Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 29 December 2012 / 15 Tevet 5773

The Many Facets of Asarah B'Teves

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

This past Sunday Klal Yisrael fasted. Although to many the only notable aspect of the fast of Asarah B’Teves (the 10th of Teves) is that it’s by far the shortest fast day in the Jewish calendar for anyone in the Northern or Western Hemisphere (my heartfelt sympathies to the South Americans, So’Africans, Aussies, and Kiwis), nonetheless there is much more to the Fast of Asarah B’Teves than meets the eye. In fact, Asarah B’Teves has three exceptional characteristics that are not found in (almost) any other fast day.

The reason given for fasting on Asarah B’Teves is that it is the day that the wicked Babylonian king, Nevuchadnetzar, started his siege of Yerushalayim[1], foreshadowing the beginning of the end of the first Beis Hamikdash, which cumulated with its destruction on Tisha B’Av several years later. Therefore, Chazal declared it a public fast, one of four public fast days that memorialize different aspects of the catastrophes and national tragedies associated with the destruction of both Batei HaMikdash[2].

Three Day Fast?

According to the special Selichos prayers said on the fast[3], a unique aspect of Asarah B’Teves is that we are actually fasting for two other days of tragedy as well; the 8th and 9th of Teves. In fact, both the Tur and Shulchan Aruch assert that if possible one should try to fast on all three days[4]. Nevertheless, of the three, only Asarah B’Teves was actually mandated as a public fast day[5].

The 8th of Teves

On the 8th of Teves, King Ptolemy II (285 - 246 B.C.E.) demanded and forced 72 sages separately to translate the Torah into Greek (the Septuagint). Although miracles guided their work and all of the sages made the same slight, but necessary amendments, nevertheless this work is described as “darkness descending on the world for three days”, as it was now possible for the uneducated to possess a superficial, and frequently flawed, understanding of the Torah, as well as providing the masses with a mistaken interpretation of true morality[6].

The 9th of Teves

Although several decisors write that the reason for fasting on the 9th of Teves is unknown[7], nonetheless many sources, including the Kol Bo and the Selichos recited on Asarah B’Teves, as well as many later authorities, explain that this is the day that Ezra HaSofer (as well as possibly his partner Nechemiah) died. Ezra, the Gadol HaDor at the beginning of the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash, had a tremendous impact upon the nascent returning Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. He drastically improved the spiritual state of the Jewish people and established many halachic takanos, many of which still apply today[8]. With his passing, the community started sliding from the great spiritual heights to which Ezra had led them. Additionally, since Ezra was the last of the prophets, his passing signified the end of prophecy. The Sefer HaToda’ah[9] posits that it’s possible that "the darkness descended on the world for three days” alludes to the triple woes of these three days: the 8th, 9th, and 10th of Teves.

Fasting on Friday?

Another exclusive characteristic of Asarah B’Teves is that it is the only fast that can fall out on a Friday[10]. This is interesting as there is a whole debate in the Gemara about how to conduct fasts on a Friday, when we also must take kavod Shabbos into account[11], implying that it is a common occurrence. However, according to our calendar, a Friday Fast is only applicable with Asarah B’Teves, and it happens quite infrequently. The last few times Asarah B’Teves fell out on a Friday were in 1996, 2001, and 2010. It is expected to occur next year, 2013; after that, not until 2020. The accepted ruling is that since Asarah B’Teves is a public fast, one must fast the whole day and complete it at nightfall (Tzeis HaKochavim) before making Kiddush[12].

A Shabbos Fast?!

The third and possibly most important attribute of Asarah B’Teves is that according to the AbuDraham, if Asarah B’Teves would potentially fall out on Shabbos, we would all actually be required to fast on Shabbos![13] (Notwithstanding that with our calendar this is an impossibility[14].) He cites proof of this from the words of Yechezkel referring to Asarah B’Teves that the fast was “B’etzem HaYom HaZeh”, implying that the fast must always be observed on that exact day, no matter the conflicting occurrence.

