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Thoughts on the Fast Day of Asarah B’Tevet

There are only two major fast days on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, however we do have a number of minor fast days throughout the year.  On major fast days we are expected to observe five “inuyim,” five kinds of “self-denial”:not eating or drinking, not engaging in sexual relations, not bathing, not anointing our bodies with oils or lotions, and notwearing leather shoes.  On minor fast days we just abstain from food and drink; the other activities are permissible.  The other distinction between major and minor fast days is the length of the fast.  On major fast days we begin the fast at sundown on the evening before and continue until nightfall the next day, while minor fast days are observed only from sunrise to nightfall.  If you are an early riser, you might even schedule breakfast before beginning the fast at sunrise.

When it comes to major fast days, the Apter Rov, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel of Apt (1748 -1825) asked, on Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples and other calamities throughout history, who could eat, while on Yom Kippur which is such a day of spiritual heights, who needs to eat?  In both cases, clearly the observance calls for us to feel a deep connection to the occasion and to respond with a visceral response.  On all fast days, major or minor, we are called upon to reflect upon on our actions and to seek forgiveness for any sins which may have led to the tragedies recalled on those days of commemoration. To what extent have we continued in the path of our ancestors and how can we do better in our time?

The prophet Zechariah refers to four fast days which will become days of celebration.  He mentions only the months in which they occur and not their dates or names. One of those days is Tisha B’Av, but the other three are now considered to beminor fast days, all connected to the events surrounding the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in the 6thcentury BCE, and the end of Jewish rule over the Kingdom of Judah. We recognize them as the Fast of Gedaliah in Tishrei, Shiva Asar b’Tammuz, the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, and Asarah b’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet.  Some scholars hold that these fast days may have some early origin now lost to history and were only later linked to events at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. They point to some discrepancies in the dating of these events as a possible indication of an earlier commemoration pre-empted by later events.  

Whether or not these minor fast days should continue to be observed through the ages is already a subject of discussion in the Talmudic tractate of Rosh Hashanah.  Apparently, at first,these days were observed as major fast days, but in Zechariah’s time, when the Temple was rebuilt, the fasts apparently were canceled.  The prophet writes, “And the words of the Lord of Hosts came to me, saying, the fast of the fourth month (Tammuz) and the fast of the fifth month (Av), the fast of the seventh month (Tishrei), and the fast of the tenth month (Tevet), shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.”  However, after the second Temple was destroyed, these days, we are told, were reinstituted but now as minor fast days.  There is some question as to under which circumstances they should continue to be observed and when they no longer need to be kept. Is it sufficient that Jews live in peace without governmental decrees against them to justify cancelling these days of fasting or must we wait for the Temple to be rebuilt before abolishing these fasts?  For now, they remain fast days, still observed for the most part, among traditionally observant Jews to this day, though others seek various lenienciesand no longer keep the fasts even if they continue to recite the appropriate prayers for those days. Only Tisha B’Av seems to have maintained its status clearly as a day of mourning and fasting, a major fast day.  

We might add also that separate from these fasts is the minor fast day of Esther,Ta’anit Esther, held on the eve of Purim in memory of the three-day fast that Esther observed before approaching the Persian king.  There is also the fast of the firstborn observed on the day before Pesach, though often replaced by the celebration of a siyyum, the completion of a Talmudic tractate or other sacred book.  Later generations created a variety of additional fast days (Bahav, Shovavim Tat, Yom Kippur Katan, and others) which only the most pious observe.

I recall a talk by Seminary professor David Roskies in which he pointed out the practice of the sages of clustering several tragedies around each of these fast days in order to keep their number manageable.  This is particularly evident in the Mishnah which speaks of five events occurring on Shiva Asar b’Tammuz, and five other events on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av. However, I was not aware of the fact that the sages linked three tragedies that supposedly occurred on the eighth, ninth, and tenth days of Tevet, to the commemoration of the fast of Asarah b’Tevet until I began exploring the Selichot designated for that observance which occurs next week. We might also note that the chief rabbinate of Israel has chosen Asarah b’Tevet as a universal yahrzeit date for the victims of the Shoah, many of whose actual date of death we do not know.

