WHILE AT SHUL YESTERDAY I noticed something in one of those weekly Torah periodicals they give out. A Halachic question was asked: If someone forgot that it was a fast day (for the purposes of this article, “fast day” refers to the seventeenth of Tammuz, the Tenth of Teves, and the Fast of Gedaliah), took some food and made a bracha on it, what should one do? The answer given was that there are generally two approaches; 1) to eat less than an olive-sized portion of the food, thereby not fully breaking the fast; or 2) to eat nothing, and to simply say baruch shem kevod malchuso le’olam va’ed – the praise we customarily recite after having mistakenly spoken God’s name in vain. A third approach was also offered; that one taste the food without swallowing.
The second approach – to eat nothing – ostensibly ignores the fact that it will come out that a bracha has been recited in vain. There was a footnote on the sheet that addressed this problem. It said that since speaking God’s name in vain in this context would only be rabbinically prohibited, it would be worse to play around with the prohibition of eating on the fast than with letting this bracha be in vain. The obvious question is that there is no biblical mandate to fast either! I think what they mean is that while the fasts are not biblical, they were instituted by the Prophets, and are thus on a higher level than simple rabbinic enactments.
This specific point – that the fasts are a level above regular rabbinic enactments, or even to say that they are equal – did not sit well with me. Let us analyze the background of these fasts from a Halachic perspective. The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah says the following:
אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא אמר ר"ש חסידא מאי דכתיב (זכריה ח, יט) כה אמר ה' צבאות צום הרביעי וצום החמישי וצום השביעי וצום העשירי יהיה לבית יהודה לששון ולשמחה קרי להו צום וקרי להו ששון ושמחה בזמן שיש שלום יהיו לששון ולשמחה אין שלום צום אמר רב פפא הכי קאמר בזמן שיש שלום יהיו לששון ולשמחה יש גזרת המלכות צום אין גזרת המלכות ואין שלום רצו מתענין רצו אין מתענין אי הכי ט"ב נמי אמר רב פפא שאני ט' באב הואיל והוכפלו בו צרות.
R. Hanah bar Bizna said in the name of R. Simeon the saint: What is the meaning of the verse, “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness?” The prophet calls these days both days of fasting and days of joy! [This signifies that] when there is peace they shall be for joy and gladness, but if there is not peace they shall be fast days. R. Papa explained: What he means is this: When there is peace they shall be for joy and gladness; if there is persecution, they shall be fast days; if there is no persecution but not yet peace, then those who desire may fast and those who desire need not fast. [If that is the case, the ninth of Av also [should be optional]? R. Papa replied: The ninth of Av is in a different category, because several misfortunes happened on it…]
What comes out from this Gemara is that there are three types of situations history can present us with, and each one has its own Halacha.
1) If there is persecution (from the ruling government), these days are fast days.
2) If there is peace there is no obligation to fast. On the contrary, in such times the fast days are celebrated as holidays.
3) If there is no persecution but there isn’t peace either, the days are not celebrated, but there is no obligation to fast. Those who want to, do, but those who do not want to, do not have to.
How does all this apply to our situation? Well, I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim that we fit into category #2, but we surely don’t fit into #1 either. We have religious freedom. We may not have ‘peace in our land’ (even if we do have relative peace there), but in nearly every corner of the world Jews may practice their religion openly and unfettered. There is no persecution, at least not where I live. It seems clear, therefore, that we at least fit into #3. In that case the Halacha as it applies to us should really be that we have no binding obligation to fast at all!
But not so fast. The Mishna Berura, explaining the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, writes that even places that fall into category #3 are obligated to fast because the majority of the Jewish People has accepted it upon themselves to do so. What the Mishna Berura says is really straight out of the Tur, who is quoting from the Ramban in Toras HaAdam. At any rate the consensus seems to be that even in our situation we have to fast.
It seems clear, however, that our obligation nowadays is not on the level of something instituted by the Prophets, because the according to that original enactment we would not be obligated to fast. Furthermore, it is not even on the level of a ‘regular’ rabbinic enactment. It is a minhag. It is binding, to the extent that the Poskim say assur lifrotz geder, it is forbidden to ‘break the wall,’ but it is still just a minhag.
THIS BEING SAID, I think it is a mistake to say that it is worse to play around with possibly breaking the fast than with speaking God’s name in vain, which is a ‘mere’ rabbinic enactment, because fasting nowadays isn’t even a regular rabbinic enactment! I therefore think that the suggestion in the aforementioned scenario to simply say baruch shem is problematic. Of the other two approaches – to eat less than an olive-sized portion or to taste without swallowing – I would choose the former; simply because it seems obvious to me that tasting on a fast day is only ‘better’ than the swallowing when one does not taste for enjoyment (e.g. one tastes to determine whether the dish is amply spiced), and such tasting should not require – and thus not fulfill – a bracha.
Disclaimer: I am not proficient enough in these areas to state a definitive Halachic opinion, nor have I had the opportunity to discuss this question with the rabbi. These are just my thoughts.
 It cited Tosafos in Rosh Hashanah 33a to this effect.
 Zacharias 8:19
 Mishna Berura 550:1
 A slight reference to Ecclesiastes 10:8
 And if someone should hold that such tasting requires a bracha, I would think that they would hold such tasting is forbidden on a fast day.