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It used to be that rabbis made the community fast to increase their chances of getting their prayers answered. This was done particularly if rain was late in coming. (The first thing God promises if we follow the commandments is rain: אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם -- וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם וְנָתְנָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ יְבוּלָ֔הּ וְעֵ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה יִתֵּ֥ן פִּרְיֽוֹ [Lev. 26:3-4 and also Deut. 11:13-14]. ) Esther fasted for three days.

Not all rabbis in the Talmud agreed it was a good idea:

Samuel said: He who fasts is called a sinner... Rabbi Eleazar says: He is called holy... Resh Lakish says: He is called pious... Rabbi Shesheth said: The young yeshiva student who fasts [is not meritorious]... There is no public fast in [the Jewish community of] Babylonia except for Tish'a b'Av. [Taanit 11a-b]

Is this done anywhere anymore? When did it stop? Can you give sources on the evolution of the idea of "fasting for divine favors" in Judaism?

  • See Tosfos there, who understands Shmuel’s opinion not exactly how you’ve presented it here. According to them, Shmuel’s opinion is indeed that one is considered a sinner if he fasts, however the Mitzvah performed by fasting with the community outweighs the sin of fasting. You’re misrepresenting Rav Sheshes as well, who says it’s like a dog ate his meal, which Rashi explains to mean just that it doesn’t do anything. Based on Tosfos’ understanding of Shmuel, perhaps we can explain Rav Sheshes, who limits his opinion to students, as saying that in that case the negatives outweigh the positives. – DonielF Apr 7 at 11:37
  • You also misrepresent the final opinion, that there are no fasts in Bavel. Rashi explains not that they don’t do any other public fasts - after all, there’s still four other Rabbinic fasts plus Yom Kippur. Rather, it means that they are more lenient on the other Rabbinic fasts in that they eat on the previous evening and wear leather shoes, wash their hands, etc., but they don’t do those on Tisha B’Av. Tosfos understand that it refers to one-time public fasts for rain, and they didn’t have any simply because there was no need for them: “Bavel got plenty of rain.” – DonielF Apr 7 at 11:39
  • Cf. Rambam, Hil. Taanis 1:4, that one fasts on public troubles. I would assume the answer to your question is based on ibid. 1:5, that fast days are only decreed if the public can fast on them. – DonielF Apr 7 at 11:44
  • Rambam has interesting commentary regarding prayer, to which I will make no comment of. – Turk Hill Jul 4 at 4:06
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Since I asked the question, I found instances of fasting for rain:

(1) Chief Rabbis of Israel sometimes call for it. For example, in 2010, the Chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, called for fasting and praying for rain due to severe drought in Israel. Israeli Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, co-Rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, argued strongly against the practice.

(2) In 2017, Chief Rabbi Goldstein of Cape Town, South Africa, called for all South African Jews to fast for a half-day for rain in their country.

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