Like a phoenix, the Jewish nation has been felled and reborn from the ashes of its destruction time and again. Numerous stories of destruction and salvation are threaded throughout the Hebrew calendar. But only a few dates during the year mark events that took place more than 2,000 years apart. Today is one of them.
The 10th day of the Hebrew month Tevet has been a fast day in the Jewish tradition for generations. According to a number of Biblical sources it is the day that Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian king who controlled the Near East in 588 BCE) started his siege of Jerusalem, a move that would, some 18 months later, lead to the destruction of the city and the burning of the First Jewish Temple.
People thought it was the end of Jews.
Two thousand years later – after destruction of a second temple, another exile and a river of triumphs and tragedies – a sovereign Hebrew state came into existence with the city of Jerusalem as its capital. The modern State of Israel was established after the largest disaster in Jewish history, the Holocaust. An estimated six million Jews, one third of the world’s Jewish population, were systematically murdered.
Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, Israel’s first chief rabbi, wanted to establish a new fast day in memory of those murdered by the Nazis and their helpers, as had been done for other historical events of destruction in the nation’s past. For a number of reasons, including heavy pressure by the ultra-Orthodox world, the idea was taken off the table.
Rabbi Herzog persisted. Every Jew killed in the Holocaust deserves to have Kaddish – the traditional Jewish prayer recited annually on the day of death by living relatives – said in his or her memory, whether or not any family members survived the horrors of the war. The Rabbi insisted that the fact that hundreds of thousands did not have a date of death couldn’t be ignored.
The Halachik argument between the ultra-Orthodox and the more moderate (and somewhat Zionist) Chief Rabbinate ended in a compromise. A new fast day would not be established but on the Tenth of Tevet, the survivors could recite the prayer in memory of their loved ones, and the public would remember the anonymous, forgotten people killed.
During Hanukkah 1951, just two weeks before observant Jews were to fast on the Tenth of Tevet, the Chief Rabbinate announced its decision to remember those murdered during the Holocaust on the same day the nation remembered the siege of Jerusalem.
Israel in the 1950’s accepted the compromise, and the concept. Religious or secular, the population remembered those who were killed, and felt a connection – sometimes one they fought – to the traditional Orthodox Jewish rituals.
In the years since, much has changed. In 1959 the government decided to mark the day of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (shortly after Passover) as the country’s official Holocaust Remembrance day; Non-observant people drifted away from Jewish traditions; Fewer and fewer survivors still lived and recited the Kaddish in memory of their slain relatives.
In Israel 2012, observance of the Tenth of Tevet ranges from strict to not at all, offering a perfect mirror of today’s factious society.
The fast day is remembered by the ultra-Orthodox as the date on which the destruction of the Temple began. Members of the more modern/Zionist Orthodox communities are aware that it is a day connected to those murdered in the Holocaust, and the state-funded religious schools hold ceremonies to commemorate them. Israelis with little or no religious commitment go about life, usually unaware of the Hebrew date or its various meanings.
An age-old Halachik discussion questions whether or not to cancel fast days and holidays when the reasoning behind them has ended. For instance, there are various prayer versions that have replaced the traditional one crying about the destroyed city of Jerusalem, claiming one can’t talk about the vibrant, living city as if it is still in ashes.
The Tenth of Tevet is an opportunity for Jews and Israelis to think about the future. Choosing whether or not to eat during the day, deciding if the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE is an event worth commemorating and thinking about the way society remembers those murdered in the Holocaust are important questions.
In fact, one might view the identity-forming dilemmas raised on the Tenth of Tevet as the key questions to deciding the way a modern Jewish/Democratic/Israeli/Whatever state should treat older cultural traditions and decisions.
Today, the Hebrew calendar marks the Tenth of Tevet. It’s a day of fasting, remembering and thinking. Let us use this opportunity to meditate, not only on events of the past, but on questions of the present.