This is astounding, as the only fast that halachically takes precedence over Shabbos is Yom Kippur, the only biblically mandated fast. How can one of the Rabbinic minor fasts push off the biblical Shabbos? Additionally, Asarah B’Teves commemorates merely the start of the siege, and not any actual destruction. How can it be considered a more important fast than Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction and loss of both of our Batei HaMikdash? In fact, the Beis Yosef questions this declaration of the AbuDraham, stating that he “does not know how the AbuDraham could know” such a ruling.

Commencement is Catastrophic

Several authorities, including Rav Yonason Eibeschutz and the Bnei Yissaschar[15], understand the AbuDraham’s enigmatic statement as similar to the famous Gemara in Taanis (29a) regarding Tisha B’Av. It seems that historically the Beis HaMikdash only started to burn toward the end of the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av) and actually burned down on the 10th. Yet, Chazal established the fast on the 9th, since Aschalta D’Paranusah Adifa, meaning that the beginning of a tragedy is considered the worst part. Likewise, they maintain, that since the siege on Asarah B’Teves was the commencement of the long chain of tragedies that ended with the Beis HaMikdash in ruins and the Jewish people in exile, its true status belies the common perception of it as a minor fast, and potentially has the ability to push off Shabbos.

The famed Chasam Sofer[16] takes this a step further. He wrote that the reason Chazal established a fast for the siege on Asarah B’Teves, as opposed to every other time Yerushalayim was under siege over the millennia, is that on that day in the Heavenly courtroom it was decided that the Bais HaMikdash was to be destroyed a few years hence. There is a well known Talmudic dictum that any generation in which the Beis HaMikdash has not been rebuilt is as if it has been destroyed again[17]. Therefore, he explains, every Asarah B’Teves the Heavenly court convenes and decrees a new Churban. That is why the fast of Asarah B’Teves, even though it is considered a minor fast, nonetheless has the potential to possibly override Shabbos.

The Rambam famously exhorts us to remember the real meaning underlying a fast day. It’s not just a day when we miss our morning coffee! The purpose of fasting is to focus on the spiritual side of the day and use it as catalyst for inspiration towards Teshuva[18]. In this merit may the words of the Navi Zechariah, that the “Fast of the Fourth (month, 17th of Tamuz), the Fast of the Fifth (month, Tisha B’Av), the Fast of the Seventh (month, Tzom Gedalyah), and the Fast of the Tenth (month, Asarah B’Teves), shall be (changed over) for celebration and joy for the household of Yehuda”[19], be fulfilled speedily and in our days.

[1]Melachim II (Ch.25, 1), Yirmiyahu (Ch.52, 4), Yechezkel (Ch.24, 1 & 2).

[2]See Zecharia (Ch.8, 19), Gemara Rosh Hashana 18b, Rambam (Hilchos Taanis Ch.5, 1- 5) and Tur & Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 549 & 550).

[3]See Selicha for Asarah B’Teves that starts with the word Ezkerah.

[4]O.C. 580.

[5]O.C. 549 & 550.

[6]As told at length in Gemara Megillah 9a. For a slightly different version see Maseches Sofrim Ch. 1, 7 - 8. This quote is found in Megillas Taanis (Ch.13); and cited by the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 580). See Sefer HaToda’ah (vol. 1, Ch.8, Chodesh Teves, par. Yom Kasheh) at length.

