Asarah Betevet – Cherish Truth and Peace
This Friday, on the tenth of Tevet, Jews around the world will fast from daybreak to nightfall. This is one of the four fast days marking major events in the downfall of Jerusalem. Asarah BeTevet commemorates the earliest of these events, the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army.
What is the relevance of this fast today?
This is not a new question. During the construction of the Second Temple, the Jews of Babylonia sent a delegation to Jerusalem to ask whether the fasts for the First Temple were still relevant: “Shall I weep and fast in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?’” (Zechariah 7:3)
In Zechariah’s response, he explains at length why the First Temple was destroyed – for the lack of justice and compassion in Jewish society. He finally answers that one day these fasts will become joyous: “The fast[s]… shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must cherish truth and peace.” (8:19)
The Gemara understands from this that the observance of the minor fast days at a given time depends on the circumstances of the Jewish people. In a time of peace, don’t fast; when there is persecution, fast; in an in-between state, where there is not complete peace, the fast is optional (Rosh Hashanah 18b).
What is considered “a time of peace”?
Rashi (ad loc.) understands that peace is a time when “the rule of the Gentiles does not oppress Israel.” Conversely, Ramban understands that peace refers to the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash (Torat HaAdam, Sha’ar HaAvel, Inyan Aveilut Yeshanah).
The tension between these two opinions exactly reflects our situation. On the one hand, our times feel relatively peaceful, with many steps in the right direction. The Jewish people are secure in our homeland. After decades of conflict, Muslim states are clamouring to sign peace treaties with Israel. God willing, as vaccine campaigns begin around the world, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel of the raging coronavirus pandemic.
Yet recently, we have also seen the darker sides of our society – violence and protests, bias and discrimination. People are disillusioned with their political leadership and financial instability has badly shaken the economy. While we see peace deals in the news, we have yet to find peace amongst our closest neighbors, as deep distrust and polarization divides segments of our own society.
Practically speaking, the Shulchan Aruch states that we are obligated to keep the minor fasts (O.H. 549:1). But the discussion is nonetheless enlightening. Fasting is not just about memorializing the past, but also about reflecting on the present. This is exactly the task that Zechariah conveys to the Jews of Babylonia: we must understand our past mistakes and correct their recurrences in our own generation.
So this year on Asarah BeTevet I will ask myself: How can I help our society become a fairer and safer place? Do we, as a society, cherish truth and peace?
As we are so fortunate to experience the start a new fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy –
“There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares.” (8:4–5)
– so too may we merit to see its complete fulfilment: an upright, peaceful society, with the rebuilding of the Temple speedily in our days.