by Daniel Pinner
The fast of the 10th of Tevet commemorates the day that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, began the siege of Jerusalem during the reign of Tzidkiyahu [Zedekiah], the very last king of Judah (2 Kings 25:1, Jeremiah 52:4). This day marks the beginning of the end of the first Jewish Commonwealth – and is one of the four fasts (along with Tzom Gedaliah on 3rd Tishrei, 17th Tammuz, and 9th Av) which the prophet promises “will turn into rejoicing and gladness and festivities for the House of Judah” (Zechariah 8:19).
It is of course no coincidence that the 10th of Tevet falls just a week after Chanukah. This confluence of feast and fast serves to remind us: in our present world, nothing is eternal. Neither victory nor defeat mark the end of our story.
Nebuchadnezzar’s defeat of Judea must have seemed like the end of Jewish history for the Jews of the generation; indeed the Talmud records that “ten men came and sat before [the prophet Ezekiel, in Babylonian exile]. He said to them: Repent! They said to him: A slave whose master has sold him, or a woman whose husband has divorced her – what claim does either of them then have on the other?!” (Sanhedrin 105a).
That is to say: if we were God’s slaves and He has “sold” us as slaves to the Babylonians – then we are no longer His slaves, we are no longer bound to obey Him, and He no longer has any claim on us. Alternatively, if God is the groom and we, Israel, are His bride, and He has divorced us – then we are no longer His bride, and again He no longer has any claim on us.
Those ten men who asked Ezekiel this were no ordinary Jews: the Yalkut Shimoni (Isaiah 473) records the same event, but refers to them as prophets! Such was the demoralisation after the destruction of the Holy Temple and of the Jewish monarchy that even prophets could see nothing yet to come.
Contrariwise, we can be sure that in the days of the Macabbees, after the second Holy Temple was rededicated, the Seleucids were defeated, and Jewish independence and Jewish monarchy were restored in the Land of Israel, there must have been those who saw it as the end of history.
“To every beginning I have seen an end” sang King David (Psalms 119:96), and continues, “but Your Mitzvah is extremely broad”. Synthesising the commentaries of Rashi, Radak, and Ibn Ezra, King David means that everything that has a beginning must perforce have an end as well. But since the Mitzvot are eternal and have no beginning, they therefore have no end.
No victory is eternal, but neither is any defeat. Only the Torah and its mitzvot have no beginning and no end.
When the Syrian-Greek Empire conquered Israel, they enacted three decrees in particular in their efforts to eradicate Judaism: they forbade circumcision, Shabbat, and Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon ceremonies, marking the beginning of each Jewish month).
It is on the last of these that we will focus here.
Rosh Chodesh was the very first national mitzvah that God ever gave us, while we were still in Egypt, after the ninth Plague, still awaiting the tenth, and poised on the very brink of liberation from generations of slavery (Exodus 12:1-2).
Why was this?
A slave by definition has no need of a calendar. He sleeps and rises, works and eats, according to his master’s schedule. Time is of no consequence to the slave. His only calendar is what his master commands.
When God gave us the mitzvah to determine our own calendar, He was liberating us from Egyptian slavery. He was telling us: “From now onwards the months will be yours, to do during them whatever you desire; but in the days of slavery, your days were not yours – rather, they were subjugated to other people and their desires. Therefore, ‘it is to be for you the first of the months of the year’, because in this month your freedom of choice begins to be actualized’” (Sforno, Exodus 12:2).
And the responsibility that God thrust upon us with this first command shows the measure of trust that He placed in us: “He taught them the faces of the moon, then said to them: Until now, I Myself determined which years were leap years. And behold – I have given that responsibility to you: From now, you begin to count” (Tanchuma, Bo 6).
Or, as the Targum Yonatan renders Exodus 12:2, “This month is yours to determine the beginning of months, and from it you will begin to count festivals and appointed times and seasons; it is the first for you for reckoning the months of the year”.
This explains why the Greeks forbade Rosh Chodesh. For the Hellenists to be in complete control over the Jews, they had to force them away from their own calendar, which was the very basis of Jewish independence and self-definition.
Last week we celebrated Chanukah – the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, the restoration of once again living our national life according to our own calendar.
And this brings us back to the 10th of Tevet, which this year coincides with the Gregorian new year. It is distressing indeed to see Jews celebrating this day – as if it has any significance for us whatsoever! It is bad enough when Jews in the USA and Europe and other countries of exile hold new year’s parties on the 1st of January. But mired in exile, forced by circumstances to live their lives according to the Gregorian calendar – what else can we expect?
It is infinitely worse that Jews here in Israel have brought this paganism (yes, overt paganism) into our own country.
We often hear the casual excuses: It’s not a religious celebration; it’s simply an excuse for a party; it has no Christian or pagan significance. It is usually possible to conveniently ignore the contradiction.
But this year, the decision is starker. This year, for the first time since 5699 (1939), the 1st of January, Sylvester, coincides with the fast of the 10th of Tevet.
The choice is far more blatant. Fast or feast? Mourn over the destruction of Jerusalem? Or celebrate this highly unsavoury pope and “saint”, who was instrumental in convincing the Roman Emperor Constantine I, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem.
Live and celebrate according to a foreign calendar, instituted by Pope Gregory XIII – as vicious a Jew-hater as any pope? Or live and mourn and celebrate according to our calendar, for which the Macabbees fought?