Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Has the Time Come for the Fast of Yitzchak Gedaliah?

In a few days the Jewish calendar notes the Fast of Gedaliah. Yet, how many Jews know anything about who he was or why we have a Fast Day with his name?
Which brings up a far wider question: hasn’t the time come to start “refreshing” the Jewish calendar’s Fast Days? (The term “Hebrew Calendar” doesn’t really denote the substance of the Jewish year.) That’s not merely a theoretical issue; it strikes at the heart of what we tend to call: Jewish Collective Memory.

There are six Fast Days (in roughly descending order of importance: 1- Yom Kippur; 2- the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av); 3- the 17th of Tammuz; 4- the 10th of Tevet; 5- Fast of Esther; 6- Fast of Gedaliah. The first and fifth are found in the Bible; the rest were established by the post-Temple Rabbis. Moreover, of equal importance is the fact that only Yom Kippur is non-historical i.e., not based on some historical event; all the others commemorate some aspect of Jewish history.

However (no surprise here), Jewish history did not exactly “end” with the Second Temple’s destruction. Why, then, should the Jewish calendar be “stuck” in the quicksand of ancient history? The “solution” heretofore used is to piggyback newer disasters on older ones. For example, the 1492 Spanish Expulsion occurred on Tisha B’Av – so it is now supposedly “part” of the Tisha B’Av Fast Day. I say “supposedly” because to my knowledge there has not even been any new prayer added to Tisha B’Av services commemorating the Spanish Expulsion. In short, a virtual solution without substance.

Interestingly, the question of continuing the minor Fast Days was already broached in the Talmud (almost all rabbis then and today see Tisha B’Av to be of equal centrality to Yom Kippur, and thus a permanent part of the calendar). Here is the substantive gist from Tractate Rosh Hashanah 18b:

The question is raised why New Moon messengers don’t go out to the hinterlands to declare when the months of Tammuz and Tevet started (after witnessing then new moon) in order for Diaspora Jewry to commemorate those Fast Days on the proper day. Quoting Rabbi Shimon Hasida, Rav Hanna bar Bizna answered: What does the verse mean (Zekhariah 8:19): “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness for the House of Judah.” – It is called “fast” and it is called “joy and gladness” – when there is peace, they shall be days of ‘joy and gladness’, when there is no peace, they shall be a ‘fast. To which Rav Pappa explained: The verse is saying: When there is peace, “they shall become occasions for joy and gladness.” When there is “shmad” [persecution], “fast.” If there is neither persecution nor peace – if they wished, they fast; if they wished, they need not fast.”

Several Orthodox, halakhic decisors agreed with this approach, including contemporary Israeli ones (for a comprehensive discussion, see: This has not become the consensus, mainly because we can’t agree on whether the State of Israel (or Jews worldwide) live in a state of “peace” or “shmad” or something in between. On the one hand, we have regained political sovereignty; on the other hand, Israel is still beset by surrounding enemies. And the Jewish Diaspora still has to contend with serious anti-Semitism, albeit nothing compared to the past two millennia. Nevertheless, the principle was set almost 2000 years ago: the minor Fast Days are not set in concrete. Depending on circumstances, they can be abolished and even transmuted into something joyful!

Indeed, the Jewish calendar itself has a measure of built-in flexibility. During the Temple era as noted above, every New Month began only when two witnesses could see the New Moon. If one night was overly cloudy, the month would “begin” the next evening. Nor was “cancellation” out of the question: the Biblical “Jubilee Year” ceased to be followed around the 6th century BCE (2500 years ago).

So for starters in our era, we can certainly “reframe” the most minor Fast Day of all: the Fast of Gedaliah that commemorates the assassination of the Jewish governor of Judah who was an appointee of Nebuchadrezzar, the Babylonian king. Sound somewhat familiar? Yitzchak Rabin, Israel’s assassinated Prime Minister, had even greater authority than Gedaliah back then under the thumb of foreign rule. Why shouldn’t this contemporary evil deed be commemorated instead, or as part of an old/new 3rd of the month of Tishrei: the Fast of Yitzchak Gedaliah?

Given that Fast Days are not merely a time of historical lamentation, but also (primarily?) a time of contemplation and a warning regarding the present situation – and especially when Israeli society (and Diaspora Jewry along with it) is riven by serious political factionalism and internal enmity – there could not be a better occasion for renewing the Jewish calendar with the most minor of useful tweaks.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: