The second perek of Massekhet Ta’anit begins on today’s daf. Based on descriptions of fast days that we find in the Tanakh (see I Melakhim 8:35-36 and Yo’el 2:15-19) it is clear that aside from abstaining from food, fast days were times of prayer and introspection. This chapter describes the unique prayer services that were established by the Sages for severe fast days, which include ceremonies intended to inspire the people to repentance, and, in particular, the additional blessings inserted into the Amida prayer.
Another issue discussed is the circumstances under which fasts cannot be declared. According to the Mishna, aside from Shabbat and Yom Tov, the minor holidays that are enumerated in Megillat Ta’anit are also days on which fasts cannot be established, and, depending on the significance and level of the holiday, the day before and after them may not be appropriate for fasting either.
Megillat Ta’anit is a little known collection of statements about minor holidays and fasts that commemorate events which took place during the Second Temple period. On the minor holidays, fasting and eulogies were forbidden. Most of the events that are commemorated are from the period of the Hasmonean monarchy – a prime example being the story of Hanukka – although there are also events from earlier and later periods included, as well.
This work is set up chronologically, and it includes the date and a brief account of the incident written in Aramaic, followed by a fuller description of the event in Hebrew.
It appears that this work is the oldest example of the Oral Torah being committed to writing; the Sages of the Mishna do not only discuss the rulings that appear in it, but also the language that was used. (Although it is not part of the standard texts of Talmud, the Steinsaltz Hebrew Talmud includes it as an addendum to the volume that contains Massekhet Ta’anit ).