The Tenth of Tevet and the Building of Jerusalem

A thorough explanantion of the fast, its meaning, its laws and how we can begin to reverse it.

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Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

After the destruction of the First Holy Temple, the Prophets and Sages of Israel declared a day of fasting on the Tenth of Tevet, for on that day Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon and his legions placed Jerusalem under siege.

Along with this siege began the terrible chain of calamities which finally ended in the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the ‘Shechina’ (Divine Presence).

With the construction of the Second Temple, the fast was nullified, and the Tenth of Tevet became a day of joy. However, when the Second Temple was also destroyed, the fast was reinstated.

Although in the days of the Second Temple the siege began on a different date, the Sages determined that the fast over the Second Temple would be on the same day as they had originally fasted for the First Temple, as the date of the fast had been fixed by the Prophets.

Moreover, in a number of respects, the destruction of the First Temple was more severe than the Second Temple, for in the First Temple the ‘Shechina’ dwelled on a more exalted level, and several miracles which occurred in the First Temple, did not transpire in the Second Temple.

Since the fast had already been set on the tenth of Tevet, two other distressing historical events which occurred close to the same day, were added to it: the death of Ezra the Scribe on the ninth of Tevet, and the translation of the Torah into the Greek language on the eighth of the same month.

And in our day, the Chief Rabbinate ordained the tenth of Tevet to be the day for reciting the ‘kaddish clali’ (general mourner’s prayer) for the Jewish martyrs murdered in the Holocaust whose date of death is unknown.

Ezra the Scribe

Concerning Ezra the Scribe, the Sages said that he was worthy to have been given the Torah, had Moses not preceded him (Sanhedrin 21b). He, then, is second only to Moses in stature.

Ezra the Scribe effected ten fundamental ordinances pertaining to the reading of the Torah, the court system, preparations for Shabbat, family purity, and caring for the poor (Baba Kama 82a).

Thus, he set the foundation for the measures of the Sages of the Oral Torah, who prescribed ordinances and ‘fences’ (rules to prevent transgressions) to the Torah.

He was also the head of the ‘Anshei Knesset Hagadolah’ (The Great Assembly), which determined the text of the blessings and prayers, ‘kiddush’, and ‘havdalah’, thus establishing and institutionalizing religious life in a way that guarded the Jewish nation and its faith up to the present time(Berachot 33a).

In addition, the Sages said that Ezra the Scribe, who emigrated from Babylon in order to establish the Second Temple, was in fact, the Prophet Malachi (Megillah 15a). In other words, Ezra the Scribe was the last of the Prophets associated with the Written Torah, and also the first of the Sages of the Oral Torah.

In sum, he was a revered Sage of the Jewish People who served as a link between the Written and Oral traditions, and similar to Moses, he concerned himself with the welfare of the entire Jewish nation, taking upon himself the burden of their guidance, and was one of the leaders of Israel’s return from Babylon and the rebuilding of the Second Temple.

Translation of the Torah into Greek

During the days of the Greek Empire, a harsh decree was declared upon the Jewish People – to translate the Torah into the Greek language. Regarding that day, the Sages said it was "as distressing as the day on which the Golden Calf was made", for the Torah naturally belongs to the Jewish People.

By translating it into Greek, the Torah’s uniqueness was obscured, and it began to be viewed as something anyone could grasp, without commitment to ‘emunah’ (faith) and to ‘tikkun olam b’Malchut Shadai’ (perfection of the world as the Kingdom of God).

This occurred on the eighth day of Tevet, and as a result, the world was enveloped by darkness for three days. Therefore, on the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, this painful event is also recalled.

Furthermore, it is impossible to translate an idea from one language to another precisely, and when translating an idea whose source is in Hebrew, to a certain extent, the true meaning is altered. The more profound the subject matter is, the more agonizing the difference in meaning is, for it diminishes the depth and accuracy of a loftier idea. And when speaking about changing the meaning of the words of the Living God, the agony is so devastating, the Sages determined a fast.

What’s the Problem in Translating the Torah?

This seems contradictory, for we have learned that the Jewish nation, before entering the Land of Israel, was commanded to set up large stones creating an altar, and write on them the words of the Torah “b’air hetev” (in a clear language), on the day they crossed the Jordan River (Deuteronomy 27:1-8). The Sages explained this to mean that the Torah was written on the stones in seventy languages (Sotah 32a). If so, why was the translation into Greek considered so grave?

It is also said that at the time of the giving of the Torah, the Heavenly voices were divided into seventy languages, and the Sages said: “When the Heavenly voice went forth it was divided into seven voices, and then into seventy languages, so that all nations would hear. Every nation heard the voice in their own language, and consequently, their souls departed (because, from the start, they did not want to accept the Torah), but the Israelites heard, and were not harmed” (Midrash Tanchuma, Sh’mot 25).

