By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Now that Chanukah is over, we turn our attention to the somber day of Asarah B’Teves, a community-wide fast. Nevuchadnezar laid siege to Jerusalem on the tenth of Teves. That action culminated with the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash. Therefore, Asarah B’Teves is one of the four fasts that commemorate the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.
The Shulchan Aruch (580:2) notes that there is an ancient custom to fast on the eighth and ninth day of Teves as well. According to the Magen Avraham, the custom was instituted by the Sages of the Talmud. Of course, one may suggest that fasting three days in a row is simply a way to undo the damage from the doughnuts and latkes. However, there must be a real reason that is not necessarily a meme.
On the eighth day of Teves, King Ptolemy of Egypt assembled 72 Elders from the Sages of Israel. He put them into 72 separate rooms and did not reveal to them for what purpose he assembled them, so that they would not coordinate their responses. He entered and approached each and every one, and said to each of them: “Write for me a translation of the Torah of Moses, your teacher.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, placed wisdom in the heart of each and every one, and they all agreed to one common understanding. Not only did they all translate the text correctly, they all introduced the same changes into the translated text. It was miraculous that all the scholars independently made the same textual changes; nevertheless, the translation of the Torah into Greek is considered a sad day.
Apparently, the understanding is that the Torah is what makes the Jewish nation special. Now that the Torah is readily available to any nation, every nation can claim that the Jewish nation lost their treasure. Still, wasn’t the Torah already translated into 70 languages? Rashi in Ki Savo (27:8), quoting a Mishnah in Sotah, says it was! The Ramban, in one explanation, says on that pasuk that only the mitzvos were listed in all 70 languages. On the eighth day of Teves, the entire Torah was translated.
The Shulchan Aruch notes that there is no known occurrence specifically associated with the fast on the ninth.
The Taz suggests that the fast is to commemorate the passing of Ezra HaSofer. Ezra lived at the time of the building of the second Beis HaMikdash. He made many decrees preserving the Torah way of life and keeping our Jewish lineage sacred. Chazal extol his virtues by stating that he could have been chosen to give the Torah. The BaHaG states that Nechemiah’s yahrzeit is also on the ninth of Teves. Nechemiyah assisted Ezra HaSofer in helping the newly established community in Eretz Yisrael. When he heard of the troubles facing the new citizens, he davened to Hashem for success in using his influence with the Persian king, for whom he served as a top aide. Hashem blessed his efforts with success, and he was able to go to Yerushalayim with the king’s backing and fortify the city’s walls as a defense against the enemy.
The passing of these two great tzaddikim was a terrible blow to the newly formed community. The passing of any tzaddik really warrants a fast, but most certainly in this case.
The commentary of Tosfos Chadashim on Megillas Ta’anis notes that Yeshu, the posheia b’Yisrael sometimes referred to as oso ha’ish, was born on the ninth of Teves. The suffering and tribulations that the Jewish nation experienced throughout the years as a result of his religion cannot be measured. If that was the reason for the fast on the ninth of Teves, it would explain the Shulchan Aruch’s reticence about stating the reason behind the fast.
Rabbi Boruch Frankel wrote in his glosses to Shulchan Aruch that Shimon HaKalphas died on the ninth of Teves. Presumably, he is referring to Shimon Keifa, who (according to some) was sent by the rabbis to preserve Torah Judaism.
The following is from a translation of an ancient book called Toldos Yeshu: The Sages desired to separate from Israel those who continued to claim Yeshu as the Messiah, and they called upon a greatly learned man, Simeon Kepha, for help. Simeon went to Antioch, main city of the Nazarenes, and proclaimed to them: I am the disciple of Yeshu. He has sent me to show you the way. I will give you a sign as Yeshu has done.
He added that Yeshu desired that they separate themselves from the Jews and no longer follow their practices . . . They were now to observe the first day of the week instead of the seventh, the New Year instead of Chanukah; they were to be indifferent with regard to circumcision and the dietary laws . . . All these new ordinances which Simeon Kepha (or Paul, as he was known to the Nazarenes) taught them were really meant to separate these Nazarenes from the people of Israel and to bring an end to the internal strife.
People would no longer confuse the new religion with Judaism. Due to the great things Shimon HaKalphas did to preserve Yiddishkeit, his yahrzeit might be the source for the fast on the ninth of Teves.
The Raavad, in his Sefer HaKabbalah, notes another sad occurrence that took place on the ninth of Teves. (The following is a paraphrase of parts of the Raavad’s account.) Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi was appointed prince in the year 4787 (1027), and he conferred great benefits on the Jewish people in Spain, in northeastern and north-central Africa, in the land of Egypt, in Sicily, and as far as the Babylonian academy and Yerushalayim. All of the students who lived in those lands benefited from his generosity, because he purchased for them numerous manuscripts of the Mishnah and the Talmud. (The printing press had not yet been invented; manuscripts were very expensive.) Besides this, he furnished olive oil every year for the lamps of the synagogues in Yerushalayim. He spread the knowledge of the Torah and passed away at a ripe old age, having acquired the four crowns: Keser Torah, Keser Gedulah, Keser Leviyah, and, most important, Keser Shem Tov.
Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi died in the year 4815 (1055), and his son, Rabbi Yosef HaLevi, succeeded him as prince. Of all the good traits of his father, he lacked but one: he was not humble like his father because he grew up in riches and never had to bear the yoke of poverty in his youth. The Berber princes were jealous of him, with the result that on the Shabbos of the ninth of Teves in the year 4827, he and the Jewish community of Granada were murdered. About 150 families were killed. (This is the first known massacre of Jews in Spain by Muslims.)
The Birchei Yosef writes that the Sages who instituted the fast on the ninth of Teves were purposely vague regarding the true purpose of the fast because they saw, through Divine inspiration, that additional tragedies, other than the passing of Ezra and Nechemiah, were destined for that day. Perhaps all of the aforementioned occurrences were intended to be the reasons for the fast. For the vast majority of people who do not fast on the ninth of Teves, we can have in mind these occurrences while fasting on the tenth.
The Mishnah Berurah (549:1) writes that on a fast day, one should recall the tragedies of the day as a way of arousing oneself to do teshuvah; the fast is only a preparation for teshuvah. He writes, further, regarding one who fasts and is otherwise not engaged in teshuvah, “Hiniach ha’ikar v’tafas ha’tafel. In other words, he grabbed the wrapping and left the presents.
We should all have a meaningful fast and merit seeing the third Beis HaMikdash speedily, in our days.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.