Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Fast of the Firstborn

There has always been a lot of pressure on firstborn children, as they were often expected to care for the family property or business in order to ensure stability within the family and community. Even in contemporary times, the firstborn often receive the most attention, are given the most responsibility and makes the most mistakes.

For all those reasons (and more, we're sure), the final plague, the Death of the Firstborn, was the most devastating (even though people had died in, or as a result of, the other plagues). The Death of the Firstborn was also the first plague during which the Israelites needed to take an active role in order not to be affected (staying indoors marking their doorposts with blood).

While Passover is a commemoration of the story of the Exodus, there is also a special Fast of the Firstborn, which is observed on the 14th of Nisan, the day before the first seder unless it coincides with Shabbat in which case it is moved up to Thursday. It is usually observed only by firstborn male children. This includes minors--except that, halachically, minors (under the age of bar mitzvah) are not required to fast. Therefore, it has become the accepted practice that the firstborn's father fasts instead of his minor son.

It is interesting to note that the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 18:3) infers that Egyptian women/girls also died during the Death of the Firstborn, and therefore there are different opinions as to whether firstborn women/girls should fast as well (one should follow the custom of the community).

The Fast of the Firstborn begins at sunrise and ends at nightfall (with the start of the seder). It is customary, however, for those obligated to fast to attend a seudat mitzvah (the feast of a mitzvah)* such as a brit milah 
(circumcision) or, most often, a siyyum (celebration
of the completion of studying a section of Torah or Talmud), which cancels the fast.

*Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many communal gatherings, such as siyyums, have been canceled for this year. One should consult their local rabbi for guidance on this issue. 

This Treat is reposted in honor of Passover and to help us understand the holiday.

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