by Reb Akiva at Mystical Paths
I received an interesting question about Shovavim fasting...
- I was discouraged from doing some Shoavim fasting. I was told it is not good for Ashkenazim to accustom themselves to fasting. Do you have any idea why?
Noting I did not write the Shovavim article, it was from Rav Tzadok of koshertorah.com. I am not an expert in Sephardi practices, the rav's suggestion in the article was to consult a sephardi rav for specific fasting details, however...
Regarding Ashkenazim and fasting, this strikes me as an odd statement as many a talmiday chachomim (Torah scholars and historical religious leaders) among the non-chassidic Ashkenazim were accustomed to fasting regularly. It's noted that we are weaker today and such practices are generally discouraged. (This may be simply be due to living in a time of plenty, for our bodies are accustomed to being treated gently and with lots of resources making it much more difficult to go without as opposed to someone who has lived a life of scarcity.)
Fasting as a regular practice to lead to piousness or get closer to Hashem is definitely discouraged among the chassidim. The Alter Rebbe in Tanya does recommend a large series of fasts (hundreds, literally) to atone for common yet serious averot (sins) in ones life - mentioning that spreading these out across the winter months when days are short over a period of years (say, 10) is a reasonable practice. But this is for attonement, a tikkun (a repair) for averot (sins) to cleanse one completely in this world. Not for increasing one's piousness (with an attendant danger to ego inflation.)
And for one who cannot fast? The Alter Rebbe writes such fasts can be redeemed with tzedakah (charity) - this is above the 10% required of every person. I have heard a story (in the name of Rav Hillel of Parich? not certain) where the rav asks, and what if one is weak and cannot fast such a large number, or one is poor and cannot redeem the fasts? Well then, he answers, don't sin! :-)
The basic answer to your question may be the average person is discouraged from taking on the stringencies of the pious. Such practices are not required, one must be very careful to take them on with proper intention, and failure in them may carry the risk of a decrease in ones religious observance.
This is not to discourage one from reaching for greater heights. Just to be aware and prepare for the journey.
BS"D - בסיעתא דשמיא