The answer to this dilemma, however, is that there are good and bad translations of the Torah. A good translation is one that addresses the nations in order to draw them closer to the Torah, while a bad translation is one that is intended solely for their intellectual purposes; and a person who does not study Torah “l’shem shamayim” (for the sake of Heaven), disgraces its sanctity. In regards to this, the Sages said: “A Gentile who studies Torah deserves death” (Sanhedrin 59a).

How to Correct the Tragedies of the Tenth of Tevet

Our teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook zt"l, said that on this day, the Tenth of Tevet, one should strive to mend these three matters in appropriate ways:

1) In contrast to a besieged Jerusalem, we should strengthen her walls, and build the Land of Israel both spiritually and physically.

2) In contrast to the death of Ezra, we should increase Torah and glorify it, together with ingathering the exiles, as Ezra the Scribe did.

3) In contrast to the translation of the Torah into Greek, we should revive the authentic Israeli spirit and culture, and uproot the detrimental influences which have clung to it throughout the exile and foreign rule – influences which can presently be found in a considerable part of the academic world.

Negligence in Building Jerusalem

Indeed, on this tenth of Tevet, may it be for a blessing, we must all truly accelerate our efforts to build Jerusalem. It is within our power to do so, but we are negligent.

There are numerous Jews who are eager to ascend to Jerusalem and live there, but there is not enough building going on – not in the eastern parts of the city, or the west. Estimates show that in order to satisfy the demand of Jewish families wishing to live in Jerusalem, approximately 4,000 new apartments must be built per year.

In reality, over the last number of years, less than 2,000 apartments have been built per year. As a result, housing prices are rising, and many families cannot even think about purchasing a house in Jerusalem.

Some people claim that Jews are fleeing from Jerusalem because it is becoming too hareidi, but in fact, there simply is not enough building going on. Approximately 300,000 Jewish citizens from Jerusalem were forced to leave their native city over the last twenty years – the majority due to housing difficulties. And what about all the Jews who would love to live in Jerusalem, if only the housing prices were reasonable?

Had all the construction plans for Jerusalem been put into effect, some 6,000 apartments could possibly be built every year, housing prices would begin to drop, and Jerusalem would continue to be built, as is fitting for the Holy City, the home of the Holy Temple, the capital of Israel, the city of the Great King, the joy of the entire world.

The Government’s Responsibility

Out of negligence – bordering on crime – the Government has not fulfilled its sacred duty to build Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. Thus, it has violated not only its promise to its voters, but also the eternal oath: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy’ (Psalms 137:5-6).

In order not to be considered as having fasted simply out of ritual, ignoring the significance of the fast’s having been fixed due to the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, each and every one of us must demand from candidates for the Knesset and government, to commit themselves to the building of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.

“For the sake of Zion I will not hold my peace, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still, until her righteousness goes forth like radiance, and her salvation like a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1).

The politicians thought that if they agreed to declare a temporary construction freeze in Judea and Samaria, the world would allow them to build in Jerusalem. In fact, the exact opposite is true: the capitulation in Judea and Samaria led to a construction freeze in Jerusalem, causing international outrage over every plan to resume construction in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Ingathering the Exiles is Dependent on Building Jerusalem

The Sages said: “There is an Aggadic tradition that [says] Jerusalem will not be built until all of the exiles are ingathered. If someone tells you that all the exiles have been gathered, and Jerusalem has not be built, do not believe it, for it is written: “The Lord builds Jerusalem”, and then, “He gathers together the outcasts of Israel” (Tanchuma 58).

The more gloriously we build Jerusalem, the more Jews who are presently distant, will take notice, come, and ascend to Zion joyously, until all the exiles are gathered.

Laws of the Fast

In times similar to ours, when there are no harsh decrees and forced conversions, but on the other hand, the Holy Temple is still destroyed, the Sages determined that the ruling of the fasts of the Tenth of Tevet, Seventeenth of Tamuz, and the Fast of Gedaliah depends on the will of the Jewish nation.

We have already accepted them upon ourselves as minor fasts – namely, to fast only during the day, but not the evening before. The prohibitions of the fast include the prohibition of eating and drinking, but not the prohibition of bathing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations.

Nevertheless, it is good to be stringent and not bathe in hot water during the fast, but for the purpose of cleanliness, it is permitted to wash in lukewarm water. Also, it is proper not to take a haircut, not to listen to cheerful music, and not to go pleasure-shopping during the fast.

Nursing and Pregnant Women

Nursing and pregnant women, even if they are not ill, are exempt from the minor fasts (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 550:1-2). And even if the baby receives additional food, as long as the mother has not ceased nursing – she is exempt from the fast.

Some authorities are lenient, and hold that any woman who gave birth is exempt from fasting for twenty-four months afterwards, because in their opinion, the exemption is not dependent on nursing, but rather on the crisis of giving birth, whose recovery takes twenty-four months (Maharsham).

In practice, more authorities hold by the stringent opinion, requiring any woman who stopped nursing to fast even on the minor fasts, and this is the prevalent custom. A woman who wishes to act according to the lenient view, however, has rabbinic authorities on whom to base her actions.