Sunday, 12 December 2021

Fast of the Tenth of Tevet

Why do we fast on the Tenth of Tevet? The short answer is it was the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, 2600 years ago. But if you look a bit deeper the fast actually 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. 

Masekhet Megillah records the event as follows "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 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 Greeks saw this as a most impressive feat at the time. However, despite this great miracle the 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. 

Indeed, our reliance on English translations today can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing to have the ability to study texts that up until now were only available to Hebrew scholars. And a curse since we rely too heavily on their translations and interpretations without properly studying the Hebrew.

I like to view the 10th of Tevet as the polar opposite of Hanukah. On Hanukah, we celebrate the fact that the Greeks and the Hellenized Jews were defeated by the Torah faithful Jews. However, there were costs involved in our survival and living among the Greeks. Our Holy Torah was translated into Greek and this affected our culture and our very way of life. 

As a child growing up in England, in my teenage years, we would often discuss are we English Jews or are we Jewish Englishmen? To what extent do we value the Western values that enhance our lives and to what extent do they change our views of Judaism? These are the kind of things I ponder this time of year, when the world around us is focusing on Christmas and New Year, we have Hanukah and the fast of Tevet. I think the calendar is designed like this to make us think about our Judaism when it is so much easier to get wrapped up in non-Jewish Holidays instead. 

On the 9th of Tevet 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. Even though these events took place over a few hundred years. I think the message is clear. If we allow ourselves to become totally assimilated into foreign cultures it can lead not only to our spiritual numbness but eventually to even worse scenarios. We should not only celebrate our holidays but also commemorate our fasts and hold dear to what is truly valuable.