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With the exception of Yom Kippur, there is no mention of fast days in the Torah, although they are the subject of significant discussion in the books of Nevi'im and Ketuvim. From these writings we can glean much about the significance and purpose of fast days, both public and private, as they were kept in ancient times. Thus, many of the principles found in Masechet Ta'anit are based on oral traditions going back to Mount Sinai as we find them described in the prophetic writings.
The underlying theory behind a fast day is the idea that worldly occurrences are not happenstance. Just as there is a physical, rational explanation for a given event, so there is a spiritual explanation for it, as well. This includes a basic belief in reward and punishment as well as hashgaha peratit - attention bestowed by God on every individual, community and nation. Thus, a disaster or tragedy must be seen either as a warning or as punishment (as is described in detail in Chapter 26 of Vayikra), both of which demand a response of prayer and repentance. A ta'anit is a time of subjecting oneself to inuy, which is defined by the oral tradition as a day on which we neither eat nor drink, and by the Sages as a time when one also refrains from other physical pleasures - specifically abstaining from washing, anointing, wearing shoes and engaging in sexual relations. Nevertheless, it is clear from both the Talmud and the words of the prophets (see, for example, the description of the ideal fast day in Chapter 58 of Yeshayahu) that the physical inuy is not the end goal of the ta'anit. Limitations on physical pleasures are merely a vehicle used to reach the true purpose of the ta'anit, which is repentance and purification of the soul. Thus Masechet Ta'anit does not focus merely on the technical aspects of the fast days, but also on ways to raise the spiritual level of the participants through prayer and introspection.
In Israel, the most common natural disaster is a drought, which is the focus of a large part of this tractate. A lack of rain is indicative of the wrath of God (see Devarim 11:17) as both punishment and warning. More than any other calamity, when there is no rain, one has no recourse other than to turn to God in prayer. Moreover, drought does not merely affect a single individual for a limited amount of time; rather it is a catastrophe that can have long-tem impact on the entire land. Thus Masechet Ta'anit describes a series of fast days that become more stringent and severe with the passage of time. The general rule is that we view the fast days described in Masechet Ta'anit as days of sadness bordering on mourning, whose purpose is to inspire the people to repent. As such, included in these fast days are public gatherings that include prayer and Torah reading, as well as a call to teshuvah, both communal and individual.
Aside from the fast days that focus on future improvement, there are also established fast days of remembrance that commemorate tragedies of the past. Even these fasts, which focus on national tragedies - in particular those connected with the destruction of the first and second Temples - are intertwined with future aspirations, as remembering the past is a first step to recognizing and looking forward to the future redemption. It should also be noted that these days take on stronger elements of mourning. Tisha b'Av in particular is representative of all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, given the many misfortunes that we have suffered on that day.
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Next: Ta'anit 2a-b