The 10th of the 10th: A political lesson from the halakhic system governing this Thursday’s fast

Asara b’tevet, literally, the tenth day in the Hebrew month of tevet which falls on this Thursday, is a fast day established to commemorate the first step in the process which lead to the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.  On this day, Jerusalem was blockaded by the Babylonians — First Temple — and the Romans — Second Temple — isolating the city from the rest of the country and inflicting upon its residents a series of oppressive physical and psychological deprivations.

Within the halakhic literature, asara b’tevet is known as tzom ha’asiri, the fast of the 10th, which is a reference not to the fact that it is observed on the 10th day of the month but rather to the fact that it falls in the 10th month of the year.

This moniker is not unique.  It conforms to the general halakhic pattern of naming each of the four fast days established as remembrances of the terrible tragedies occasioned by the destruction of our two Temple, after the month in which each tragic event occurred.

More importantly, the identification of each fast day with a particular month of the Hebrew calendar instead of a specific date in the Hebrew year has significant halakhic implications.  For example, shiv’a asar b’tamuz, the fast of the fourth month, which we commemorate on the 17th day in the Hebrew month of tamuz, only conforms to the actual historical narrative of the destruction of the Second Temple when the City’s ramparts crumbled on that exact date.

In the run up to the destruction of the First Temple, the walls of the Holy City were breached 8 days earlier, on nine days in the Hebrew month of tamuz.  In its discussion of these historical details, the Talmud raises the possibility of establishing two fast days in the month of tamuz, one on the ninth day of the month to commemorate the tragedy associated with the destruction of the First Temple, and a second fast day on the 17th day of the month as a memorial for the tragedy associated with the destruction of the Second Temple.

However, the Talmud rejects this suggestion on the grounds that the commemorative fast is only linked to the month in which the events occurred — in this case, tzom ha’reve’ee, the fast of the fourth month — and not to any specific day of that month.  As such, establishing a fast day on any day of the month is an adequate memorial for the tragedies which occurred during the entire course of the month.

Somewhat more esoterically, the connection of each of the four fast days to a particular month in the calendar year rather than a specific day, has significant halakhic implications for those years when the agreed upon date for the fast falls on Shabbat.

Except in the case of Yom Kippur, we do not fast on Shabbat.  As such, when the 9th day of the Hebrew month of av falls on a Saturday, the fast is delayed until Sunday.

But the leading medieval and early modern halakhic decisors disagree regarding the status of both the ninth and 10th days of the month of Av in such calendar years.  Does the ninth day of Av retain its identity as tisha’a b’Av, that is, as the day for mourning the destruction of the Temples, despite the fact that in that particular year we do not fast on that day, or is the day of mourning itself moved to the 10th of the month leaving the ninth day of the month in that particular year as an ordinary Shabbat.

As a practical matter, this issue has at least two significant implications.  First, since tisha’a b’av includes prohibitions associated with general mourning practices and rituals, must those practices and rituals be observed on the ninth day of the month as well as on the 10th?  In particular, halakhic decisors dispute the question of whether or not conjugal relations are prohibited on that Shabbat just as they are prohibited on the Shabbat which falls during the standard mourning period of shiva.

Second, does the 10th of the month in that particular year carry the full status of tisha’a b’av, that is, of the 9th of the month on other years, or does it have only the secondary status associated with being a nidcha – a derivative – of the original and much preferred date.  The status of the day effects the ease with which one can dispense with the requirement to fast based upon an individuals physical condition.

What is true for tisha’a b’av – for the fast of the 5th month – is true for all of the other fast days as well.  If and when they fall on Shabbat, the fast itself is postponed to Sunday.

Except for asara b’tevet – for the fast of the 10th month!  According to some halakhic decisors, most notably the avudraham — Rabbi David ben Joseph who lived in Spain at the turn of the 14th century — when asara b’tevet falls on Shabbat we suspend the standard Shabbat rules and fast just like we do on Yom Kippur.

Normative halakha considers avudraham’s position to be decisive.  No, we do not actually fast on Shabbat.  Rather, we adjust the Hebrew calendar in order to make sure that 10 days in the month of tevet will not fall on Shabbat.  This regulation is the reason why the Hebrew month of kislev — the ninth month of the year – is sometimes chaser – missing, that is, it contains only 29 days – and sometimes malay – full, that is, it contains 30 days.  This adjustment makes it possible to avoid having the 10th of the month fall on shabbat.

Shabbat, but not Friday.  Indeed, when kislev is made chaser, the 10th of the month will fall on Friday, vindicating avudraham’s position since the fast day is maintained until after kabalat Shabbat – after the completion of the Friday night services – actually, until the Kiddush service is chanted long after nightfall.  In other words, the fast continues into Shabbat.  Indeed, for this very reason, asara b’tevet is the only fast day that is observed on Friday.

Underlying avudraham’s halakhic perspective is the most compelling analytical logic.

Each of the four fast days commemorates a specific event in the narrative of the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples – the piercing of the City’s walls – the fast of the fourth – the torching of the two Temples – the fast of the 5th – the murder of gedalya ben achikam – fast of the 7th – and the erection of the blockade – fast of the 10th.

But of all of these events the only one which did not actually occur on a specific date was the erection of the blockade – the fast of the 10th.

At the time of the destruction of each of our two Temples, Jerusalem was a major metropolis spread over many kilometers.  As such, it was simply impossible to erect a blockade over such a large area in one single day.  Rather, the city had to be slowly surrounded by thousands and thousands of troops and a vast amount of equipment.  And even then, it is doubtful that the enemy’s vise became air tight at any particular moment.  Rather, in all likelihood, the blockade of the Babylonians, and then of the Romans, was porous, allowing both people and material to slip in and out of the city on a regular basis.

In other words, the deprivations which the blockade inflicted, both physical and psychological, accumulated over time, as the residents of Jerusalem slowly tired of the game of cat and mouse which they no doubt had to play with their enemies in order to survive.  As such, of the four fast days which commemorate the destruction of both Temples, it would seem that the fast of the 10th would be the one which best fits the idea that fasting on any day of the month is an appropriate means of commemorating the tragedy.

Why then does avudraham determine that the fast of the 10th must always be on the 10th of the month?

Because avudraham understands that the destruction of the Temples was not an event, or a series of events, but a process.  And the purpose of maintaining our collective memory of this process, achieved, of course, in and through the four fast days, is to challenge us to devise the mechanism for reversing this process, that is, for halting our slide through the exile so that we can begin our climb toward redemption.

Avudraham understood that this task demands that we all accept a date certain as to when the process of destruction began.  After all, if we cannot agree upon what went wrong we will never be able to work together and set things right.

The time is at hand for us to internalize the political lesson of the 10th of the 10th as taught to us by Rabbi David ben Joseph Avudraham more than 500 years ago.  The historical narrative is pressing on all of us, those among us who carefully observe the fast of the 10th and those who do not.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY