Gedaliah: The Real Story

It is an enigma that cries out for attention.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism לבן ריק
לבן ריק
The Fast of Gedaliah on 3 Tishrei (this year, marked on 4 Tishrei due to Shabbat - ed.), the day after Rosh HaShanah, is a puzzle: a fast that became a feast and reverted to being a fast; a religious event that marks a political assassination; a day named for an almost unknown; a link with Rosh HaShanah that has no apparent connection with the spirituality of the New Year. Surely, it is an enigma that cries out for attention and
Who was Gedaliah?

First, who was Gedaliah? A member of a leading Judean family, the son of Achikam ben Shafan, a political adviser to King Josiah (II Kings 22:12), who had protected the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:24). Gedaliah had probably shown promise as a diplomat and administrator long before the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. The Babylonians brought all their force to bear on the Jewish community of Judah, not only destroying the Temple, but leaving villages and towns in ruins, murdering thousands of Jews and carrying off thousands more into exile in Babylon.

What was left in and around Jerusalem? A small, insecure, impoverished Jewish community that appeared to have no future. Yet, once Babylon had achieved its military victory, it had no reason to destroy every trace of normal life in the conquered territory. A Jewish governor, this same Gedaliah, was appointed in order to restore some semblance of order. Gedaliah's appointment, told twice in Tenach - Jeremiah 40-41 and II Kings 25:22-26 - may have been the suggestion of Jeremiah, whom the Babylonians had released from prison into Gedaliah's protection (Jeremiah 39:14) in recognition of his opposition to the Jewish rebellion.

Gedaliah set about his impossible task and began to achieve his program. Urging the people to come to terms with the Babylonian regime, he promised, "It will be well with you." (Jeremiah 40:9) The economy began to improve: "they gathered wine and summer fruits in abundance". (Jeremiah 40:12) Life settled down. Mitzpah, north-west of Jerusalem, became the administrative centre. Many of the Jewish population came out of hiding, and Gedaliah tried to win over the doubters who questioned his policies. He was sure his peace process would work.

But the reality proved otherwise. Ishmael ben Netaniah, of royal origins (Jeremiah 41:1), resented the governor's appointment and criticised his policies. He formed an alliance with the nearby kingdom of Ammon and gathered the disaffected Jewish elements around him. Gedaliah was warned by his advisers to tread carefully, but he did not believe the warnings. On Rosh HaShanah, Gedaliah invited his opponent to a meal; in the course thereof, Ishmael and the ten supporters who were at the table with him rose up, assassinated the governor and his staff, and ran off to Ammon.

Their hopes shattered, the Jewish community fled to Egypt with Jeremiah. Gedaliah was gone; his dreams had evaporated. The Jews instituted a fast in his memory. Though the assassination probably took place on Rosh HaShanah, a fast was not possible on a festival so, according to the commentator David Kimchi, it was moved to the third of the month (the Tenach itself merely says that the events were "in the seventh month." Some understand this as the first of the month, whilst others think it was the third).

Gedaliah was a good and wise man, but we wonder why the fast is named for him when so many other people, even more righteous, lost their lives for the sake of their faith and people. They have no day instituted in their memory. The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 18a) praises Gedaliah, but also criticises him for ignoring the warnings he was given (Niddah 61a). The sages clearly did not regard him as a saint.
Why have a fast and why name it for Gedaliah?

So, why have a fast and why name it for Gedaliah? The episode marked a major national catastrophe, the apparent end of Jewish communal life in the Holy Land. This was the symbolism behind the fast. Gedaliah's name was a form of convenient shorthand. For 70 years, this and the other historical fasts reminded the people of what they had lost. Then, the Temple was rebuilt and, according to the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 18b), the fasts became feasts. Indeed, the sages found an additional reason to feast on 3 Tishri, as the day when writing the Divine name in documents that might be discarded was abandoned (Megillat Ta'anit).

Tragically, the Second Temple suffered the same fate as the first, and the sages reinstituted the fast day. The coincidence that, ever since, it has been the first agenda item after Rosh HaShanah suggests that every Jewish year ought to begin with thoughts of what is good for the Jews and that violence is no way to handle dissent.