What was the procedure for public fast days? They would take the ark out into the city square and place ash from a burned stick on top of the ark, on the head of the chief rabbi, and on the head of the chief justice. And then all the people put ash on their own heads. The most senior of them would lecture them as follows: “Brothers, regarding the people of Nineveh it doesn’t say that God saw their sackcloth and fasting, but rather, that ‘God saw their deeds, for they had repented from their evil ways.’ (Jonah 3). And in the prophets it says, ‘Sunder your hearts, not your garments.’ ” (Joel 2).
In the agriculture-based economy of ancient Israel, any delay of the winter rains was experienced not only as a hardship, but as a rebuke from heaven. When the rainy season progressed without precipitation, the sages would declare a series of public fasts of increasing severity to demonstrate repentance to God. This mishnah is quite extraordinary. The most dignified object and the most dignified leaders are humbled by the placement of ash upon them. Yet even such dramatic demonstrations did not suffice. The elder would appeal to the people not to let external demonstrations suffice, but to repent within.
How does this ritual compare to our most prominent fast days, Yom Kippur and Tish'ah Be'Av?
Why did the leaders have ashes put on their heads by others, while everyone else took their own ash? Was this more respectful, or more humiliating for the leaders?
Can one proceed directly to internal repentance, or are the external demonstrations a necessary stage?