Today is the public fast of Asarah B’Teves – the Tenth day of the Hebrew month of Teves. Our prophets established it as a day of fasting to commemorate a tragic event that took place in our history on this day.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the most holy place on earth, is where our Temple stood. It is also the place Avraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Yitzchok, and where Yaacov had his prophetic dream.
King David purchased this area and laid the foundation for the Temple that would serve as the Palace of G-d on earth. King David’s son, King Solomon, constructed the magnificent First Temple. This Temple was constructed 440 years after the Jews entered the Land of Israel, and stood for 410 years until it was destroyed by the Babylonians.
The Babylonian King Nevuchadnetzar laid siege to Jerusalem for eighteen months prior to its destruction. During these eighteen months, the Babylonians shut down all sources of water to Jerusalem which brought about a famine on the inhabitants. The Babylonians also shot rocks over the fortified walls of Jerusalem.
There was some resistance from the Jews; however physical resistance was not enough to stop the enemy, since G-d had brought about these events to bring the Jews to sincere repentance. However, since the message was not heeded, G-d allowed His own Palace to be destroyed together with the lives of many Jews.
Since the siege, which was the onset of the destruction of the Temple, began on the Tenth day of Teves, our prophets established it as a day of fasting. The establishment of a fast was meant to bring about repentance and commitment to come closer to G-d.
There are two other tragic events that occurred in the month of Teves which are mentioned in the special prayers recited on this fast.
One is that the Egyptian King Ptolemy II forced 70 sages to translate the written Torah into Greek (Septuagint). Each Sage was placed in a separate room, and through a miracle, they all translated it identically, even making necessary alterations to protect the Jews. The Talmud remarks that when this occurred, three days of darkness descended on the world, since it was now possible for the unlearned to boast of a superficial and usually erroneous understanding of the Torah.
Until this point in time, what was written in the Hebrew language could only be read and understood by Jews, and the Torah was therefore limited to and controlled by the Jewish People.
An example of this relates to our portion of the week. Our Sages tell us that when Pharoh appointed Yosef as second in command, his officers complained, stating that it was disrespectful for Egypt to have a person who was bought as a slave to be their leader. Pharoh responded that he saw kingly greatness in Yosef. The officers replied that if he indeed has kingly qualities, he should know all seventy languages. The angel Gavriel came and taught Yosef all seventy languages. Yosef had difficulty understanding them, so Gavriel added a letter ’Hey’ to his name which enabled him to retain the languages.
G-d’s Name consists of the letter ‘Hey’ and He specifically added the letter ‘Hey’ to Yosef’s name to publically attest to Yosef’s righteousness that he never succumbed to sinning with his master’s wife despite all her advances. This name Yehosaif appears in King David’s Psalm 81 which we recite in our prayers each Thursday as the psalm of the day.
Yosef began conversing in all languages. However, when Yosef spoke to Pharoh in Hebrew, Pharoh did not comprehend. He asked Yosef to teach him Hebrew, but Pharoh could not grasp it. Pharoh made Yosef swear that he would not reveal to the Egyptians his lack of knowledge of the Hebrew language.
This oath that Pharoh made Yosef take, proved beneficial years later when Yosef asked the Pharoh to allow him to bury his father Yaacov in Israel.
Pharoh really wanted Yaacov to be buried in Egypt since his presence brought blessings to the land. Yosef told Pharoh that he was bound by an oath to his father that he would bury him in Israel. Pharoh told Yosef to annul the oath and Yosef responded that if he does so, he would release himself from the oath that he gave concerning Pharoh’s inability to comprehend Hebrew. The Pharoh had no choice but to allow Yosef and his family to accompany Yaacov’s remains to the Cave of Machpaila for burial together with Avraham and Sara; Yitzchok and Rivka; his wife Leah, and also a fourth couple – Adam and Chava – Eve.
The other tragic event in the month of Teves, is that Ezra the Scribe and his colleague Nechemia both died in Teves. Their loss left a tremendous void. Nechemia had led the Jewish people in the rebuilding of the second Temple in Jerusalem and Ezra had immigrated to Israel from Babylon a year later. Ezra was a prophet, Kohain, a member of the Great Assembly of 120 Sages, a great Scribe and an influential leader. Ezra secured the vitality and future of the Jewish nation by compelling and impressing upon the Jews to leave their forbidden marriages.
Our Sages tell us that Ezra was so great that he would have been worthy of bringing Torah to the Jewish people had he not been preceded by Moshe.
With Ezra’s passing, prophecy came to an end. The fast memorializes Ezra’s lifetime of sacred contributions.
The fast (in the Scranton, PA area) begins on Thursday at 6:16 a.m. and ends 5:23 p.m.
Something to think about:
Recently, a great Sage Rabbi Ahron Leib Shteinman passed away at the age of 104.
Reb Ahron Leib was known for his piety, Torah scholarship, keen advice and for living a very simple existence.
A former student of his paid him a visit after a thirty year lapse. He was stunned that the small apartment had not been upgraded at all, and shared his astonishment with the rabbi.
Reb Ahron Leib responded in his classical succinct fashion, “It isn’t the house that should change – it is the person.”