[7]See Tur & Shulchan Aruch O.C. 580. However, many poskim, including the Ba’er HaGolah (ad loc. 4), Magen Avraham (6), Taz (1; who concludes ‘tzarich iyun rav’ on the Tur and Shulchan Aruch for not knowing that Ezra HaSofer died on that day), Elyah Rabba (5), Pri Megadim (M.Z. 1), Ba’er Heitiv (6), Mishna Berurah (13), and Kaf Hachaim (20), all cite the Kol Bo (63), BeHa”G (Hilchos Tisha B’Av V’Taanis), or the Selichos of Asarah B’Teves (ibid.) that the tzara on that day is that Ezra HaSofer died. The Aruch Hashulchan (3) diplomatically states that originally they did not know which tragedy occurred on that day to mandate fasting, and afterwards it was revealed that it was due to Ezra HaSofer’s passing on that day. Rav Baruch Frankel (author of the Imrei Baruch, in his glosses to Shulchan Aruch O.C. 580) cites several other sources opining different tzaddikim’s passing on the 9th of Teves as reason for fasting, including Shimon HaKalphus, and Rav Yosef HaLevi, son of Rav Shmuel HaNaggid. He quotes Sefer HaKabbalah that ‘when Rabboseinu HaKadmonim wrote Megillas Taanis and established a fast on the 9th of Teves, they themselves didn’t know the reason. Later on, after Rav Yosef HaNaggid assassinated we knew that they foresaw this tragedy with Ruach HaKodesh’. An additional reason for fasting on this day is brought by the Rema in his commentary to Megillas Esther (Mechir Yayin, Ch.2, 16) that this was the day that Esther was forcibly taken to Achashveirosh’s palace. Interestingly, some posit (as heard in the name of Rav Moshe Shapiro shlit”a; also found in the Davar B’Ito calendar, 9 Teves) that the real reason for fasting is that the 9th of Teves is the true birthday of ‘Oso HaIsh’, in whose name myriad Jews over the millennia were r”l murdered.

[8]As found throughout Shas - see for example Bava Kama 82a and Kesuvos 3a.

[9]Sefer HaToda’ah (vol. 1, Ch. 8, Chodesh Teves, end par. Yom Kasheh).

[10]See AbuDraham (Hilchos Taanis), Magen Avraham (550, 4), Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc. end 2), and Mishna Berura (ad loc. 10).

[11]Eiruvin 41a.

[12]See Shulchan Aruch and Rema (O.C. 249, 4), based on the Rosh (Taanis Ch. 2, 4) and Maharil (Shu”t 33); Magen Avraham (ad loc. 8), Ba’er Heitiv (ad loc. 7), Mishna Berura (ad loc. 21 and Biur Halacha s.v. v’im) and Shu”t Yechaveh Daas (vol. 1, 80).

[13]AbuDraham (Hilchos Taanis), cited with some skeptism by the Beis Yosef (O.C. end 550). Actually this does not seem to be the actual halacha, as other Rishonim, including Rashi (Megillah 5a s.v aval) and the Rambam (Hilchos Taanis Ch. 5, 5) both explicitly state that if Asarah B’Teves falls out on Shabbos then it gets pushed off.

[14]According to our calendar Asarah B’Teves cannot fall out on Shabbos. The AbuDraham (Hilchos Taanis) himself mentions this, as does the Magen Avraham (O.C. 550, 4 & 5). Everyone can easily make this calculation themselves. See Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 128, 2) regarding which days various Roshei Chodosh can fall out on. For the month of Teves, Rosh Chodesh cannot fall out on a Thursday. That means Asarah B’Teves, ten days later, cannot fall out on Shabbos!

[15]Ya’aros Dvash (Vol. 1, Drush 2 for 9 Teves, 32 - 33; see also vol. 2, 191 - 193 s.v. v’hinei yadua), Bnei Yisaschar (Maamrei Chodesh Kislev/ Teves 14, 1), and Shu”t Shoel U’meishiv (vol. 3, 179). The Chasam Sofer (Toras Moshe, Parshas Vayigash pg. 40b s.v. vad”z) also cites this reason and explains that it is only at the end of a tragedy when salvation has a chance to sprout. We see this from the famous Gemara at the end of Makkos (24a - b) with Rabbi Akiva, who laughed when he saw foxes wandering through the ruins of the Beis HaMikdash. Only when a tragedy is complete can there be a glimmer of hope for the future redemption. See also sefer Siach Yitzchak (pg. 293) and R’ Moshe Chaim Leitner’s sefer Tzom Ha’Asiri at length.

[16]Toras Moshe (vol. 2, Parshas Vayikra, Drush for 7 Adar, pg. 9b - 10a, s.v. kasuv).

[17]Yerushalmi Yoma (Ch.1, 1, 6a).

[18]Rambam (Hilchos Ta’anis Ch.5, 1); See also Mishna Berura (549, 1).

[19]Zecharia (Ch.8, 19).

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.

L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!

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