Three Fasts Before Bas or Bar Mitzvah
There is a well known minhag (custom) for minors to fast three fast days prior to reaching the age of majority (beginning of the thirteenth year for a female; beginning of the fourteenth year for a male). Many have questioned this custom . The following is a translation of an as-yet, unpublished correspondence on this topic, from Rav Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger Shlita, head of Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz, The Institute for German Jewish Heritage . Footnotes and words in brackets are from this translator, Daniel Adler.
Due to time constraints, I will only cite the main sources for our custom. The subject of iynuy, affliction of children on Yom Kippur (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 82a), is a very complex topic. There are three Amoraim  that state opinions on this matter; Rav Huna, Rav Nachman, and Rabbi Yochanan. The Rishonim  grapple with how to understand these three opinions, and therefore in halacha (Jewish Law) one will find many varied rulings and customs - and this correspondence is not the place to delve into them. However, what is pertinent to those of Ashkenaz (German) descent, is that our Rishonim in Ashkenaz have leaned toward the more lax opinion of Rabbi Yochanan .
To wit, Ra’avyah  writes (Yoma 531), “The halacha follows the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan. Females that are 12-years of age must finish the fast (of Yom Kippur) on a biblical level … therefore, a weak male, one year before he reaches his majority, and a healthy male, two years prior to the age of majority [should be trained to fast for a few hours]. Similarly for a daughter; at the age of 10 or 11 we train her to fast for a few hours. Once a female turns 12-years-old and a male 13-years-old, they are biblically bound to complete the fast [of Yom Kippur].”
Similarly, Sefer Rokeach (217)  writes, “In terms of children fasting, we have established the law to follow Rabbi Yochanan that a female who is 12-years and one day, or a male who is 13 years and one day must fast.”
Sefer Yereim (end of 51)  writes, “The רי”ה writes that we have established the law to follow Rabbi Yochanan who says that a 10 or 11-year-old is trained to fast for a few hours, while a 12-year-old girl is biblically obligated to complete the fast. We do not find [in halacha] the idea of completing a fast on a rabbinic level [before reaching the age of majority].
When Sefer Yereim quotes רי”ה, it appears that he is referring to the Ri Hazaken  who is quoted in Tosefos is Kesuvos 50a (ובת תריסר לתעניתא) as saying that, “A 12 year and one day old female is compared to a 10-year-old (i.e., her 12th birthday would be the first time she is obligated to fast); rabbinically, there is no need to finish a fast day [prior to the age of majority] - this follows the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan.”
Similarly, Ohr Zarua (Vol. 2, Hilchos Y”H, 278)  writes, “Rabbi Yochanan says that, rabbinically, there is no need to finish a fast day before the age of majority. We teach a 10 and 11-year-old female to fast for a few hours while a 12-year-old must fast biblically. An 11 and 12-year-old male is trained to fast for a few hours while a 13-year-old male must fast biblically … Rabbi Yochanan states that two years in advance refers to a healthy child while one year is for a weaker child … This means that one year prior [to the age of majority] for a sickly child, and two years prior for a healthy child is when we teach them to fast for a few hours on Yom Kippur. It appears to me that the halacha follows Rabbi Yochanan in accordance with Rabbah bar Shmuel.”
In a later time period in Austria we find the poskim say that l’chatchila, one should be stringent and follow the opinions of Rav Huna and Rav Nachman, same as the poskim in Spain; however, the Austrian poskim were lenient by children who were weaker. We find that Terumas Hadeshen writes (155) , “Even though Rambam , Rif, and other Geonim have decided that the law follows Rav Huna and Rav Nachman, that a minor must finish the fast [of Yom Kippur] rabbinically, nevertheless, it appears that for a child who is weak we may decide the law for these minors to be in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan that there is no rabbininc obligation to finish a fast prior to the age of majority; we can teach them to fast for a few hours.”
Similarly, his student writes in Leket Yosher (Orach Chaim p. 138)  that, “A male and female child must fast rabbinically. A healthy male should begin fasting [on Yom Kippur] in the beginning of his twelfth year (at the age of 11); by his thirteenth year (thirteen full years), he is biblically mandated to complete the fast. A weaker child should complete the [Yom Kippur] fast in the beginning of his thirteenth year (at the age of 12). A female child is always one year earlier, both from a rabbinic and biblical standpoint. However, according to Rabbi Yochanan, one does not even need to finish rabbinically; rather we train the child to fast for a few hours. One may rely on Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion if the father appraises that the child is of a weak nature.”
