The Jewish year contains several fast days. Most of these were instituted by the prophets to mark the tragic milestones connected with the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish exile. (Exceptions to this are Yom Kippur, and the “Fast of Esther” observed on the day before Purim, the latter commemorating the Jews’ fasting and prayer when Haman issued his decree of annihilation against them.)

More broadly, the designation of a day for fasting and teshuvah is not restricted to these national fast days. A fast day can be proclaimed by a community or a group for various reasons. In such instances, the Torah reading and haftarah for a fast are also read. (One such example can be found in most Jewish communities to this day. The members of the Chevra Kaddisha (Jewish burial society) will observe one day a year as a fast day, with special customs and prayers.1 If then, a minyan is present for the Minchah service on that day, the Torah reading and haftarah for a fast day are read.)

The purpose behind all these fast days is to create a sobering mood that facilitates introspection and teshuvah. In the case of the fasts connected with the destruction, they are to remind us that the Jewish exile is due to sin, and the ultimate redemption will be brought about by the commitment to doing good. Similarly, the Fast of Esther enables us to relive and reconstruct the great spiritual return that precipitated the miracle of Purim. The content of much of the haftarah is just these themes—introspection, teshuvah, and the great days of redemption that lie ahead.

The haftarah reading on a fast day is unique, in that it is the only haftarah that is read at the afternoon service. All other haftarahs are read in the morning. The reason for this also reflects the nature of this day:

The Talmud tells us that “the reward for a fast is the charity.”2 Rashi explains that this refers to the custom of giving charity to the poor at the end of the day, so they will have adequate food with which to break their fast. Maharsha adds that the giving of charity at the end of a fast is in lieu of the money that would have been spent on food for that day.

The theme of tzedakah appears in the haftarah as well: “Observe justice and perform righteousness.” For this reason, the haftarah is read in the afternoon: by this time the majority of people have already followed through with this important instruction of the day.3

Encouragement and Reassurance

In the first segment of the haftarah the prophet speaks to the hearts of the people at large. He encourages them to seize the opportunity and return to G‑d “while He is to be found.” Simply speaking, the prophet is warning the people of the looming destruction and urges them to repent before catastrophe strikes.

Targum Yonatan, however, interprets this to mean that a person should take heed and do teshuvah while he is alive. As long as a person lives, there is nothing that stands in the way of spiritual rectification. After death, however, it is too late.

The prophet reassures the people that no measure of sin is too great for teshuvah to be effective. A person is never to measure the “tolerance” of G‑d in terms of human capacity: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My ways are not your ways.” It may be entirely beyond your comprehension how such misconduct may be mended, but I guarantee you, says G‑d, that it undoubtedly can be so.

Although the Jews would be exiled, they are never to give up their hope of redemption. Their trust in this is based on the fact that any promise for good issued by G‑d will ultimately be fulfilled. The imagery the prophet uses for this is of rain and snow that fall to the ground: the water will eventually evaporate and return to the heavens, but this will not occur before it has accomplished its mission—to irrigate the fields and plants. In the same vein, the word that has gone forth from G‑d to His people will not “return emptyhanded.” The Jews will go out of exile in joy and peace, and at this time the righteous will reign supreme.

The Jews must internalize that their salvation is very near if they follow G‑d’s will as expressed in His mitzvot. In this reading, the prophet makes particular mention of the mitzvah of Shabbat. Shabbat is the sign of the covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people; it demonstrates our faith in G‑d as creator of the world, and of His choice in the Jewish people. It is for this reason that our sages state that Shabbat carries the same “weight” as all the other mitzvot combined.4

As for its relevance here, the Talmud states that the primary reason for the destruction of Jerusalem was due to the desecration of Shabbat that occurred in it.5 Conversely, if the Jewish people were to observe Shabbat “only twice,” the redemption would arrive immediately.6


The bright future in the days of Moshiach is promised to the Jewish people as a whole. Some, with justification or without it, may feel somewhat excluded or secondary in this. Isaiah addresses them with words of strength and reassurance.

First, he talks to the inferiority felt by a convert to Judaism. Being that the Torah was given to “the children of Israel,” can it be possible for someone born a gentile to achieve equal status?

Next, the prophet speaks to those unable to beget children. Their anguish and self-doubt is palpable: “Could it be that G‑d truly desires me? If He does, why then have I not been allowed continuity in this world?”

Isaiah calms these feelings of doubt. To the childless, he explains that the continuity of their lives in this world can be one that is better than physical children. By keeping the covenant with G‑d and leading righteous lives, their names will forever be remembered by the sages and pious ones of future generations.

The verse states that they will be remembered “in My house and in My walls.” The Temple was the seat of the most pious and scholarly in Israel, and they would keep alive the memory of the pious and the wise of previous generations.

In a similar way, the convert to has no reason for self-doubt. By committing to keep Shabbat and lead a life devoted to G‑d, the convert will share in the ultimate redemption side by side with the rest of his Jewish brethren and equal to them.