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Rosh Hodesh Tevet Torah Essay

Ahuva Gold

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Numbers, Names, Translation – The Torah and the Tenth of Tevet

The name Tevet

Why did the Jewish people adopt the Babylonian names for the months? It is a seemingly odd phenomenon that the names of our months have non-Jewish origins especially considering that there are people who are careful to use the “Hebrew” date. Is using the name Tevet really any different than using the name July (named after Julius Caesar)?

The Ramban on Shemot[1] commenting in the context of the mitzvah of rosh chodesh explains that there is certainly a difference between the name Tevet and the name July (for example). The adoption of the names of the Babylonian months as the Jewish months is neither a mistake nor a sign of assimilation of the Jewish people.

The Ramban explains in the context of the first mitzvah, the mitzvah of rosh chodesh, that the months are referred to in the Torah exclusively numerically, the order beginning with the month of Nissan, chodesh harishon. Why do we count from Nissan? This is in order that we remember the geulah of yetziat Mitzrayim, even in a mundane reference to the date. Whichever month we mention- Nissan the First, Tishrei the Seventh, or Tevet the Tenth, we will be reminding ourselves in the same utterance of the geulah from Mitzrayim.

At this point, the adoption of the Babylonian names of the months seems even more terrible! Not only have we lost our tradition of naming the months numerically, but we have also lost the constant remembrance of the geulah and the connection to the first mitzvah we were given as a nation. However, the Ramban continues and explains that the current names used for the months, such as Nissan, Tishrei and Tevet which are of Babylonian origin, are in fact a furtherance of the same principle as the numerical names of the month. The adoption of the Babylonian names is the fulfillment of the nevauh of Yirmiyahu as he prophecies:

לָכֵן הִנֵּה־יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם־יְהוָה וְלֹא־יֵאָמֵר עוֹד חַי־יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ כִּי אִם־חַי־יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ צָפוֹן וּמִכֹּל הָאֲרָצוֹת אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחָם שָׁמָּה וַהֲשִׁבֹתִים עַל־אַדְמָתָם אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לַאֲבוֹתָם׃

Assuredly, a time is coming—declares the LORD—when it shall no more be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt,”but rather, “As the LORD lives who brought the Israelites out of the northland, and out of all the lands to which He had banished them.” For I will bring them back to their land, which I gave to their fathers.[2]

The Ramban quoting Yirmiyahu explains that the geulah of Mitzrayim will be overshadowed by the geulah from the “northland”, Bavel. This is exactly what happens with the names of the months which originally commemorated the geulah from Mitzrayim through counting from Nissan. Now the names are replaced, instead commemorating the geulah from Bavel with the adoption of the Babylonian names as Jewish names upon the return from the galut and the rebuilding of the second Beit Hamikdash. This is a fulfillment of the nevuah of Yirmiyahu and maintains the connection to the first mitzvah, rosh chodesh, given to the Jewish people.

This Ramban provides a beautiful and comforting explanation regarding the origins of the names of our months. Moreover, I believe it may shed light on a specific dark date and event that occurred during our month of Tevet, during the same second Beit Hamikdash period.

The 10th of Tevet

The fast of Asara B’Tevet, the tenth of Tevet, commemorates three separate (although possibly related) events that occurred on the eighth, ninth and tenth of the month. On the eighth there was the targum shiviim, the translation of the Torah into Greek, on the ninth Ezra and Nechemiah passed away and on the tenth the city of Yerushalayim was besieged by Nevuchadnezzar, king of Bavel, in a process that ultimately ends in the churban, the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash.

I would like to focus on the targum shiviim, the translation of the Torah into Greek. The story of the translation is brought in Gemara Megillah 9a and unfolds as follows:

ומשום מעשה דתלמי המלך דתניא מעשה בתלמי המלך שכינס שבעים ושנים זקנים והכניסן בשבעים ושנים בתים ולא גילה להם על מה כינסן ונכנס אצל כל אחד ואחד ואמר להם כתבו לי תורת משה רבכם נתן הקב”ה בלב כל אחד ואחד עצה והסכימו כולן לדעת אחת

The Gemara continues: And this was due to the incident of King Ptolemy, as it is taught in a baraita: There was an incident involving King Ptolemy of Egypt, who assembled seventy-two Elders from the Sages of Israel, and put them into seventy-two separate rooms, and did not reveal to them for what purpose he assembled them, so that they would not coordinate their responses. He entered and approached each and every one, and said to each of them: Write for me a translation of the Torah of Moses your teacher. The Holy One, Blessed be He, placed wisdom in the heart of each and every one, and they all agreed to one common understanding. Not only did they all translate the text correctly, they all introduced the same changes into the translated text.[3]

The zekenim realized that certain phrases when translated and put before the non-Jews could create misunderstanding and engender wrath and therefore every one of them miraculously made the same changes.