Maharash of Vienna  decides the law in the same manner, as cited by his student Maharil  (269 - Machon Yerushalayim edition), “Seder Olam writes in the name of Maharam, ‘We train children to fast on Yom Kippur; 8-years-old for a healthy child, 9-years-old for a weak child. How does one implement this practice? If the child is accustomed to eating in the second hour of the day, delay feeding until the third hour; if the third hour, feed the child in the fourth hour. Ten years old refers to a healthy child while an eleven years old must [complete the Yom Kippur fast] on a rabbinic level. A 12-year-old must finish on a biblical level.’ - these are the words of Seder Olam. Similarly, Maharash writes that the custom is to teach children [to fast on Yom Kippur]; for example, if the child usually eats in the third hour, feed him in the fourth hour. This refers to a 9-year-old in reference to a healthy child, and a 10-year-old in reference to a weak child. We do not introduce fasting under the age of 9 as this will weaken the child excessively. The Rambam writes similarly.”
This more stringent approach is cited by R. Binyamin ben Meir HaLevi in his book Maaglei Tzedek (p. 124-125). “Children should be trained to fast according to the hour when they usually eat; feed them an hour or more past the time that they are accustomed to eating. A healthy male during his 10th year is trained to fast later into the day (i.e., by the hour). During his 11th, 12th, and 13th years the child must finish the fast rabbinically. During the child's 14th year, he must finish biblically . For a weaker child, we begin training by the hour in his 11th and 12th years. In his 13th year, he must finish by rabbinic law, while in his 14th year by biblical law . As females reach the age of majority a year earlier, we begin the process earlier. If she is healthy, she is trained by the hour in her 9th year. In her 10th, 11th, and 12th years she must conclude the fast by Rabbinic law and in her 13th year by Biblical law . For a weaker female, we begin to introduce fasting by the hour in her 11th year, in her 12th year she must finish by Rabbinic law, while in her 13th year by Biblical law” .
The minhagim and halachic rulings of Austria were followed in Poland. Initially, the stringency of Austrian Jewry was followed in Poland for a healthy child as cited by Rama  (Shulchan Aruch, O.C., 617:2) in the name of Terumas Hadeshen, “There is an opinion that one does not need to conclude the fast by Rabbinic law, and one may rely on this opinion for a weak child who is not strong enough to fast (Terumas Hadeshen 121).”
However, this stringent ruling for a healthy child was abandoned in Poland. Bach  (ad loc.) writes that in Poland, “we are not careful regarding children fasting, even when they are healthy … due to the fact that we all learn; learning gives one a status akin to a choleh (a weak child).”
The rabbinic scholars of Poland and Lithuania agreed to this, foremost among them the Magen Avraham  (ad loc.) who writes that, “[the reason that] we are not careful about having a child in their 12th year (11-years of age) fast is due to the fact that we are all involved in learning and are considered as if we are cholim (sick, i.e., weak). Furthermore, we are generally considered like cholim.”
Mishnah Berurah  (ad loc.) writes that, “...Today we are not particular about having any child in their 12th year (11-years of age) fast since in our time ‘weakness’ has descended to the world. Children are not considered to be in the ‘healthy’ category (i.e., strong) - unless it is known that a particular child has such strength and will be able to properly complete the fast. From Eliyah Rabba it appears that even a child in their 13th year (i.e., 12-years-old) does not fast until the entire 13th year is complete” (i.e., until the age of majority is reached).
In Germany, where the lenient opinion of Rabbi Yochanan was the norm (i.e., no fasting was necessary prior to the age of majority without any distinction if the child is ‘strong’ or ‘weak’), a more recent development occurred - a limited stringency - which is to accustom children to fast specific communal fast days prior to reaching the age of majority.
The first to record such a custom is sefer Yosef Ometz  (p. 283), “People think that beginning to fast is based on their own [made up] custom and they have decided that a female begins to fast [before her age of majority] with the Fast of Esther. Similarly, there are those that are particular that a male should begin to fast [before the age of majority] with Yom Kippur.” Yosef Ometz himself is stringent and is of the opinion that one should fast one full-year prior to the age of majority and he, therefore, did not approve of this custom. Chavos Yair  (Mekor Chaim 617) ruled that “one should not be stringent in this regard unless the child is strong, and then only on Yom Kippur.”
Similar to the minhag cited by Yosef Ometz, in later generations the custom in Germany was that children should accustom themselves to fast by fasting three fast days prior to the age of majority.
The first to cite this custom is R. Nosson HaLevi Bamberger, Av Beis Din of Wuerzburg in his book Lekutei HaLevi - the Minhagim of Wuerzburg (Berlin 1907, p. 47), “Concerning fasting, there are those that are accustomed to fast three communal fast days prior to the age of majority. However, this is not obligatory; it would be sufficient if the child fasted for half the day for the purposes of chinuch” (i.e., to train the child in fasting).
