The Forgotten Reason For Fasting on the Tenth of Tevet

Today we mark one of the “minor” fast days of the Jewish calendar: Asarah b’Tevet, the Tenth of Tevet. Technically, in ancient times there were three separate fasts instituted on the eighth, ninth, and tenth days of Tevet. However, because fasting three days in a row is not practical for most people, the three were combined into a single day. None of this is coincidence, of course, and there is a profound connection between the “three” fasts. First, a recap: what does each of these fasts commemorate?

The Great Library of Alexandria

The eighth of Tevet is the traditional date for when the Septuagint was completed. Recall that sometime in the 3rd century BCE, King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 284-246 BCE, and known simply as “Talmai” in Rabbinic texts), gathered a group of Sages to translate the Torah into Greek. We know from historical records that Ptolemy II (who was the Greek ruler of Egypt) established or greatly expanded the famous Library of Alexandria, then the world’s epicentre of scholarship. At one point, the Library held 400,000 different texts and scrolls. For centuries, it was the home for countless scholars, philosophers, poets, mathematicians, and mystics.

Wishing to expand his collection, Ptolemy II started an extensive campaign to populate his library. Not surprisingly, he commissioned a group of rabbis to produce a Greek translation of the Torah. (At the time, Israel was under the control of Ptolemaic Kingdom. Later on, the Seleucid Kingdom wrested Israel from the Ptolemaic Kingdom, leading to the events of Chanukah. It is important to state again that Chanukah was not about Jews battling all Greeks, but rather a specific Syrian-Greek entity. The majority of the Greeks played no role in the conflict. In fact, we know from historical sources that the Spartan Greeks even allied with the Jews!)

A total of seventy (or seventy-two) rabbis were selected for the great task of translating the Torah, hence the name Septuagint, literally “seventy”. In Jewish tradition, the day the work was finished and the text presented to Ptolemy was the eighth of Tevet. The question is: why was this day considered a tragedy? Why must we fast to commemorate it? The tragedy is all the more perplexing when we consider that the Sages actually respected the Greeks, and had a liking for the Greek language.

It isn’t a secret that Greek is based on the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, beit, gimmel, dalet—alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc.), has its own form of gematria like Hebrew, and that the Sages themselves adopted many Greek words. Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh writes that in doing so, the Sages “sanctified” those Greek words, and made them holy Torah words (see Breath of Life, pg. 74). He points out some beautiful examples, too. For instance, the Sages adopted the Greek word for a person who has both male and female characteristics—androgynous (אנדרוגינוס). It happens to be that this word has the same gematria (390) as zachar v’nekevah (זכר ונקבה), “male and female”!

Even more telling is a passage in the Talmud (Megillah 8b-9a) suggesting that the Torah, mezuzot, and tefillin can only be written in either Hebrew (with Ashuri script, like we do today, which we will get to), or Greek! Here we also find the history of Ptolemy’s Septuagint:

“Tefillin and mezuzot are to be written only in Ashuri, but our Rabbis allowed them to be written in Greek also.” But is it not written, and they shall be? I must say therefore, “Scrolls of the Scripture may be written in any language, and our Rabbis permitted them to be written in Greek.” They permitted! This would imply that it was originally forbidden! What I must say therefore is, “Our Rabbis permitted them to be written only in Greek.” And it goes on to state, “Rav Yehuda said: When our teachers permitted Greek, they permitted it only for a scroll of the Torah.” This was on account of the incident related in connection with King Ptolemy, as it has been taught: “It is related of King Ptolemy that he brought together seventy-two elders and placed them in seventy-two rooms, without telling them why he had brought them together, and he went in to each one of them and said to him: ‘Translate for me the Torah of Moses your master.’ God then prompted each one of them and they all conceived the same idea and wrote for him…”

A great miracle occurred for those seventy-two rabbis, and the Talmud goes on to state how God made it so that all of them made the exact same changes to the text when translating the Torah into Greek. These changes were necessary to ensure that the Torah would not be misunderstood or misused by the Greeks. If that’s the case, why must we fast? A great miracle occurred! Should we not celebrate instead? To solve this puzzle, we must look to the next fast day, the ninth of Tevet.

Ezra, and Jesus

“Ezra Reads the Law to the People” by Gustave Doré

The reason for fasting on the ninth is something of a mystery. The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 580) doesn’t give a reason at all, saying it is “unknown”. One of the earliest halachic texts, Halachot Gedolot (dated back to sometime in the 8th century CE) also notes that the Sages did not give an explicit reason for why one should fast on the ninth. However, it then offers that this was the day that Ezra HaSofer, “the Scribe” (and probably also his partner Nehemiah) passed away.

