I suppose I should have realized when the third day of Teves was on Friday that the following Friday was going to be the tenth, one of our six annual fast days. The math is pretty simple, but I was just not mindful of the fast when we booked plane tickets and a hotel in Florida.
And this is not the first time that happened with this particular fast day that seems to get slightly lost in the fray, though that should not be the case. You see, the 10th of Teves is just about a week after Chanukah concludes. It’s at that time of year, when we are still filled with the festive feel of Chanukah, that all of a sudden — boom — it’s time to fast.
A few years ago we were in Israel shortly after Chanukah when it hit us on a Tuesday that the next day would be Asarah B’Teves. It was one of the first years that the Waldorf Astoria was open in Jerusalem, so we rang guest services, thinking that there would be a collection of people who would want a pre-dawn snack the next morning so as to ease the way into the fast day.
It seems that we caught them by surprise because they said that nothing was prepared and until we called, no one staying in the hotel had made a similar request. Of course, that could mean many things. Either people were not intending on getting up so early for coffee, had bought and taken things up to their rooms so as not to have to be out that early, or they were just not fasting on what some refer to as a “minor” fast on our calendar.
Yes, it is true that not all fasts on our calendar are created equal. There are the so-called big ones — Yom Kippur and Tishah B’Av — and then there are the four others, the tenth of Teves included.
Fasting is difficult, especially in a world that rotates so extensively around food. Eating good food, by the way, is also one of the great joys of life that we get to partake in daily. So there you are, dining on a Sino steak with grilled onions and mashed potatoes, and then the next day, nothing, zero, zilch. As Joe Biden might say at a time like this, “C’mon, man.”
So what’s the tenth of this Hebrew month all about? And if the events of this day were important enough to declare a national fast day, even if it was several thousand years ago, what happened in the intervening years that created this so-called downgrade to a minor fast?
The 10th of Teves was the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the archenemy of Israel and the Jews, Nebuchadnezzar, a violent and proficient Iraqi general. It seems that Nebuchadnezzar dedicated his entire life to killing Jews and trying to show us that he could defeat G-d, if you know what I mean.
So, on the tenth of this month, he and his troops began their siege of Jerusalem, which went on for 10 months, until the 17th of Tammuz of the following year, when he and his troops succeeded in breaching the walls of the holy city. Three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, his forces destroyed the Beit HaMikdash.
As you can see, these three days are connected by a common theme — the effort and desire to undermine the core of Judaism represented by our Holy Temple. So I don’t exactly know how or why the 10th of Teves became minor, the 17th of Tammuz a bit more urgent, and the 9th of Av a day on which you wouldn’t dream about not fasting.
To me, it seems that today there is a contemporary context by which we should now consider measuring the importance of these days on our calendar. Nebuchadnezzar’s objective back then was to deny our connection to Jerusalem and to force G-d’s presence on earth to retreat from the Holy of Holies.
I was fasting the other day down here in Florida, and as I walked on some of the major streets dotted with kosher restaurants, with lines of people waiting to be seated at tables, I thought that there was something wrong with this picture. Obviously, if you are unable to fast for some medical reason that is perfectly understandable. And if fasting makes you sick and you consulted a doctor and your rabbi and they advised you not to fast, that is understandable, too. But who declared this day a “minor” fast, so that early in the morning on a brisk but sunny day, folks were sitting outdoors ordering omelets with fries and salad?
I don’t know about previous years, but this year, due to the current circumstances, we are once again, after many years, being denied access to walking the streets of Jerusalem. Of course, the circumstances are dramatically different; the walls of the city have not been breached by an enemy, and someday very soon our access will be restored, just as in days of old. But in the meantime, as we are all well-aware, things are not as they once were.
Israel’s national airline, El Al, flies sparingly, mostly ferrying Israelis in and out of the country. As I write these words, Israel is entering yet another lockdown in an effort to drive down the daily numbers of infections so as not to overburden the country’s health system.
It is just impossible to view events over these last many months as anything other than a modern-day siege of Jerusalem. In terms of violent assaults from Israel’s enemies, though, it seems that the very opposite of a siege from her missile-laden enemies has been occurring. Israel is on the threshold of peace with more former enemy countries than at any time in her history. These are great days for the image and stature of the Jewish state. Not even the anti-Israel Democrat administration assuming power in the U.S. in January will be able to shake any of that.
But most of the hotels in Israel were closed over the summer, over the yomim tovim, and now over Chanukah and the non-Jewish holiday season, when tourism is usually booming. The danger that the coronavirus poses has prevented so many from visiting Israel.
Thankfully, the vaccines are here and Israel has begun administering them to their eight million citizens, a much more doable task than dealing with 330 million people here in the U.S. But that is the science surrounding these events; on a fast day we deal with another aspect of what we as a communal entity can accomplish. Abstaining for a day from caloric intake reduces the nature of our physical dimension, turning the focus to our souls, our cosmic aspects unclouded by caffeine, soda, pizza, and so on.
Whether you are at home, in Israel, in Florida, or anywhere else, fasting is a challenge and an inconvenience. Someone over last Shabbos told me that the fasts that were established 2,500 years ago were not meant for the type of people we are today. He said that back then people were able to cope better and that in a sense they were both physically and emotionally stronger. That was the first time I heard something like this. It occurred to me later that when our modern-day rabbis perceive that there is a national threat for Klal Yisrael, they establish a half-day fast. Perhaps that is because that is all they imagine they can get out of us in this day and age.
If it is true that we are actually weaker in general, then it is incumbent upon us, especially at a time like this, to steel ourselves. And if it is still too much of an imposition, just don’t schedule your vacations during a week that features a fast day.
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