Model of Third Temple, Jerusalem
Model of Third Temple, JerusalemFlash 90

The Exile begins when Jacob goes down to Egypt

Israel’s exile in Egypt – the exile that had been decreed to Israel’s grandfather Abra[ha]m in the Covenant between the Parts 220 years previously (Genesis 15:13) – begins in this Parashah, as Jacob/Israel travels down to Egypt to be reunited with his beloved son Joseph in the royal palace, there to wait out the region-wide famine in comfort and splendour.

Nevertheless, he was so distraught at leaving the Land of Israel for Egyptian exile that G-d Himself had to reassure him.

“G-d addressed Israel, saying…: I am the G-d – G-d of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, because I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also assuredly bring you up” (Genesis 46:2-4).

The Midrash says: “Jacob heard that Joseph was still alive, and he thought to himself: How can I leave the Land of my fathers, the Land of my birth, the Land in whose midst G-d’s presence is, and go to an impure land, to the midst of the slaves, sons of Ham, in a land among which there is no fear of G-d?” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 39).

However, he knew that he was going into a life of royal splendour, united with this entire family. Why, then, was he so distressed? Didn’t this knowledge comfort him?

To understand this, let us return to not very long earlier, when the famine had been raging for two years, and Jacob had sent ten of his sons down to Egypt to buy food. Nine returned, and told their aging father that Shimon was being held hostage, and the only way they would receive more food from Egypt and redeem their captive brother would be by going back there with his youngest son, Benjamin.

And Jacob/Israel castigated them with the words: “Why have you done this evil to me, telling the man that you have another brother?!” (Genesis 43:6).

The Midrash tells us that “this was the only mistaken thing that Jacob our father ever said. G-d said: I am busy making his son ruler over Egypt, and he says ‘Why have you done this evil to me?’!” (Bereishit Rabbah 91:10).

But this Midrash is puzzling. Because it would appear that twenty-two years earlier, Jacob said something else mistaken:

When ten of his sons returned with a ripped and blood-stained cloak and showed it to Jacob, he, recognizing his son’s distinctive garment, cried in his anguish, “A wild beast has devoured him! Joseph has been savagely torn to bits!” (Genesis 37:33).

And, refusing to be comforted, he wailed: “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol” (v.35) – שְׁאוֹל, she’ol, meaning either “the grave” or “hell”.

This phrase is usually rendered “I will go down to the grave mourning for my son”, which is smoother English syntax. However the translation “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol” is a more precise and direct translation of the Hebrew, כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה.

This was surely the most heart-rending of Jacob’s utterances ever – but was it true? Was this not another mistaken thing that Jacob said? Did Jacob really go down to his son mourning, to she’ol? Surely he went down to his son in royal splendour to Egypt, there to live out his remaining seventeen years in the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, surrounded by his entire family!

Let us reinforce this: Next week’s Parashah, Vayechi, opens with the words “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Jacob – the years of his life – were one hundred and forty-seven years” (Genesis 47:28). And the on these words, the Midrash Sekhel Tov expounds:

“The Torah begins with an expression of life [וַיְחִי] to teach you that those 17 years that Jacob lived in Egypt were a pleasant life, a life of tranquillity, a life of peace, with his sons and grandsons were around his table, with him seeing them fruitful and multiplying and successful, blessed with all kinds of blessings”.

How could the Midrash then claim that Jacob’s complaint to his nine sons of “Why have you done this evil to me?” was the only mistaken thing that he ever said?

The inescapable conclusion is that Jacob did indeed go down to his son mourning, to she’ol. Because exile, by its very nature of being exile, is she’ol – whether the grave or hell – even though it be the most comfortable and luxurious exile, even it is exile in royal splendour.

The Radak (Sefer ha-Shorashim, entry שאול) suggests that the word שְׁאוֹל, she’ol is a cognate of שָׁאוּל, sha’ul (“borrowed”); and whether שְׁאוֹל means “hell” or “the grave”, it – like a borrower – can never have enough, always demanding more. Exile, like the grave or like hell, sucks the Jew into its dread grasp – and it becomes ever-harder to leave.

The difference between the 10th of Tevet and other Fast Days

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), the fast of the 10th of Tevet usually falls during the week after Parashat Vayiggash.

This year, however, it fall on the Friday immediately before Shabbat Parashat Vayiggash, and this leads to an unusual situation.

Of all our fasts, the only one which can fall on Shabbat is Yom Kippur, which is the only fast which the Torah commands.

If the Fast of Gedaliah, the 17th of Tammuz, or the 9th of Av fall on Shabbat, then the fast is postponed until the next day, “because we do not hasten [the commemoration of] disasters” (Prishah, commentary on Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 550, paraphrasing a rule cited in Tractate Soferim 17:4).

By contrast, if the Fast of Esther (which does not commemorate a disaster) would fall on a Shabbat, it is instead advanced to the previous Thursday.

