By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Ancient Greek culture was focused on the human body. Someone remarked that on Chanukah we eat latkes and doughnuts fried in oil to ensure that our bodies do not become worthy of worship!
Although one fast day might not be enough to undo all the damage, perhaps three fast days can.
We will transition from the joyous days of Chanukah into a brief period of mourning. There is a well-known fast day approaching. On Asarah B’Teves, Nevuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem. That action culminated with the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash.
The Shulchan Aruch (580) writes there are certain days that have been historically dark for our nation, and therefore it is appropriate to fast on them. These days are in addition to the well-known six fast days that are a fixture on our calendar. However, very few people actually observe these additional fast days.
One of the days listed by the Shulchan Aruch is the 8th day of Teves. On that day King Talmai forced 70 Jewish scholars to translate the Torah into Greek. The Shulchan Aruch writes that it is also appropriate to fast on the ninth day of Teves. If one were to observe these additional fasts, one would end up fasting this year on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
It is interesting that the Shulchan Aruch notes that there is no known sad occurrence specifically associated with the ninth of Teves. Yet, that day was recorded as being an appropriate day for one to fast.
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. Our 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. Nechemiah 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. It is interesting to note that the Shulchan Gavo’ah opines, based on the Selichos of Nusach Sefard, that in fact Ezra HaSofer passed away on the tenth of Teves. However, the sages wanted to commemorate his passing on a different day in order that it not be overshadowed by other sad events that happened on the tenth of Teves.
The commentary of Tosfos Chaddashim on Megillas Taanis notes that Yeshu, the poshei’ah b’Yisrael sometimes referred to as Oso HaIsh, 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. Indeed, there are passages in the Talmud that have been censored that discuss this man. Some even suggest that it was actually a case of self-censorship and the passages were deleted so as not to engender strife with our neighbors. The Oz V’Hadar edition of the Talmud returned these deleted passages to the Talmudic page via footnote. However, the ArtScroll edition just informs the reader that some passages were deleted and can be found in the sefer titled Chesronos HaShas.
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 Kepha, 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, the 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 [as the Sabbath] 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 reason 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. (Printing 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 of Kesser Torah, Kesser Gedulah, Kesser Leviyah, and, most important, Kesser 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 intentionally 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 we are 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. Regarding one who fasts and is otherwise not engaged in teshuvah, he writes, “Hiniach ha’ikar v’tafas ha’tafel.” In other words, he grabbed the wrapping and left the presents.
Tosfos in Shevuos (15b) is of the opinion that the third Beis HaMikdash will descend from the heavens. Accordingly, unlike the first two Batei Mikdash, the third Beis HaMikdash can be even built at night. Perhaps the teshuvah on the fast day can be the final push we need, and even immediately after the fast we can still expect the third Beis HaMikdash to descend.
We should all have a meaningful fast and merit seeing the third Beis HaMikdash, speedily in our days.
Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.