Ezra was a tremendously important figure in Jewish history. He was born in Babylon during the Exile between the First and Second Temples. Ezra studied under Baruch ben Neriah, the disciple of Jeremiah the prophet, and became the greatest sage of the day. He eventually led a group of 1500 Jews back to Israel, and found the Holy Land mostly devoid of Judaism, with its Jewish population unobservant, and many intermarried with non-Jews. Ezra got down to work. He enacted ten decrees to save Judaism, the most famous among them that the Torah must be read on Mondays and Thursdays (which all synagogues still do to this day). He was perhaps the first kiruv rabbi, and successfully brought the Jewish community back to a level of observance not seen since the time of Joshua, the successor of Moses (Nehemiah 8:17).

Ancient Hebrew Script

The Talmud (Sukkah 20a) credits Ezra with restoring Judaism to the Holy Land. It goes even further and states that had Moses not brought the Torah to Israel, Ezra would have been worthy of doing so (Sanhedrin 21a). On that same latter page, the Talmud states that originally the Torah had been written in Ancient Hebrew script. It was Ezra who first wrote the Torah in Ashuri, or “Assyrian” script—the letters that we know today. Others hold that the Torah was originally given in the holy Ashuri font, which does not mean “Assyrian” but me’ushar, “upright”. This font was replaced by a different one for a while, and then restored by Ezra.

The Talmud suggests another interesting thing: Ezra may have been the first person to translate the Torah, for “in the days of Ezra, the Torah was in Ashuri script and in the Aramaic language” (Sanhedrin 21a). So, we mourn when the Torah was translated into Greek, but we don’t mourn when the Torah was translated into Aramaic? Are we not mourning the passing of Ezra—the Torah’s first translator?! On that note, why do we specifically mourn Ezra’s day of death, and not any other great figure or prophet in Jewish history? Thankfully, there is another explanation for the ninth of Tevet.

Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman cites Rabbi Avraham bar Chiya (c. 1070-1145) in his Sefer HaIbbur that the ninth of Tevet is the day that Jesus was supposedly born. That year, the 25th of December fell on the ninth of Tevet. While Rabbi Avraham admits that this date was certainly not the actual birth date of Jesus (which even most Christians admit to), it is nonetheless associated with his birth, and the birth of that new religion which caused endless harm to the Jewish people. Now, that’s a very good reason to fast and mourn. And it helps explain why the reason for the ninth of Tevet fast was not made explicitly clear by the Sages (or was deleted by Christian censors).

All of this takes us right back to the eighth of Tevet and the tragedy of the Greek Torah.

A “New” Testament

The reason that the Sages feared the Torah’s translation into Greek—especially it being housed in the Library of Alexandria where it was available to anyone—is that now any person, even a non-Jew, could read it and interpret it as they wish, with no proper commentaries or explanations, and no tradition to guide them. In the wrong hands, that could be very dangerous. And that’s precisely how Christianity was born.

Originally, the “New Testament” was written in Greek, by (mostly) simple Greek-speaking Jews who were led astray by false interpretations, and who learned their Torah from the Septuagint, and not in the original Hebrew. This made many words ambiguous and unclear, the classic case being the distinction between a “young lady” and a “virgin”, though there are many others. The Greek Septuagint lead directly to the Greek New Testament. The religion spread through these misinformed Greek words, among misinformed people who had no knowledge of the original language and meaning of the Torah. Without the Septuagint, it is unlikely that Christianity would have been able to take off at all.

So, the fast of the eighth (the translation) leads right to the fast of the ninth (the religion it led to), and then, of course, to the tenth of Tevet, which commemorates the Temple’s destruction. If we already have Tisha b’Av to mark the destruction of the Temple, why do it again in Tevet? Perhaps it is meant to teach us that sequence of how the (Second) Temple’s destruction came about. The Septuagint, the Christianity, and shortly after that the Temple’s destruction and the start of the long and bitter exile of the Jewish people.

It is worth mentioning the Talmud Yerushalmi’s teaching that God did not decree the destruction of the Second Temple under there were 24 different sects dividing the Jews in Jerusalem (Sanhedrin 53b). Historically, it appears the Christian sect was the last of the 24 to appear, and thus the final straw that sealed Jerusalem’s destruction (a passage in Yoma 39b further supports this notion). It is terribly ironic that instead of transforming Jerusalem into the most illustrious city in the world—as the Tanakh prophesies about Mashiach—the arrival of Jesus lead instead to the city’s horrific desecration and destruction so soon after. And, while he may be famous for preaching peace, his religion led to the slaughter of more people than any other movement in history.

It is all the more fitting that the Tenth of Tevet has today become a “General Kaddish Day”, where we remember all the countless victims of centuries of inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, persecutions, and holocausts. So, we mourn on the Tenth of Tevet, and pray that soon Zechariah’s prophecy will be realized:

Thus said the God of Hosts: “The fast of the fourth month [Tamuz], and the fast of the fifth [Av], and fast of the seventh [Tishrei], and the fast of the tenth [Tevet], shall become to the house of Judah times of joy and gladness, and good holidays, so love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19)

Courtesy: Temple Institute

P.S. There is an interesting Scriptural connection alluding to the ninth of Tevet being the yahrzeit of Ezra and the birthday of Jesus. The name Yeshua (ישוע), “Jesus”, first appears in the Book of Ezra! (2:2)

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