June 21, 2024
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The background to the Fast of Gedaliah is inevitably overlooked as the day is overshadowed by Rosh Hashanah. This is my attempt to rectify this.

The story of Gedaliah and his assassination is told at Jeremiah chapters 40 and 41. (A brief version is at 2 Kings, chap. 25.)

Gedaliah was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to be in charge of the small Jewish community that remained in various cities of Judea after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE and the forced exile of the overwhelming majority of the population. Only the poorest were allowed by the Babylonians to remain in the land.

Gedaliah set up his headquarters in Mizpah, in the tribe of Benjamin. Upon his appointment, he advised the Jews to stay loyal to the Babylonians and that all would be well with them.

Gedaliah’s father Achikam had been an adviser to Yoshiyahu (2 Kings 22:12) and had also earlier saved Jeremiah’s life (Jer. 26:24).

Archaeology has unearthed a clay seal from Lachish from around the time of Gedaliah with the inscription: “(Belonging) to Gedalyahu who is in charge of the house.” This may have belonged to our Gedaliah. (Seals belonged to people of importance.)

After Gedaliah’s appointment, Baalis king of Ammon made an alliance with Yishmael ben Netanyah (who was from the Davidic line) and instructed Yishmael to kill Gedaliah. The Soncino commentary suggests that Baalis was trying to hinder the rehabilitation of Judea so that it might fall to his own expansionist plans. It also mentions Yishmael’s possible resentment at being passed over as leader of Judea.

Gedaliah was warned that Yishmael was planning to kill him, but he discounted the rumor. (One adviser even offered to preemptively kill Yishmael, but Gedaliah refused to allow this.)

Shortly thereafter Yishmael had his opportunity. During a meal, Yishmael and the 10 men who were with him suddenly got up and struck Gedaliah with a sword, killing him. They also killed the other Jews who were with Gedaliah and killed the Babylonian officers present. Yishmael managed to escape to Ammon with eight of his men. The end result, after further events, is that the Jewish community in the various cities of Judea decided to flee to Egypt out of fear that the Babylonians might take revenge against them for the actions of Yishmael and his men. They fled to Egypt even though Jeremiah, in the name of God, warned them not to go there and that He would destroy them in Egypt.

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch went with them to Egypt. See Jer. 43:6. (Perhaps they were forced to go or they eventually agreed since they would have been of little use in Judea without a community.)

So why do we fast on the third of Tishrei? There is a statement at Rosh Hashanah 18b that the fast was enacted to teach us that the death of righteous individuals should weigh as heavily on us as the burning of the Temple. But this seems like a homiletical explanation. (Moreover, at Nid. 61a Gedaliah is blamed for discounting the assassination warning to him and is held accountable for the death of the others killed with him.)

I alluded above to the idea that the flight of the Jewish community that had been ruled by Gedaliah marked the end of the organized Jewish community in Judea. It is likely that this is the reason that the fast was established. (It was presumably established by the Jewish community in Babylonia, after they heard of what happened.) Rambam takes this position. See Taaniyot 5:2 where he writes that upon Gedaliah’s death “the remaining embers of Israel were extinguished and the completion of the exile was brought about.” Was Rambam just expressing what all understood intuitively for hundreds of years before him? I admit that I am not sure what Jews were thinking every year when they fasted on this day before Rambam wrote it. (Ephraim Kanarfogel suggested to me that the answer can be found in surveying piyutim written for the fast. For example, the Siddur of R. Saadiah Gaon includes two such piyutim, one of which is included in the ArtScroll Selichos, p. 472.)

Although many of us assume that Judea was empty of Jews after the time of Gedaliah and for the decades thereafter, this is an oversimplification. Probably it was just the organized Jewish community that ended with Gedaliah. Interestingly, Jer. 52:30 mentions 745 people as being exiled by the Babylonians five years after the Churban, but does not say exiled from where. (But it is possible that the reference is to Jews being exiled from a neighboring country. See Seder Olam, chap. 26 and Josephus, Ant. 10, 182.)

***

Precisely when did the assassination of Gedaliah take place? The Tanach does not give the specific date. It just says (in both the Jeremiah and Kings verses) “ba-chodesh ha-shevii.” Some are willing to interpret “chodesh” here to mean “Rosh Chodesh.” (This is reasonable. See, e.g., Ex. 19:1.) In this view, the observance of the fast was postponed to the third each year because of Rosh Hashanah. (This leads to the issue of when the Jews started observing two days of Rosh Hashanah.) The earliest sources to make the claim that Gedaliah was killed on Rosh Hashanah are Ibn Ezra (comm. to Zech. 8:18) and Radak (comm. to Jer. 41:1 and Zech. 7:5).

But the view that Gedaliah was killed on the third of the month is a well-established one. It is found in Tannaitic sources: Seder Olam (chap. 26), Tosefta Sotah chap. 6, and Sifrei Devarim 31. It is very hard to derive this precise date from the verses. It must have been a tradition.

***

In a previous column I discussed the unresolved issue of whether this fast and the three other fasts related to the Churban were kept when the Second Temple was standing.

One source relevant to this issue is Megillat Taanit. This is a list of days on which one was not allowed to fast. The earliest layer of Megillat Taanit is the Aramaic portion, which dates to around 50 C.E. and collected earlier traditions. Here there is a listing for the third of Tishrei as a date where one is not allowed to fast. The reason? A holiday was declared to commemorate the fact that Jews agreed that they would no longer write God’s name on business shetarot. The practice had been problematic because once the debt was paid, the shetar might end up in the garbage.

On the simplest level, the fact that such a holiday was declared on the third of Tishrei suggests that there was no practice of fasting before its enactment.

But another scholar’s observation is also noteworthy: “It is difficult to imagine…that for a period of close to 600 years…these fast days had fallen into oblivion and then were suddenly reinstituted… Especially puzzling is the supposed reinstitution of the fast days of Tebet 10 and the Fast of Gedaliah, since these have nothing to do with the Second Temple… We are therefore led to accept the assumption that these fast days continued to be observed by the people during the Second Commonwealth.” This statement is by Judah Rosenthal in JQR 57 (1967) in his article “The Four Commemorative Fast Days.” (There are traditional sources that agree with Rosenthal. See his n. 64.) I would just modify his conclusion by changing it to “some of the people.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He wishes a shanah tovah and a meaningful fast to all.

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