Monday, 9 December 2013

Friday the 13th and the Fast of the 10th of Tevet

Is there any Jewish significance to Friday the 13th? Why is there a fast day this Friday? How will this fast be different to a regular fast day? Why do we fast on the Tenth of Tevet? 

When I went to Secondary school in England (basically 7th grade) all 7th graders dreaded one day above all others - Friday the 13th. It was called "Sprog Bashing Day" a day where the older students had licence to beat up all the little kids as much as they wanted. Fear of the number 13 is the most prevalent superstition in the Western world. We even have a name for it triskaidekaphobia. Friday has always been a feared day in Christianity so Friday 13th is considered the scary day/night where bad things could happen Fear of Friday the 13th is called ParaskevisekatriaphobiaThe Movie Franchise Friday 13th make many Americans terrified. 

But in Judaism there is no negative concept associated with the day. Quite the opposite. It has positive associations and is significant in many ways. At 13, a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah. God has “13 attributes” of mercy. Maimonides lists 13 principles of faith. Talmudic law and logic was reduced by Rabbi Ishmael into 13 principles. There are 13 months in a Jewish lunar leap year. The Purim victory celebrated by Queen Esther took place on the 13th day of Adar.

This coming Friday, is also Asara B'Tevet - The fast of the 10th of Tevet. With the exception of Asara B'Tevet all fast days are moved up or pushed off if they fall on a Friday and Yom Kippur can never fall out on Friday. So why is it that the 10th of Tevet isn't moved? The verse mentioning the fast (Yekhezel 24:2) says עצם היום הזה -  that very day. Our rabbis teach us that the 10th of Tevet must be commemorated on the day it falls out and not moved. 

The 10th of Tevet then causes us to be fasting on Shabbat as the fast continues into nightfall. In Seattle this year, the fast will end at 4:55pm when kiddush is recited and the regular Shabbat continues. I feel sorry for my Southern Hemisphere friends. In Melbourne the fast won't finish till after 9pm. So while for most Asara B'Tevet is an easier fast than most for Australians it's pretty difficult. 

The major difficulty the fast presents is Friday afternoon preparation. Mincha will start around 30 minutes earlier. Levantine Sephardim wear Talet and Tefillin on Fast day afternoons and will do so even on Friday afternoon. So remember to bring them this Friday with Mincha starting at 3:30pm in Seattle.

The fast commemorates 3 things that happened on the 8th, 9th and 10th of Tevet. On the eighth of Tevet during the Second Temple period, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, ordered the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, a work which later became known as the Septuagint. Seventy two sages were placed in solitary confinement and ordered to translate the Torah into Greek. The expected outcome would be a multitude of different translations that would then be compared and critiqued by the Greeks as there were some sentences in the bible that could be understood as offensive to pagans if taken wrongly and would obviously need to be changed. This would demonstrate the muddled meanings of the Torah and the divergent opinions of Jewish interpreters. 

However, all seventy-two sages independently made identical translations into Greek. The Greeks saw this as a most impressive feat. However, various rabbinical sources see this event as a tragedy, a debasement of the divine nature of the Torah, and a subversion of its spiritual qualities. They reasoned that upon translation from the original Hebrew, the Torah's legal codes & deeper layers of meaning would be lost. Many Jewish laws are formulated in terms of specific Hebrew words employed in the Torah; without the original Hebrew code, authenticity of the legal system would be damaged. 

On the 9th of Tevet the Ezra HaSofer who brought the Jews back from Babylon to build the Second Temple died. Some say Nechemia also died. The Tenth itself marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians ultimately leading to the destruction of the First Temple. 

Have a meaningful fast

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