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Besides these four, the Day of Atonement, and the Fast of Esther, the Jewish calendar at present contains other twenty-two fast- days. But that is not all. It was customary to fast twice a week (Luke 18:12), between the Passover week and Pentecost, and between the Feast of Tabernacles and that of the Dedication of the Temple. The days appointed for this purpose were the Monday and Thursday of every week--because, according to tradition, Moses went up Mount Sinai the second time to receive the Tables of the Law on a Thursday, and came down again on a Monday. On public fasts, the practice was to bring the ark which contained the rolls of the law from the synagogue into the streets, and to strew ashes upon it. The people all appeared covered with sackcloth and ashes. Ashes were publicly strewn on the heads of the elders and judges. Then one more venerable than the rest would address the people, his sermon being based on such admonition as this: 'My brethren, it is not said of the men of Nineveh, that God had respect to their sackcloth or their fasting, but that "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way" (Jonah 3:10). Similarly, it is written in the "traditions" (of the prophets): "rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto Jehovah your God"' (Joel 2:13). An aged man, whose heart and home 'God had emptied,' that he might give himself wholly to prayer, was chosen to lead the devotions. Confession of sin and prayer mingled with the repentantial Psalms (Psa 102; 120; 121; 130). *
* Our account is based on the Mishnah (Taan. ii). But we have not given the Psalms in the order there mentioned, nor yet reproduced the prayers and 'benedictions,' because they seem mostly, if not entirely, to be of later date. In general, each of the latter bases the hope of being heard on some Scriptural example of deliverance in answer to prayer, such as that of Abraham on Mount Moriah, of Israel when passing through the Red Sea, of Joshua at Gilgal, of Samuel at Mizpah, of Elijah on Mount Carmel, of Jonah in the whale's belly, and of David and Solomon in Jerusalem. Certain relaxations of the fast were allowed to the priests when actually on their ministry.
* See the very interesting description of details in Taan. ii. 5.
In other towns, they only blew horns. After prayer, the people retired to the cemeteries to mourn and weep. In order to be a proper fast, it must be continued from one sundown till after the next, when the stars appeared, and for about twenty-six hours the most rigid abstinence from all food and drink was enjoined. Most solemn as some of these ordinances sound, the reader of the New Testament knows how sadly all degenerated into mere formalism (Matt 9:14; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33); how frequent fasting became mere work- and self-righteousness, instead of being the expression of true humiliation (Luke 18:12); and how the very appearance of the repentant, unwashed and with ashes on his head, was even made matter of boasting and religious show (Matt 6:16). So true is it that all attempts at penitence, amendment, and religion, without the Holy Spirit of God and a change of heart, only tend to entangle man in the snare of self-deception, to fill him with spiritual pride, and still further to increase his real alienation from God. *
* Of the three sects or schools the Pharisees were here the strictest, being in this also at the opposite pole from the Sadducees. The fasts of the Essenes were indeed even more stringent, and almost constant, but they were intended not to procure merit, but to set the soul free from the bondage of the body, which was regarded as the seat of all sin. Besides the above-mentioned fast, and one of all the firstborn on the eve of every Passover, such of the 'men of the station' as went not up to Jerusalem with their company fasted on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, in their respective synagogues, and prayed for a blessing on their brethren and on the people. They connected their fasts and prayers with the section in Genesis 1, which they read on those days--praying on the Monday (Gen 1:9) for those at sea; on the Tuesday (v 11,12) for all on a journey; on the Wednesday (v 14) on account of the supposed dangerous influence of sun and moon, against diseases of children; and on the Thursday (v 20) for women laboring with child and for infants.
Further particulars would lead us from a description of the Temple-services to those of the synagogue. But it is interesting to note how closely the Roman Church has adopted the practices of the synagogue. In imitation of the four Jewish fasts mentioned in Zechariah 8:19, the year was divided into four seasons--Quatember--each marked by a fast--three of these being traced by tradition to Bishop Callistus (223), and the fourth to Pope Leo I (44). In 1095, Urban II fixed these four fasts on the Wednesdays after Ash-Wednesday, Whit-Sunday, the Exaltation of the Cross, and the Feast of S. Lucia (13th December). The early Church substituted for the two weekly Jewish fast-days--Monday and Thursday--the so- called 'dies stationum,' 'guard or watch-days' of the Christian soldier, or Christian fast-days--Wednesday and Friday, on which the Savior had been respectively betrayed and crucified.