I must confess, I’ve always loved the Christmas season. I like the songs, the lights, the flavored coffees, the sales! I love Home Alone, A Christmas Carol, and A Nightmare Before Christmas. Though I am firmly rooted in my Judaism and give no credence to the religious significance of the holiday, I enjoy the day off the way I would with Thanksgiving or Fourth of July. Given that I’m not going to see family or attend firework celebrations, I’ve taken the day as permission to indulge in some of my most coveted vices… having a few drinks, playing video games, and watching movies. In short, I veg. What’s the harm in that?
However this year will be different.
This year the fast of the 10th of Teves falls on Christmas day. Or perhaps I should say Christmas day falls on the 10th of Teves.
These days, the Jewish people observe 6 fast days. Yom Kippur, Tzom Gedalia (which falls right after Rosh Hashanah), the Fast of Esther (right before Purim), the 17th of Taamuz (which starts the “three weeks”), the 9th of Av (which ends the “three weeks”), and the 10th of Teves.
The 10th of Teves commemorates when King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem which was the first step in a three year assault leading to the destruction of the first Temple. The book known as Megillas Tinas (the megillah of fasts) details that originally the 10th of Teves was observed for three days! Oy. And I thought missing my Chinese food was bad. Also, the Rabbis say that if the 10th of Teves fell on Shabbos, (it doesn’t because Hillel set the calendar permanently but if it did) we would fast on Shabbos! Why is such a little known fast day so important?
🎶On The First Day of Fasting my Rabbi Said to Me🎵
Okay, let’s tackle the three days of fasting idea first. The Megillas Tinas says that on the 8th of Teves, the Torah was translated into Greek. The Talmud (Megillah 9B) comments with the following…
King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: “Write [translate] for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher”. God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.
The identical translations was regarded as a miracle because there are many problematic statements in the Torah that, if not understood with the proper context, could lead to antisemitism. So these 72 Rabbis actually made changes in the translation, and they all made the exact same changes. However, this translation is also regarded as one of the darkest moments in all of Jewish history. Why would making the Torah available to the whole world be considered a tragedy? I’ll come back to that.
The 9th of Teves is said to be when Ezra the scribe died. Without going into detail, Ezra was essential in making changes to the way we pray so that when the Temple finally fell Judaism could continue. Another monumental shift in how Torah was related to in the world.
The Fast of Shabbos isn’t Fast Enough
With the exception of Yom Kippur, if a fast day falls on a Shabbos it gets pushed off to the following day. And as I said above, the 10th of Teves won’t ever fall on Shabbos, but if it did, the Rabbis say we would still fast. Why is that? Well the first answer is simply because when the siege is talked about in the books of the prophets (Ezekiel) it uses the phrase, “b’etsem hayom hazeh” or “on this day the King of Babylonia laid siege to Jerusalem.” Other fasts days we observe aren’t necessarily done on the day of the original event. Such as with the 9th of Av is when the Temple started burning, but it wasn’t really destroyed until the 10th day. So when compared to a Shabbos, the Shabbos gets precedent. But since Ezekiel specifically says on this day, there is an emphasized importance.
But if a scheduling conflict isn’t reason enough to justify missing your weekly cholent, the Rabbi known as the Chasam Sofer gives another reason. According to him, on the 10th of Teves the Court in Heaven meets and judges whether the Jews will finally get the new third Temple or if they will have another year of exile. With the prayers in the selichos (supplications for mercy) for the 10th of Teves we have a unique pleading to cry out to Hashem and say, “our suffering is enough!” That’s not something that can be done the day after.
Lost in Translation
The idea that on the 10th of Teves we are on the verge of salvation or lasting darkness is a particularly appropriate sentiment. We are all living in a year of exile with the coronavirus. At this moment now, we have the vaccine but also devastating testing numbers and possibly a far more contagious new strain has emerged. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the matters of the world match up so well with the spirit of the day. And I also don’t think it is a coincidence that the fast falls on Christmas. Clearly Hashem is saying something.
Going back to the tragedy of the 8th of Teves, the translation of the Torah into Greek. Yes it is good the whole world gained access to the Torah. But at the same time, we lost the ability to guard it. Mistranslations, improper context, and the lack of the deeper understandings can turn a medicine into a poison. We now live in a world where the other religions can misuse our text to justify acts of cruelty. Then the secular world regards that text as not just misguided, but evil. And finally, Jews themselves started to regard their own Torah as evil too. If that isn’t darkness, I don’t know what is.
Until we make the commitment to take back the Torah, speaking up when it is misconstrued and most importantly living it with joy so the rest of the world can witness how it is supposed to be done, I fear we will always be in exile. This is the moment where we can make the decision to turn it all around. This Christmas, instead of watching Die Hard for the 40th time (it’s NOT a Christmas movie anyway) while eating that plate of Chow Mein, find that thing that bothers you in the Torah. That verse or chapter that offends or confuses you. Look up some commentary on Chabad.org or Aish.com. Reach out to a Rabbi. Own what was taken from us and make the holiness of our holiday outshine Christmas.