The Mishnah Berurah explains why Ta’anit Esther is advanced two days to Thursday, and not just one day to Friday:

“A priori, we do not set fasts for Friday, out of respect for Shabbat, because on fasts we are accustomed to saying selichot [penitential prayers] and tachanunim [pleas for forgiveness from sins]; but we would not do this on Erev Shabbat, because it would interfere with respect for Shabbat” (Mishnah Berurah 686:3).

Or, as others have expressed it, “we do not want to enter Shabbat fasting” (Mishnah Berurah 249. s.v. צריך להתענות; Novellae of the Ritv”a on Tractate Eiruvin 41b, s.v. הלכה מתענה ומשלים; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim, Laws of Shabbat 249; Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim, Laws of Megillah 686:3).

Indeed, so central is this principle that the Talmud (Eiruvin 41a, Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:14) cites Rabbi Yuda’s opinion that “if the 9th of Av falls on a Friday [which can never happen with our fixed calendar], then an egg’s bulk of food is brought for him and he eats, in order not to enter Shabbat fasting”.

That is to say, according to this opinion, the principle of not entering Shabbat fasting is so important, that it even supersedes the fast of Tish’a be’Av!

But the exception to this rule is the 10th of Tevet: when it falls on Friday (as this year), then we fast on Friday. We enter Shabbat fasting, and do not eat until after Kiddush.

And there is more: “Rabbi David Abudraham wrote in Laws of Fasts (page 254) that the 10th of Tevet is different from the other fasts, in that if it falls on Shabbat, then we cannot postpone it to another day, because it is written as happening ‘on this very day’ , the same words as describe Yom Kippur ” (Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 550).

The Aruch ha-Shulchan says similarly: “We find in the name of that the earliest authorities that if the 10th of Tevet would have fallen on Shabbat, then [the fast] would overrule Shabbat…even though we do not follow this ruling” (Orach Chaim 549:3).

In our fixed calendar, the 10th of Tevet can never all on Shabbat, so this ruling is theoretical. Nevertheless it indicates the importance of this fast. And, as will happen this year, it does override Shabbat for the hour or so from sunset until nightfall as Shabbat comes in.

Why would this fast, commanded by the Prophets, supersede Shabbat which was commanded by the Torah?

The 10th of Tevet was the day when Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. The disaster would culminate a year and a half later with the destruction of the Holy Temple; but the Jewish perspective identifies the beginning of the process as the most critical juncture.

The 10th of Tevet marks the beginning of the end of Jewish independence; Nebuchadnezzar’s siege was G-d’s final warning, the final period of grace that He granted His nation to repent.

This is the day that our descent into the hell of exile began. And just as the dead cannot celebrate Shabbat, so the [commemoration of the] Jewish nation’s descent into exile prevents us from celebrating Shabbat.

And this is why the 10th of Tevet overrides Shabbat in a way that even the 9th of Av cannot. For sure, the 10th of Tevet is halachically more lenient than the 9th of Av, in terms of what hardships and what medical conditions justify breaking the fast, also in terms of what activities are prohibited (showering, anointing with oil, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations are forbidden on the 9th of Av but permitted on the 10th of Tevet).

But in terms of when the fast occurs, the 10th of Tevet has a stringency which is matched only by Yom Kippur itself.

The time will yet come when our days of mourning will be converted from days of fasting to days of rejoicing:

“Thus said Hashem, Lord of Legions: The fast of the fourth [month, i.e. 17th Tammuz]; and the fast of the fifth [month, i.e. 9th Av]; and the fast of the seventh [month, i.e. 3rd Tishrei, the Fast of Gedaliah], and the fast of the tenth [month, i.e. 10th Tevet] will turn into rejoicing and gladness and festivities for the House of Judah. So love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19).

When the Jewish nation returns from the hell of exile, the grave of exile, to its homeland, to the Land of Israel, it is resurrected from the dead. We are well on the way: in absolute numbers, more Jews live in Israel today than at any time since the Second Temple period; and in percentages, a higher proportion of Jews live in Israel than at any time since the First Temple period.

These are changes of literally Biblical proportions.

Parashat Vayiggash finishes with the ominous words “Israel settled down in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; they seized onto it, and they were fruitful, multiplying greatly” (Genesis 47:27).

But the phrase וַיֵּאָחֲזוּ בָהּ (“they seized onto it”) is an unusual grammatical formation: it also means “they were seized by it”.

Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra all interpret this phrase to mean that the Israelites bought land-holdings in Goshen: they seized onto the exile, and they were seized by it. It is a symbiotic relationship: the Jew acquires land, a house, property, in exile, and then cannot leave because his entire fortune is invested in the foreign land of his sojourning.

This is the dread grasp that Jacob so feared, that twenty-two years earlier, he had accurately prophesied: “I will go down to my son mourning, to she’ol”.

He indeed left the Land of Israel mourning, even though he was going to Egypt to be re-united with his beloved son in exile; and he indeed went down to she’ol, because even in a royal palace in the company of his son who was the governor of Egypt, he nevertheless lived out the remainder of his life in the hell of exile, in the grave of exile.