Jerusalem is cut off from the rest of the coutry today by a fierce, but beautiful, snow storm. Ironically, another kind of siege, one with a tragic end, began in Jerusalem on this very day, in ancient times.
The fast day of the 10th of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which begins at dawn on Friday and ends when the stars come out, commences in Jerusalem at 4:55 a.m. and concludes at 5:00 p.m with Kiddush for Friday night. It is the only fast kept even if it falls on a Friday, because it marks the beginning of the process of Jerusalem's destruction, while other fasts are moved back to Thursday when they occur on a Friday.
Considered a minor fast, it does not begin at night to last 25 hours, as do Yom Kippur and the Ninth of Av, nor does it include prohibitions other than food and drink, as they do.
The Tenth of Tevet is one of four fast days that mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple, and it marks the day in which the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem.
It took Nebuchadnezzar 30 months to breach Jerusalem's thick stone walls, but he finally succeeded on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, in the year 586 B.C.E (some claim it was in 420 B.C.E), on which date the second fast was declared.
Only one month later, on Tisha B'Av -- the Ninth of Av -- the first Holy Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish People were sent out into exile to Babylonia for the next 70 years. The prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations to memorialize the tragedy.
The fourth fast, the Fast of Gedaliah on the third of Tishrei, commemorates the murder of Gedalia Ben Akhikam, the Jewish leader appointed by the Babylonians to govern Judea after the destruction of the First Temple, an event which is seen as marking the end of Jewish government in the Land of Israel.
The Second Temple was built when the Jews were allowed to return by Cyrus the Great and destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans, also on the 9th of Av. Remnants of the Holy Temples still remain -- one outside retaining wall of the Second Temple is today referred to as the Western Wall, or the Kotel, or Wailing Wall -- the place where Jews weep for its destruction.
The Temple Mount, over which Israel has allowed the Waqf Islamic Authority to maintain control - resulting in the arrest of Jews who so much as move their lips silently in prayer while there, as the Wakf forbids it - is the site of both Temples and the "holy of holies," an area which only the High Priest could enter on Yom Kippur.
The Islamic clerics who now have free run of the area, and deliver sermons in the Al Aqsa mosque built on the site, periodically express their intense fear of the day that a Third Holy Temple will rise from the site, and make enormous efforts to prevent at all costs the possibility that the Jews, who pray for it daily, will help bring this about.
The fast days are intended to prompt soul-searching and repentance. As Maimonides wrote, 'The essential significance of the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, as well as that of the other fast days, is not primarily the grief and mourning which they evoke. Their aim is rather to awaken the hearts towards repentance; to recall to us, both the evil deeds of our fathers, and our own evil deeds, which caused anguish to befall both them and us and thereby to cause us to return towards the good. As it is said (Vayikra 26): 'And they shall confess their transgressions and the transgressions of their fathers.' (Rambam: Hilchot Ta'anit Chapter 5).
On the fast day, the 'Anenu' request is added to the Shmoneh-Esreh prayer, (a special series of 18 supplications; the Hebrew word "shmoneh-esreh" means "18" - ed.) and special Selichot (prayers asking forgiveness) are recited. In the afternoon service, the Torah portion is “VaYachel Moshe” - a special portion for fast days.
The Tenth of Tevet was also designated by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as the Day of General Mourning for the people murdered in the Holocaust whose day of death is not known. On this day, their relatives say the mourners' prayer, or Kaddish.
Two other distressing historical events which occurred close to the date of the fast, were designated by Talmudic Sages to be remembered on the 10th of Tevet: 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 at the command of King Ptolemy..
For a more detailed explanation of the fast and its laws, click here.