over these very sorrows, in the light which beamed through the bars of their prison-houses, in the fortitude which bade them walk to the burning stake, triumphant in their faith more than the warrior in the day of victory. And thus were the Israelites upheld through ages, when suffering seemed to be the only heirloom bequeathed to them from the heroes of antiquity, when all their ancestral glory was only an additional incentive to heap upon them, the unoffending and unresisting sufferers, the scorn, the hatred of an infuriated world. O, in those days it was a holy thing for the sons of Jacob to dwell with a melancholy pleasure upon the recital of ancient glory; it was then, with hearts overflowing with gratitude, that they reverted back to the days when Israel was a child,—when God loved him for the righteousness of the fathers, the great names of ancient times, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,—when He saw his affliction in the land of Mitzrayim, and sent his messenger Moses to afflict Pharaoh with mighty wonders, to divide for his armies the waters of the Red Sea,—when He sent down his glory to the top of Mount Sinai, to teach his first-born wisdom and truth. Yes, these were themes of a glorious past for suffering believers; in these recollections they could revel,—no stranger could therein disturb their joy; no one alien to the family of Jacob could claim aught in this heavenly delight. And though they might be scorned by the proud and thoughtless rulers of the earth: they felt that all the light which these enjoyed was first taken from their law; and they could point to deeds of mercy, wrought in their behalf, such as the Creator alone could produce. They possessed also a system of faith and actions which man could never have invented, which could and did spring from the wisdom of God alone. And thus they could well bear with the deprivations of the present, in their constant living in the days of a long past antiquity, an antiquity nevertheless full of youthful vigour, and felt by its acting upon and influencing every age which followed its predecessor, as must be the case with those laws and ordinances which the Lord himself instituted as the unquenchable light of the world. But not the past alone was to them a source of joy and comfort; the future likewise opened to them a brilliant and pleasant destiny. Let other nations enjoy the moment, the glitter of royalty, the applause of triumph of principles or of arms; let associations glorify themselves over the victory which their mind has obtained over the opinions of others; the Israelites had far more to look forward to—a regeneration of the world by their acts and sufferings. True they had no king of their own to lead their armies to battle; they had no share in the government of the world; they were aliens in every land; their principles were a passport to oppression; their learning was contemned, and the portals of the temple of science was shut against them; as unclean, as affected with leprosy, were the gates of cities closed to bar their entrance; but what could all these hardships effect? Could they stifle the spirit of God that breathed hope and consolation in them? No; they felt, that the word of the Lord had gone forth to call unto himself a chosen servant from the seed of Israel, the divinely endowed prince, whom they looked forward to with hope and fear; the chief, unto whom nations should flock to inquire, What has the Lord spoken? who is to rule, not by the potency of human prowess, but by the spirit of God that is to instruct him in all things; and they were insured, from their faith in divine promises, that at his coming there would be an end to warfare and strife; that the idols would utterly be banished from the earth; that errors would be annihilated before the triumphant progress of truth, and that in those days, the religion revealed on Sinai would not be a token of oppression to its professors, but a light unto salvation to all who would seek its wisdom, to each son of man who may come forward to drink of the fountain opened to all lips by the manifestation of the divine power. And they also believed that each one could contribute by his own acts to the speedy approach of this glory; for as all had an equal share in the redemption from Egyptian bondage, and as all were equally present in their ancestors at the annunciation of the law from Horeb: all leave the same interest in and can therefore be equally active for the good which the Lord has spoken of for Israel. Whenever then the stated fasts came round, whether the day was long or short, the faithful assembled, and, in the language of Palestine, they implored the Lord of their fathers to remember them all in his loving kindness, and to restore his glory to his house at Jerusalem, and to bless his people with the light of his countenance, by sending them his messenger of peace, the redeemer, who is to feed them securely on the mountains of the land of Israel. In this manner, have these days of observance, first instituted by the prophets, come down to our own times, full of meaning and high significance, not as periods for a senseless affliction of the body, but as days of commemoration, of repentance, of prayer, and of renewed hope.

