Donate to RNS

A guide to Judaism’s most obscure fast day

Does Judaism still speak to our souls, or just to our minds?

Nebuchadnezzar II and the Babylonians lay siege  to Jerusalem and there is famine in the city. Image from Petrus Comestor's

(RNS) — As I was devouring my bagel at breakfast this morning. I stopped midgulp. The pangs of unspeakable guilt assaulted me.

Today is a Jewish fast day.

It is the Tenth of Tevet, and it is a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar.

Today marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, in 586 BCE.

Oh, c’mon, you are saying. Really? How many destruction of Jewish sovereignty fast days do we need, anyway? OK, sure: You have heard of Tisha B’ Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem.

You might even have heard of the 17th of Tammuz, a few weeks before that, which marks the original breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

But, sheesh, you are saying to yourself. Really? We needed a whole other fast day to commemorate the beginning of the siege? Isn’t there something a little, well, neurotic about all this?

You might be right.

But, wait. There’s more. There is another reason why the sages proclaimed a fast on the Tenth of Tevet. It might even be a better reason.

According to rabbinic tradition, the other reason for the fast was to commemorate the creation of the Septuagint, the translation of the Torah into Greek, at the command of King Ptolemy.

Wait. Huh? What was that all about?

Here goes.

According to the Talmud, King Ptolemy, who ruled the Ptolamaic (Egyptian) part of the old Greek empire, brought together 72 Jewish sages, put them in separate rooms and decreed they translate the Torah into Greek.

Miraculously, they each came up with the same identical translation.

Think about it: 72 sages sit in 72 separate rooms, and come up with the same translation?

This should be a cause not of a fast, but of a raucous celebration.

Because that was the last time Jews agreed on anything.

But, no. The sages made that act of translation another reason for the fast of the Tenth of Tevet. In their eyes, “the day when the Torah was written in Greek was as unfortunate for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf” (Soferim 1:7).

Why?

According to William Kolbrener, the fast was not because of the translation itself, but rather, because of what Ptolemy did with the translation.

He put that translation into the library in Alexandria.

To quote Kolbrener: “Ptolemy gave the Torah the Hellenist version of a Library of Congress call number, and in so doing gave it the same status as other books in the Greek library. ‘Study the Bible in the university library,’ Ptolemy says, ‘but do not learn Torah in the House of Study.’”

Two things here.

First, Ptolemy basically said there is nothing terribly special, or sacred, about the biblical text. It goes into the same library as every other book. As such, it is a matter of choice what books you will read as sources of wisdom.

Pretty modern of him, come to think of it.

Second, when Ptolemy removed the biblical text from the House of Study, the sacred precincts of Jewish learning, he was basically saying: This is about your head, not your heart; your intellect, not your soul.

As I continue to mark my 40th year in the rabbinate, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to study a text in a library, and what it means to study a text in a synagogue.

When I was in rabbinical school, the library version of learning was Wissenschaft des Judentums — the scientific study of Judaism. We learned about the ancient sources of the Torah: the Documentary Hypothesis — J, E, D and P — the sources of the Torah that referred to God as YHWH (with German scholars substituting J for Y); Elohim; the Deuteronomical source; the Priestly source — and then, R — the final redactor and editor. 

It did not escape our notice that one of the creators of the Documentary Hypothesis, Julius Wellhausen, was more than a little antisemitic. To reduce our texts to their original sources, to slice them apart, was to be present at their autopsy. It was a way of giving Judaism a proper burial.

When we opened the Biblia Hebraica, edited by Rudolf Kittel, we could see there were also various manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible: a Samaritan text, as well as manuscripts that wound up in the libraries of Oxford, Leningrad and the Vatican. We learned how to compare those manuscripts. A different word here, a different phrase here. All very cool, I suppose — in a Dan Brown “Da Vinci Code” sort of way.

But, for me, my first textual love became midrash, the rabbinic commentaries and oral lore that grew up around every word of the Torah. Those teachings filled my soul with light. I could not get enough of them.

But, there again: I learned how to compare the texts in the various ancient manuscripts and editions that had been published over the centuries, seeing which word or which phrase was different. 

We did the same thing with liturgy. How old is this prayer? When was it written? What was the theological and historical agenda that prompted its writing? What was the original version? It took our esteemed professor, Lawrence Hoffman, to break himself and us out of that paradigm and to pose the question: What did and does this prayer and ritual actually do for those who are part of the tradition?

The tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet was a bad day for the Jews — literally, for the citizens of Judea. It was the day the Babylonian siege began.

But, it was also a bad day for Judaism. The ancient sages knew the Greek intellectual and philosophical tradition would force them to view Torah as a subject — the library version of Jewish study — not as an object of spiritual desire and yearning — the House of Study/synagogue version.

Again, Kolbrener: “The fast of Tevet marks the time when Jews became enlightened outsiders to their tradition, unemotional ‘objective’ observers, distant and disengaged.”

What attracts religious people to their ancient texts?

For some, yes: It will be the pure scholarship and intellectual dance. Or, if you will, the library approach.

But, for most religious people, it is not what the texts once meant, but what the text means. It is the idea that those texts are living, breathing, evolving texts — and that those texts have something to say to them, in their own existential struggles.

Let me put it in another way.

There is one question everyone asks me about any particular story in the Torah. “Did this really happen?” That is a scholarly question. A question for the library.

The response I have learned to give:

“We cannot say whether or not it really happened. But we know one thing for sure. It really happens. It happens all the time.”

Whether “it” is Cain’s murder of Abel, and his attempted flight from responsibility; whether it was Noah’s survivor guilt after the Flood; whether it was Abram and Sarai’s spirit of divine-induced adventure; whether it was the cycle of sibling rivalry and brokenness in the first family of the Jewish people, the petty favoritisms that tear clans apart …

Yes, it happens. That is the answer the synagogue study group provides.

It happens all the time.