Why We Fast for Gedaliah

Dear Josep,

Welcome to 5776!

So, we partied for two days (and by “partied,” I mean prayed intensely, let our souls cry out with the call of the shofar, and yes, ate a ridiculous amount of food)… and now, all of the sudden, we’re fasting. The day after Rosh Hashana is the Fast of Gedaliah. (I explained about it a bit in this post on Jewish fast days.)

I have to say that as a teenager I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this fast. I was told that Gedaliah was a Jewish leader who was murdered by another Jew, but that didn’t seem reason enough to mourn it forever with an annual Jewish fast day. And, like, right after Rosh Hashana? Feels kind of incongruous, no?

I heard a number of attempts to explain the significance of this event in school, but I didn’t really “get it” until I read A History of the Jews by Solomon Grayzel (a book I have often been tempted to lend you, by the way). He addresses this event in a relatively short passage, which I’m going to quote here, but first a little historical background: We’re talking about the period circa 597 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor, conquered Judea and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, as the prophets had foretold. (More about the destruction of the Temple and its significance in Jewish history here.)  The surviving Judeans (a.k.a. Jews) were taken hostage and brought to Babylonia, where they began to establish what would eventually become the thriving center of Jewish life for hundreds and hundreds of years. Here’s Grayzel:

Nebuchadnezzar had not intended to destroy Judea, but merely to make it impossible for the Judeans again to rebel. He knew that if the upper classes, or the leaders, princes and priests, were removed, the lower classes, the small merchants, the artisans, the peasants, would keep the peace. This portion of the population was therefore left undisturbed. Some sort of government was needed for Judea. Nebuchadnezzar, therefore, chose a member of a prominent Judean family, one of the nobles who had not favored the policy of alliance with Egypt, and appointed him governor. But this man, Gedaliah ben (that is, son of) Ahikam, a forthright, earnest, patriotic Judean, was murdered, soon after his appointment, by a jealous descendant of the House of David. Thereupon the men associated with Gedaliah in the government, fearing that Nebuchadnezzar would blame them for what had happened, decided to abandon completely the work of reconstruction and flee to Egypt. They compelled Jeremiah [the Prophet] to accompany them, and it was in Egypt that the old prophet uttered his last exhortations to return to the worship of God and the observance of Mosaic traditions. To this day the Jewish calendar commemorates by a fast-day the anniversary of Gedaliah’s murder, the day following Rosh ha-Shanah. For that day marked the final destruction of the first Hebrew Commonwealth. The Jews themselves completed what the Babylonians had begun.

Nebuchadnezzar, some say, took the flight of the Judeans to Egypt as a confession of guilt. He carried another group of Judeans into Babylonian exile as a punishment for having plotted against his appointee. From every side the neighboring nations moved into Judean territory–the Ammonites from the east, the Edomites from the south, and the Samaritans from the north. They all pushed their boundaries forward into the defenseless land. Stricken, leaderless and bullied by the neighbors, the Judeans sank into national hopelessness.

In other words, when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and sent us into exile, it may have seemed that all was lost… but all was not lost. Nebuchadnezzar did not intend to destroy Judea, and under his appointee–Gedaliah ben Ahikam–we could have had a chance to rebuild Judea, Jerusalem, and the Temple. But we blew it. Jealousy and hatred overcame hope, and Gedaliah was assassinated by a fellow Jew… on Rosh Hashana, no less. (The fast is the day after because we are not allowed to fast on holidays, with the exception of Yom Kippur.)

Over the holiday I was thinking a lot about the thread that connects our current actions back through Jewish history and forward to the destiny of mankind. I will be writing more about that in a future post, God willing. After learning about the circumstances of Gedaliah’s assassination, it was very clear to me why we fast on this day. It was the final link in the chain of events that led to the Diaspora; to the execution of Divine Plan B, as it were. (See the post about the Three Weeks.) The nail in the coffin of Jewish sovereignty over our land… a coffin that remained closed and buried until 1948. Because even when we returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, the majority of Jews remained in Babylonia. With the murder of Gedaliah, the center of Jewish spiritual life shifted from Judea to Babylonia… and stayed there for hundreds of years, all the way until the Middle Ages, when it shifted towards Spain. (After 1492, it shifted to Eastern Europe, and after the Holocaust–to the USA. Today, it finally seems to be slowly shifting back towards Israel.)

That’s all for now. See you when my stomach is no longer growling!



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