As its name indicates, most of Massekhet Ta’anit deals with issues of fasting. Should a personal fast be viewed as a positive trait or a negative one? This question is debated by the amora’im. Shmuel rules that a person who accepts a fast upon himself is considered to be a sinner – a hoteh. Rabbi Elazar argues that he is called kadosh – a holy person. Reish Lakish says that he is considered pious – a hasid.
Shmuel and Rabbi Elazar derive their positions from different interpretations of the laws of nazir – accepting the limitations of a Nazarite, namely abstaining from wine, leaving his hair uncut and refraining from contact with the dead. According to Shmuel, when the Torah commands the nazir to bring a sacrifice at the end of his nezirut to atone for the sin he committed (see Bamidbar 6:11), the “sin” refers to the fact that he abstained from wine, limiting his enjoyment of life. If he is considered a “sinner” for missing out on wine, certainly abstaining from all food and drink is, if anything, a greater sin. Rabbi Elazar points to a different passage, one that refers to a nazir as kadosh (see Bamidbar 6:5), arguing that if abstention from wine makes you holy, how much more so abstaining from all food and drink.
The commentaries use this argument as a springboard for discussing the appropriate attitude towards self-flagellation. One possibility, raised by Tosafot, is that such behavior is considered assaulting oneself and should be seen as an act that goes against the will of God. Some commentaries distinguish between people who fast as an act of atonement and those who do so in an attempt to rise to higher levels of spirituality. Even so, there is no agreement about which of these is admirable and which is to be condemned. The Ri”af accepts fasting as appropriate behavior for someone who does so as part of a process of teshuvah; the Meiri says that a desire to grow spiritually through a fast can be considered holy.