Why We Observe The Fast Of The Firstborn Before Passover
If No One's Fasting, What’s The Point Of Taanit Bechorot?
Are you fasting today? The rabbis declared that the day before Passover, Erev Pesach, would be an eternal fast day known as Ta’anit Bechorot, the Fast of the Firstborn. Taanit Bechorot commemorates the tenth and final plague in the Passover story – when God killed all of the firstborn Egyptians, but spared those of the Israelites.
But... what’s interesting about Taanit Bechorot is that most firstborns don’t actually fast.
There are lots of ways to “get around” the fast. Many people avail themselves of this command to be a part of another tradition, the seudat mitzvah, a special kind of religious meal, whose joy actually overrides the fast. Sure, the day before Pesach is busy and we’ve got to eat to keep up our strength, but… that still leaves us kind of confused.
So, if no one's fasting before Passover, why are we even celebrating the Fast of the Firstborn? Is Ta’anit Bechorot supposed to mean something to us? Even if we’re not fasting, should we be observing it in some other way? What should we be thinking about on this day?
Join us as we explore this unique question by reexamining the language used to describe God’s firstborn child, the Israelites – and never think of Taanit Bechorot the same way again.
Watch Rabbi Fohrman's video: "Passover: What Does It Mean To Be Chosen?"
Read Rabbi Fohrman's book: "The Exodus You Almost Passed Over"
Pesach is coming! You're cleaning, cooking up a storm, shining the silver, buying those gross macaroons, but right before the holiday arrives, we get the strangest thing.
Erev Pesach: Do We Fast Before Passover or Hold a Se'udat?Traditionally, on the day before Passover, Jewish firstborn males (and some say females too) spend the day fasting. This fast day is known as Taanit Bechorot, or the Fast of the Firstborn. No matza, no chametz, and worst of all, no macaroons.
Except, here's the thing: Very few people actually end up fasting on Taanit Bechorot. Most people, instead, avail themselves of the tradition to be part of a se'udat mitzvah, a special kind of religious meal, whose joy actually overrides the fast. And whether that's some kind of loophole or a praiseworthy tradition, either way: we're left kinda confused.
On the one hand, this day was important enough to declare an eternal fast day. On the other hand, we just cancel it out. So what are we left with? Is Taanit Bechorot supposed to mean something to us? Even if we're not fasting, should we be observing it in some other way? What should we be thinking about on Taanit Bechorot?
And to that, I have a powerful answer to propose to you.
Why Do Firstborns Fast Before Passover?It has everything to do with the idea of the bechor, the firstborn. Because, this idea of the firstborn turns up everywhere in the Passover story. In fact, firstbornness kinda bookends the entire Passover story. Sure, it's the last of ten terrible plagues, but it also features way back in the beginning of the story. Before any of the ten plagues, God warns Pharaoh that if he doesn't let the Israelites go, God is going to kill the firstborns of Egypt. He tells Moses:
בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל
My firstborn child is Israel.
שַׁלַּח אֶת-בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי
Send out my child that he may serve Me.
וַתְּמָאֵן, לְשַׁלְּחוֹ--הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג, אֶת-בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ
And if you refuse to send him out, behold, I am going to kill your firstborn child.
This verse is very strange: Since when does God have children? We could say that it's a metaphor or something, and yet, God seems to take the idea so seriously that Egypt is threatened with the death of their firstborns for daring to trifle with God's firstborn!
Understanding the Fast of the FirstbornFirstbornness is such a big deal in this story that we basically name the holiday after it! We name the holiday after the fact that God "passed over" the houses of the Israelite firstborns during the tenth plague. Isn't that sort of a minor detail? It's clear that this theme of firstbornness is central to the essence of Pesach itself. It's not a minor detail at all.
Well, what exactly is so special about being firstborn? What is the role of a firstborn in a family? Say that I'm a kid, and my parents tell me not to lie, that it's wrong to lie. Okay, that's a perfectly nice lesson. But...when they tell me not to lie, I kinda roll my eyes, right? Cuz, of course they're saying that. They're Mom and Dad. They're grown-ups.
But you know what's even more impactful than lecturing your kids about morals? An example. A role model. When I see my older sister accidentally knock over Mom's favorite vase, at that moment, she has a choice. She could throw out the shards and pretend it never happened… but instead, she tells the truth. She 'fesses up to Mom, she takes responsibility for her actions… When I see that, well, then I really get it. It's way more meaningful for me for my sister to be honest, than for my parents to be honest. My sister, she's a kid – JUST like me. I mean, that totally could have been me breaking the vase!
That's why God was so concerned with firstborns in Egypt. The firstborns are the ones who facilitate the transmission of values from one generation to the next. And Pharaoh's Egypt stood for some pretty nasty values: believing that might makes right, that oppression and enslavement of the weak is justified, and that there is no almighty benevolent creator of the universe. Through the tenth plague, the death of the firstborns, God sought to interrupt the transmission of these values. That's why He targeted firstborns.
God has certain values that He wants to transmit to the world, values which are the opposite of what Pharaoh's Egypt stood for: like righteousness and justice, caring for the weak and vulnerable, and more. Who helps God transmit those values? That's where Israel comes in.
We're meant to be God's firstborn, the role models, the ones who take these divine values, and show everyone what it looks like to live it out in the real world. In the real world, sometimes, children break vases. But God gave us, His firstborn, a guidebook for how to 'fess up. How to be righteous, just and compassionate. The Torah is that guidebook. Through the Torah, God tells us, show the rest of my children what to do when you break a vase.
This is really what Passover is all about. Yes, it's about God taking us out of Egypt. But why did God take us out of Egypt? To give us a mission: to help Him spread justice and righteousness to the four corners of the earth.
The Meaning of Taanit BechorotThis is why we observe Taanit Bechorot each year on the day before Passover. It's to get us thinking about firstbornness. Ultimately, the point of a fast day is to direct your thoughts to the right place, to get yourself into a proper mindset – and we can all do that, firstborn or not, fast or no fast.
We'd all do well to pause on the eve of Passover, amidst our burning of chametz and grating of horseradish, to reflect on how we are living up to the challenge of being God's bechor. Not only is it at the core of Passover, it's at the core of what it means to be a Jew in this world.
Have a meaningful Taanit Bechorot.
These ideas of firstbornness are based on Torah by Aleph Beta's Rabbi David Fohrman. If you're hungry for more (pun intended), you should definitely check out the video series What Does It Mean To Be Chosen or take a look at Rabbi Fohrman's book, The Exodus You Almost Passed Over.