Tomorrow, Sunday, January 8th, we will observe the fast of Asara beTebet (10th of the month of Tebet). The fast begins at dawn and ends at dusk (in NY, the fast begins at 6:24AM or in some communities at 6:07AM, until 5:04PM/ 5:07PM).
The main event that we remember on this day is the siege of Yerushalayim by Nebukhadnezzar, king of Babylon. The siege of the city marked the beginning of the battle that finally destroyed Jerusalem and our first Bet haMiqdash in the year 586 before the common era. Hundreds of thousands of Yehudim died of starvation during the siege or were killed in battle, captured as slaves or sent as prisoners of war into exile in Babylon.
Like all fasting days, it should be dedicated to Teshuba (return, repentance). In the words of Maimonides (MT, Hilkhot Ta’anit, 5:1), during the days of fasting “we must remember our transgressions and errors, which are similar to the mistakes made by our ancestors.” These transgressions brought the destruction of our Bet HaMiqdash and the estrangement of the Shekhina, the presence of God, from our midst. The shortening of the distance between us and our Creator is in our hands. And a renewed closeness with Bore Olam will bring us closer to seeing our Bet haMiqdash, once again rebuilt.
There are two other events that we also remember on this day. The translation of the Tora into the Greek language (which occurred on the 8th of Tebet), and the death of Ezra haSofer (9th of Tebet).
On the 8th of Tebet, about 260 BCE, in Alexandria, Egypt, King Ptolemy ordered 72 Jewish scholars to translate the Tora into Greek. King Ptolemy tried to demonstrate the non-existence of a unified Jewish interpretation of the Tora, and thus to have an excuse to delegitimize Jewish tradition and humiliate the people of Israel. For this purpose, the Jewish Sages were placed in separate work rooms. Thus, thought the Greek monarch, it would be impossible for all of them to translate the biblical text in the same way. However, miraculously, all the sages translated every word of the Tora in the same way. The translation of the Tora into the Greek was considered by Jewish historiography as a very negative event. Why? Because the Hebrew Bible became from that time a book that the Gentiles boasted of fully understanding, even when they totally ignored the original language of the Tora, Hebrew, and the traditional Jewish interpretation. Three centuries later, the Septuagint paved the way for the advancement of a new oxymoron: non-Jewish “biblical” religions. As Timothy McLay explains, “the Jewish Scriptures as they were studied, read, and interpreted in the Greek language were the basis of much, if not most, of the New Testament interpretative context.” Unlike pagan cults, which were clearly antagonistic to the Tora, these new religions were supposedly based on the Tora. Ironically, the Bible was interpreted at will and whim to justify non-Jewish or even anti-Jewish ideas or beliefs “in the name of the Bible!” All this new trend caused countless tragedies for the Jewish people for centuries or millennia.
Another event we remember is the death of Ezra haSofer, which occurred on the 9th of Tebet. Seventy years after the destruction of the first Bet haMiqdash, approximately in 516 BCE, many Jews returned to Erets Israel with the encouragement of the Persian Emperor Cyrus (Koresh). A total of 42,360 Yehudim returned to Israel, led by Zerubbabel (see Ezra 2:64). Years later, in 457 BCE, more Jews made Aliyah led by Ezra the Scribe, who was assigned by the new Persian Emperor Artakhshasta as the spiritual leader of the Yehudim who came from Babel to Yerushalayim. Ezra had a very difficult mission. The Yehudim returning from Babel, where they were exiled for four or five generations, had already forgotten the Torah and its laws and had adopted many values of the Babylonian culture. Many Jews did not even know how to speak or read Hebrew. In Yerushalayim, Ezra established the Anshe Keneset haGedola, the first Jewish Parliament, a High Court composed of 120 Sages and Prophets. With them, Ezra set a number of resolutions to revive the study and fulfillment of the Tora and to re-educate the Jewish people. Ezra with his Court increased the public reading days of the Tora; composed the text of the Amida (main prayer) because people had forgotten how to pray with basic eloquence; implemented that the reading of the Tora be translated to Aramaic; adapted the names of the Hebrew months and the fonts of the biblical text (ketab ashuri), all of this to facilitate the study of Tora, etc. Ezra haSofer was considered by our rabbis as a second Moshe Rabbenu, and as the historical link between the written Tora and the oral Tora. The Tora, the rabbis explained, was forgotten during the long captivity of Babylon, and was recovered thanks to Ezra haSofer.