This story raises many questions worth contemplating. We will focus on just one: why is a translation of the Torah such a bad thing? (Certainly a relatable question considering how much we use translations- even this dvar Torah contains translations of every source!) There are different approaches to answering this question. Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-Tov in his sefer The Book of Jewish Heritage brings a fascinating mashal (parable) and explanation from Megillah Ta’anit:

“On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was rendered into Greek, during the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness descended upon the world for three days.’ To what may the matter be likened? To a lion captured and imprisoned. Before his imprisonment, all feared him and fled from his presence. Then, all came to gaze at him and said, ‘Where is this one’s strength?’…Once the Torah was imprisoned in Greek translation, it was as if the Torah were divested of reverence. Whoever wished to could now come and gaze at her. Whoever wished to fault her, could now do so.”[4]

As the mashal poetically illustrates, the Torah is imprisoned in Greek translation, like the lion in a cage, exposed to the criticism of all who now so easily behold her. Rabbi Eliyahu Ki-Tov explains that the Torah in translation was restricted to just one explanation, and being that a word, or even a few, cannot capture her depth and layers means that the soul of the Torah could not be translated along with the words. She was left an empty shell.

The mashal can be further understood through the following Gemara in Sanhedrin on page 59a. The Gemara compares the relationship between the Torah and Am Yisrael to the relationship between a man and his betrothed, explaining through this why it is so problematic, and in fact forbidden, for a non-Jew to learn the Torah Shebaal Peh. Through this lens we can understand the mashal of the caged lion, and the tragedy of the translation. Am Yisrael who have a special intimate relationship with the Torah have a window into her depth and an ability to understand on a deeper level with context and trust. However, when her “secrets” are exposed to the world and in such a compromised way, the Torah is left totally vulnerable to those who see her. Through their changes to the text we see that the zekenim were concerned that instead of looking with loving eyes and trying to understand, as a lover does in an intimate relationship, the non Jews would look, searching for inconsistencies and shallowness within the Torah.

The name Tevet as a Tikkun

Entering the month of Tevet perhaps we can appreciate the depths of the Torah: her truths and different layers could be at least a partial tikkun, reparation, for this tragedy we are commerarting on the fast in ten days time.

Additionally, in a sweet, apropos and poetic manner, the Babylonian name of our month – Tevet  -may itself be a tikkun for the targum/translation as understood through the Ramban we explored above. The Ramban is pointing out how even the names which seem at first glance to be a deviation from Torah roots are in fact included in the Torah and its fulfillment![5] Perhaps the Ramban’s illustration of the all-inclusiveness of the Torah, through the adoption of the Babylonian names of the months, combats the terrible tzimtzum, or restrictive misrepresentation of the translated Torah text.

The Ramban in connection to our deepened understanding of the tragedy that occured on the eighth of Tevet can help us come to an appreciation of the following Mishna: Avot 5:22

בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה:

Ben Bag Bag said:Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.[6]

We must learn the Torah and never underestimate its far reach and inclusiveness. We have been given an incredible gift and responsibility by Hashem, that of being in such an intimate relationship with His Torah. May we be zoche in the coming month of Tevet, which was once filled with the darkness of translation, to be illuminated by the light of our beloved Torah.

[1] Shemot 12:2 החדש הזה לכם ראש חודשים https://www.sefaria.org.il/Exodus.12.2?lang=bi&with=Ramban&lang2=en

[2] Text and translation taken from Sefaria.com, https://www.sefaria.org.il/Jeremiah.16.14-15?lang=bi

[3] Text and translation taken from Sefaria.com, https://www.sefaria.org.il/Megillah.9a?lang=bi

[4] Original text from masechet megillah translated and copied in current form from The Book of Our Heritage by Eilyahu Ki-Tov, 320-321

[5] Of the nevuah of Yirmiyahu cited above footnote 2

[6] Text and translation from Sefaria.com, https://www.sefaria.org.il/Pirkei_Avot.5?lang=bi

Ahuva Gold

Ahuva Gold

is currently studying in the Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute as well as pursuing a degree in Education at Herzog Teachers College. She studied two and half years in the Beit Midrash at Migdal Oz and worked as a tour guide in the City of David for two years during national service. She lives in Alon Shvut with her husband.