Rav Yona Merzbach  writes about this custom in his Sheailos Uteshuvos (21), “I have heard of the custom of fasting three [communal] fast days before the age of majority. I have found this minhag to be surprising; even with regard to Yom Kippur we have learned that you either fast from the age of 11 or 12, or you do not fast at all prior to the age of majority, so how do we know this minhag? In Yosef Ometz the author writes that one should train a male to fast from the age of 12, and a female from the age of 11 (i.e., for the entire year - not exclusively with regard to Yom Kippur). The author continues and writes that it is incorrect to have females begin from the Fast of Esther or to have males fast from Yom Kippur, and therefore, when a child is strong and healthy he or she should begin from the ages of 12 (for a male) or 11 (for a female) to properly train the child” (mitzvas chinuch).
It is, however, understood that according to the approach of German Jewry who follow the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, there is no obligation to fast before the age of majority due to the fact that there is no actual obligation of chinuch. According to the aforementioned poskim, we can look at this fasting as a hiddur (enhancement) in the mitzvah of chinuch. Therefore, through this hiddur of chinuch, German Jewry has accustomed their children to fast three communal fast days because doing something three times strengthens the matter for the child.
While listing the Minhagim of Ashkenaz, Rav Yona Merzbach writes to Rav Avigdor Unah that one should publicize that, “three fast days are needed prior to reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah.” While writing about the German minhagim that should be kept in Israel, Rav Yona Merzbach writes again that, “a child should fast three fast days before reaching Bar Mitzvah.”
This custom has been accepted by very prominent German families. Dayan Eliezer Pozen’s  nephew has written to me, “[In our family], a bar or bas mitzvah fasts three times before reaching the age of majority.” One of the elders of Frankfurt a/M, R. Yona Heinrich, has similarly written to me that those from Frankfurt, “fast three fast days before reaching the age of majority.”
This custom was also known in other locations in Ashkenaz. In the book Meine Jugenderinnerungen an eine württembergische Kleinstadt und ihre jüdische Gemeinde (Stuttgart 1968, p. 119), B. Stern writes, “It is incumbent upon the child to fast the last three fast days before Bar Mitzvah.”
Rav Pesach Goldschmidt of Schweitz, in his Koveitz Halachos (2:617) writes, “Our minhag is to fast three fast days before reaching the age of majority.”
I have many letters from multiple German families and communities that this is the accepted minhag.
I hope that what I have written will provide some explanation for our custom.
Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger
Thank you to Rav Hamburger Shlita for allowing me to translate this article, R. Chaim Bronstein for helping to clarify certain points, and my sister Nechama for assisting with editing. Thank you to R. David Cohn of “Yeshivas Frankfurt” for further editing and clarification, and as always, to Rabbi Jack Abramowitz who heads OU Torah.
. This translator has heard both Rav Yissocher Frand Shlita, as well as Rav Aryeh Lebowitz Shilta question this custom. While nobody denies that the minhag is known and popular, it does not conform with the ruling of Rambam, Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 616:2), and other major poskim.
. 200 - 500 CE
. 11th - 15th centuries
. Here is a short summary of the various opinions based on the Artscroll Gemara. It should be noted that the Artscroll translation gives a disclaimer that “there are other interpretations and textual versions of this passage, with varying halachic ramifications”.
- Rav Huna: an 8 or 9-year-old female is trained to fast for a few hours while a 10 or 11-year-old must complete the fast according to Rabbinic law; a 12-year-old must fast according to Biblical law.
- Rav Nachman: A 9 or 10-year-old male is trained to fast for a few hours; an 11 or 12-year-old must complete the fast according to Rabbinic law, while a 13-year-old must complete the fast according to Biblical law.
- Rav Yochanan is of the opinion that we never have children complete a fast before the age of majority.
. R. Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi of Bonn (1140–1225)
. R. Eleazar of Worms (1176–1238)
. R. Eliezer of Metz (1135–1165)
. R. Isaac ben Samuel (1115–1184)
. R. Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna (1240–1280)
. R. Israel Isserlin (1390-1460)
. Rambam writes (Shevisas Assor 2:10) that both an 11 year old male and female must fast on Yom Kippur. See there for an argument regarding the 11 year old age for a male.
. R. Joseph (Joslein) ben Moses (1420–1488)
. Shalom ben Yitzchack (1350-1413). Also known as Shalom ben Yitzchack of Neustadt.
. Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin (1365-1427)
. Colloquially, we would refer to these ages as 9-13.
. Colloquially, we would refer to these ages as 10-13.
. Colloquially, we would refer to these ages as 8-12.
. Colloquially, we would refer to these ages as 10-12.
. R. Moshe Isserlis (1530-1572)
. R. Yoel ben Shmuel Sirkis (1561-1640)
. R. Avraham Gombiner (1635-1682)
. R. Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Kagan (1838-1933)
. R. Yosef Jozef Haan Neuerlingen - Av Beis Din of Frankfurt am Main (published 1723)
. R. Yair Chayim Bacharach (1639-1702)
. 1900-1980 - Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshiva Kol Torah, former Rav in Darmstadt, Germany
. Dayan in Kahal Adas Jeshurun in Frankfurt a/M