Hitherto, brethren, the Lord has been our Shield; and though often passing through the waters of tribulation, we have been preserved to transmit to those who may come after us the recollections of the past, the duties of the present, and the hopes of the future. But some men of the day, who only see what passes before their eyes, who are too worldly to look back upon the past, and have no faith in the future; may say, perhaps, in their presumption, “What need we to afflict ourselves about long past events? what is unto us the destruction of Jerusalem? what the scattering of Israel? In times indeed when we were scorned, it was well enough to fast and weep; but now our condition is improved—we are now equals with other men; the present is ours as well as the gentiles’; we cannot keep up recollections of past injuries, we wish to forgive, to forget, secure in our rights, careless about the future.” There are men who argue thus, if arguing it can be called; worldlings, who see not that such liberty as we enjoy is at best but the gift of Providence, granted us for the time, not the result of a radical change in the history of the world; that persecution in all its horrors may not come again to terrify us in the city, to pursue us in the field. “The present is ours,” say these men. Alas! Israel is yet suffering; the present is not ours: would to Mercy it were so. Here, in this land, we are untrammelled in the exercise of our religion; there are no inquiries made by law; “why we believe as we do.” But there are many other lands where the Jew is as much a slave as during the times of the crusaders. There is, it is true, a different spirit in the persecutions; it was then the infuriated masses that travelled from city to city to destroy the infidels, the enemies of their religion, as they called us; whereas now no one is capitally punished for his belief; but for all that, there is no freedom for Israel. In many countries we are restricted to filthy, narrow streets, beyond which a Jew cannot dwell; in others we are limited to certain pursuits, whilst all the nobler professions are interdicted to us; in others, the number of those who are permitted to marry is based upon the proportion of married persons who have died, and left the right of protection as an inheritance to their successors; and in others—­But what good can result to recount all the sorrows of our people at the present day? Are not our ears constantly pained at hearing the acts of tyranny which are perpetrated in civilized Europe, or barbarous Asia and Africa, by the rulers and people? and where is our power to resist this evil? “The present is ours;” yea, as always, a present of suffering; and wo to those who depend upon the march of intellect to put a stop to these cruelties! Only the good Father, who chastiseth us to be his servants, can end all this anguish. But well is it for us to be so reminded that we are the humble of the earth, that our heart may not wax proud and forget what is due to our God and his law. How many would there be ready to throw off the burdensome duties that confine them within the narrow limits of the law; but they are ever and anon reminded that the blood of Jacob flows in their veins; and with every renewed account of oppression that reaches them, their pride in their name is aroused, they feel that they are brothers of the oppressed, that they have yet an interest in those whom oceans and mountains divide from their sight.

But there are other men who are tired of their separate national existence, who feel the name of Jew a disgrace, who would gladly lose their nationality among the nations of the earth for the simple boon of civil liberty. They desire to be known as Frenchmen, Germans, or Englishmen; they wish not to see the restoration of the captives of Israel to the holy land, content to remain in a severed state, “like the fragments of a mighty ship, floating upon the vast ocean.” They cannot deny that they were once a people, that they are disjointed members of this former state; but talk to them of a restoration, that these disjointed limbs should form again one homogeneous body: and they will say, with derision, that they desire to see no such restoration. Well might a prophet, in the bitterness of spirit, call out over the degeneracy of his age:

העבד ישראל אם יליד בית הוא מדוע היה לבז

“Is Israel a servant, or one born to service in the house? why hath he been given to plunder?”—Jeremiah 2:14.

Yes, are we slaves to the world at large? were we born bondmen to every nation under the sun, that we should be always ready to be plundered by whomsoever will stretch forth his hand against us? Is that our aspiration for liberty, that we should be content with the measure of freedom which we can enjoy in each state? I know how to appreciate liberty; my heart too throbs with emotions of thankfulness that I can travel hither and thither, write and speak, worship and pray, govern and be governed, like every freeman in the land. But despite of this, I am an Israelite, and gladly would I see a state restored under God, and by his guidance, where the laws administered would be the biblical laws, where the Jew would not and need not receive his rights as a favour, where there would be no talk of toleration, where there would be no fear of abridgement of privileges, where, in short, the Israelite would be free, not because the stranger grants it, but because his laws, his religion, his faith, constitute him a part and parcel of the state itself. Under the best circumstances, in the freest country under the sun, the Jews are subject to disqualifications, not from the laws of the country, perhaps, but from the circumstances of their religion disqualifying them naturally from participating in all offices, or engaging actively in commerce, upon equal terms with others, if they wish to live in strict conformity to their faith. Every one of you can answer for himself whether this is so or not. It is true, every one is bound to sacrifice his worldly gains when his duty clashes therewith. But there are unfortunately too many who cannot resist temptation, and who yield their spiritual welfare for so much gain or so much distinction. To say, therefore, that a state of restoration is not desirable to us, is asserting that it is preferable to expose us to constant diminutions, to the caprice of nations, and the will of tyrants, to the end of time. Surely such cannot be the will of God; surely this cannot be the hopes which the prophets have inspired us with. We may in the mean time be good citizens, faithful to the laws of the land, where they clash not with the superior obligations we owe to the Bible; but let us never relinquish the hope, that, if not in our own day, still the time may come when the Lord will have mercy on his land, restore his people, rebuild his temples, where we all may worship as freemen, as Israelites, as servants alone of God, as the children of those with whom the Lord made a covenant that He would bless them with his everlasting favour, and that through them and their seed all the earth may be blest.

Let us, then, even the men of this country, and of this age, join with our brothers in lands where oppression yet lies heavily upon them, and fast on the days consecrated to our fallen glory, and not weary with fraying unto Him who is enthroned in heaven that he may not forsake his people, but bless them with the outpouring of his spirit, and guide them unto himself by penance and good deeds, that they may be found worthy in his eyes, and be blessed with all the good which He has promised them through his servants, the prophets, when the walls of Jerusalem are built again, and his spirit dwells anew in his temple between the wings of the cherubim. Amen.

Friday, August 1st, Tamuz 27th, 5605.