Asara B’Tevet: Cafeteria Jews

“   Destruction of Jerusalem   ,” Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Destruction of Jerusalem,” Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493


It was just over a week ago we stopped singing the Hanukkah favorite, “מי ימלל?” – “Who can retell the things that befell us; Who can count them?” Seriously though. Who could possibly count all of them? Because it’s quite possible the cornerstone of Judaism is our ability to never forget the countless tragedies that transpired in the “days of yore.” But unlike Hanukkah, on this holiday we don’t get to stuff our faces. On this holiday, there was no “hero or sage that came to our aid.” As such, the rabbis have treated us to a minor fast (from dawn until sundown) known as “Asara B'Tevet” (the Tenth of Tevet). Accordingly, as instructed by our sages:

“We are obliged to fast, etc. This obligation derives from the words of the prophets, as it is written in Scripture (Zechariah 8:19), "The fast of the fourth, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth..." Our Sages, may their memories be for a blessing, explained… "the fast of the tenth" is the 10th of Tevet, since it is in the tenth month. On all of these days, all Israel fasts because of the misfortunes that befell them on these days, in order to arouse their hearts to open up to the paths of repentance. This [fasting] will be a recollection of our evil deeds and the deeds of our ancestors which were like our deeds now, such that they caused them – and us – these misfortunes, and in the recollection of these things we will return to become better [people].” [1]

So what terrible misfortunes happened on this day you might ask?

“And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day [of the fourth month] the famine had become acute in the city; there was no food left for the common people. Then [the wall of] the city was breached...” Then [the wall of] the city was breached. All the soldiers [left the city] by night through the gate between the double walls, which is near the king’s garden—the Chaldeans were all around the city; and [the king] set out for the Arabah.”

“But the Chaldean troops pursued the king, and they overtook him in the steppes of Jericho as his entire force left him and scattered.” [2]

Ultimately, According to the Mishneh Torah, “The tenth of Teveth [is the day] on which wicked Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, pressed on Jerusalem and placed it under siege and stress.” [3] It should also be know that “The difference between the day of the breach and the fast is explained by claiming that it was only the seventeenth [month] that the Babylonians exploited the breach to enter the city. Events narrated in vv 4–5 occupied them during the intervening days. In the talmudic tractate Ta’anit that deals withe fasts, the dates were reconciled by explaining that on the seventh, the Babylonians gained access to the Temple, but they only set it afire late on the ninth, just before nightfall, and it burned through the tenth.” [4]

To make matters even a bit more complicated, it’s explained, “Two other events which are related to the first days of Tevet are the completion of the translation of the Torah into Greek on the Eighth of Tevet by the “Seventy Scholars” in the days of Ptolemy and the death of Ezra on the ninth of Tevet.” Additionally, “it was also designated by the Rabbinate of the State of Israel in late 1948 by Chief Rabbis Herzog and Ouziel and is likewise observed in some Diaspora communities as an official day of mourning for victims of the Shoah.”

So at this point, if you’re a bit confused about why we should be fasting on Asara B'Tevet, well…you’re not alone.

  • The First Temple was destroyed (kind of…)

  • “Ezra the scribe” died on that day (possibly…)

  • King Ptolemy produced the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the torah (not exactly an atrocity per se…)

  • The Shoah (Eli Kavon states: Attaching the Holocaust as an afterthought to a minor fast day demeans the dead. The hesitation to address the Shoah ritually and theologically, simply throwing it together with traditional fast days, is timid and inappropriate. No more business as usual. There is a day to remember the dead of the Holocaust: That is Yom Hashoah.”)

And if your thinking, “if we had to minor fasts every time something terrible befell the Jewish people we should all just be intermittent fasting!” Eating all of your daily calories within a shortened period, typically 6 hours, and fasting for the remaining 18 hours. After all, it health studies say it leads to better insulin levels, cholesterol, cellular repair, and blood sugars improve. But again, not much to do with the king of Babylon, cult sacrifices, expulsion, or Ezra.

So why fast? To be quite honest, I’ve already had my cup of coffee for the day. So you can count me out. Because while I don’t believe in adhering to every minor fast day for various reasons (one of them being that the fall of the Temple eventually lead to Rabbinic Judaism as we now know it), I do think that a brief history reminder couldn’t hurt. But on the other hand, “the traditional theology of these fast days is that fasting is an act of repentance for the sins that brought on the destruction of Jerusalem,” isn’t so much my cup of tea. So where does this leave us? There are a few options (a) Hungry, but also confused? (b) Dismissive, but also informed? (c) “Cafeteria Jews” who take what they like and leave the rest?

This week, I have no grandiose statements about this holiday. Only continued questions to ask about what it means to be a Jew and observe Judaism, and yet still remain true to my theology. And whatever you do, all I can ask is to remain true to the Jew you are. Fasting or not.

[1] Mishnah Berurah 549, Sefaria Community Translation
[2] According the II Kings 25:1-5
[3] Mishneh Torah, Fasts 5:2
[4] The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation  (p. 777-778 )

Aaron Sataloff