Our rabbis note that the 10th of Tevet marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem prior to its ultimate destruction by the Babylonians.  The fast of Tammuz marks the day when the walls of the city were breached by the enemy.  In the days of the Babylonians this was on the 9th of Tammuz, while in Roman times, it was on the 17th.  There is also some variation as to when precisely the final destruction occurred.  Nowadays we mark three weeks from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, theofficial date when the Temple was destroyed.  After the destruction, a puppet government was set up by the Babylonian authorities under the leadership of Gedaliah ben Achikam, who was assassinated less than two months later by Ishmael ben Netaniah, thus bringing an end to Jewish rule during that era. The Fast of Gedaliah falls on the 3rd of Tishri, marking that tragedy which actually took place on Rosh Hashanah but is deferred to the third because of the holiday.

Asarah b’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet, however, marks other tragedies as well. According to the Midrash it was on the 8th of Tevet that the Bible was translated into Greek, the Septuagint, which the rabbis saw as a great tragedy, since they felt that the Hebrew scripture never could be adequately translated and was liable to be misinterpreted and used against the Jewish people. The Jewish scholars impressed into doing this work for the Egyptian King Ptolemy, we are told, all chose to mistranslate several passages in order to avoid their being taken in the wrong way.  On the 9th of Tevet, Ezra the Scribe, who had led the people back from the Babylonian Exile and promulgated the laws of the Torah once more, died.  Some modern scholars see Ezra as the editor or redactor of the Torah as we know it now, pulling together the various early traditions into one book.  Then on the 10th was the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem.  

We read this date in the Book of Ezekiel.  In Chapter 24, we find“In the ninth year (of the reign of King Zedekiah, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Judah), on the tenth day of the tenth month (Tevet), the word of the Lord came to me:  O mortal, record this date, this exact date; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.” In Second Kings (25:1), we find, “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon and in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army.  He besieged it; and they built towers around it all around.  The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.”  (This latter passage is quoted precisely in the 52ndchapter of Jeremiah as well.)  The beginning of the siege and the ultimate destruction of the city are seen by the prophet as punishment for the corrupt behavior of its inhabitants.  He refers to the city as “Ir HaDamim” the city of blood.  The fact that Ezekiel uses the words “b’etzem hayom hazeh, this exact date,” leads the rabbis to override their usual rule about not fasting on the eve of Shabbat, on Friday, and to observe this fast on this exact date, even on a Friday as sometimes happens.  Though it can no longer happen with our current calendar system, we’re told that should Asarah b’Tevet ever fall on Shabbat, it would be observed then too, as with Yom Kippur.

Liturgically, for minor fast days, there is the addition of a passage into the Amidah during the morning service.  This is a separate additional blessing beginning with the words, “Aneinu, Adonay, aneinu, b’yom tzom ta’aniteinu.”  “Answer us, O Lord, answer us, on this fast day of our affliction.” This blessing is recited by the prayer leader, the shaliach tzibbur, during the repetition of the Amidah, if at least seven congregants (a clear majority of the minyan) are observing the fast. Following the Amidah we add the Avinu Malkeinu prayer familiar from the High Holiday season, with minor changes for a fast day.  There is also a special Torah reading from the book of Exodus read on fast days as well.  This is the passage of Vay’chal, in which,following the sin of the Golden Calf, God reveals to Moses His attributes of forgiveness. This passage is read both at Shacharit and again at Minchah.  At the Minchah service, the third person called to the Torah is the maftir and reads a haftarah from Isaiah 55, beginning: “Seek the Lord where He may be found...”.  At minchah, the whole congregation reads the Aneinu prayer as part of the blessing of Shomea Tefillah, the last of the intermediate blessings of the Amidah, while the shaliach tzibbur,during the repetition, makes it a separate blessing chantedbetween the bracha of redemption and the bracha of healing, bein goel l’rofei.

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, there exist a series of Selichot prayers, prayers of forgiveness, as we saw for the High Holiday period, written specifically for each of the minor fast days.  These can be found in the back of very traditional prayerbooks, including the Artscroll and Koren siddurim, and are recited right after the repetition of the Amidah, before AvinuMalkeinu.  When one says these Selichot, they are inserted into the standard framework of the Selichot liturgy including multiple recitations of the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy,Sh’ma Koleinu, Ashamnu, and other familiar prayers from the High Holiday season. Reading through this material, I must admit it is quite impressive, though I must also confess that I have not seen it practiced in any of the congregations where I have been present.  No doubt there are places where people take the time to reflect on these tragedies of the past and to see them as opportunities to seek forgiveness for our personal shortcomings and the sins of our community and recite these Selichot.  Though their language is somwhat difficult and obscure, modern siddurim provide a translation to help one through these tough readings.

The actual Selichot poems composed for Asarah b’Tevet are quite lengthy and I will not go into them in detail, though like most of the liturgical poetry of our tradition, they are quite extensive and impressive.  The first Selichah was written by an author who signs his name “Yosef” in the closing lines, leading people to associate this poem with Rabbi Yosef Tov-Elem(known in French as Bonfils), one of the earliest of the Ashkenazic rabbis of the 11th century, known now mainly for his piyyutim. This poem is written in an alphabetical acrostic and as I previously noted, it speaks of the three successive dates commemorated by the fast of Asarah b’Tevet.

It begins “Ezkera matzok asher k’ra’ani, b’shalosh makotbachodesh hazeh hikani.”  “I shall recall the anguish which came to me; He inflicted three blows upon me in this month.”  He goes on to say, ‘He cut me off, he veered me aside, He beat me, but now He has finally drained me out. He darkened my right and my left; I marked out all three days for fasting. The King of Greece forced me to write the Torah in his tongue…on the ninth…the man who gave us the words from heaven was torn from us on that day – that was Ezra the Scribe.  On the tenth, Ezekiel the seer, son of Buzi, was commanded, ‘Write thishappening in the scroll for the remembrance of a people melted away and disgraced.’”  As he continues his poem, the poetfocuses on the sins of the people and seeks divine forgiveness in this prayer which leads into the passage, “El Melech yoshevb’kisei rachamim,” followed by the thirteen attributes, all familiar prayers from the High Holiday Selichot.

The second poem is written by an Avraham ben Menachem whose name is used as an acrostic to form this Selichah. It is not nearly as elegant as the first Selichah by Tov—Elem.  I find it has a kind of bumpy rhythm to it. (“Even harosha. L’iyyimul’charisha. V’nochalei morashah.”)  Its focus is on the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the resulting exile of the people.  In its concluding lines, the poet calls upon God to show mercy; “Awesome, highest God, may the desire arise in You to bring a year of recompense for Israel’s strife. Renew our days as of old, Dwelling Place, who is our God of old. And wash our red guilt white as wool; our stains as snow.  Strengthen us in awe of You, and in the keeping of Your law.  And come to us in Your salvation, El Malei Rachamim, God who is full of compassion.”

The final poem inserted into the Selichot framework is written by Rabbi Efraim ben Yitzchak ben Avraham, who may possibly be identified with Rabbi Efraim of Regensburg, a twelfth century German poet who also is known for his contributions to the Tosafot commentary on the Talmud.  Once again, this poem is formed into an acrostic utilizing the name of the author.  It is broken into 13 short stanzas and one custom is to recite the opening lines as a refrain between the stanzas:  “Avotaishebatchu b’shem Elohei tzuri. When my forbears trusted in the name of the Lord my Rock (tzuri), they grew and were successful and also gave forth fruit (peri). And from the time when they were drawn away to walk with him in enmity (keri), they diminished and diminished until the tenth month (asiri).”The Koren Siddur suggests instead that the congregation read the poem responsively with the Shaliach Tzibbur. In beautiful poetic terms the author describes the destruction and suffering of his people, blaming it on their sins, and justifying God’s decrees. He speaks again and again of God’s ultimate compassion and concludes with these words: “Lord who is the portion allotted me, come to me quickly, help me, and loosen my sackcloth, wrap me around in joy, and dazzle my darkness with Your light – light up the twilight I once longed for, for it is You who are my lamp.  Redeem my soul from anguish and sighing, grant Your people remission, my King and my Holy One. And turn into relief the fast of Av; into gladness and joy, the fast of Tammuz and the fast of Tevet.”

Whether or not one chooses to observe Asarah b’Tevet with fasting or prayer, its timing annually, around the same time as we begin a new year on the secular Gregorian calendar, provides yet another opportunity for reflection and renewal.  Rabbi Efraim’s prayer for greater light seems in line with our hopes and prayers during the recent observance of Chanukah as we were urged to add to the light of the menorah and to add holiness to the world.  This commemoration, always about a week later, continues our efforts to light up the world..  May the new year of 2023 bring light and blessing to us all.  May it be a year of health, happiness, prosperity, and peace.

Best wishes for a happy new year.



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