Commentary for Vayechi and Asara B’Tevet

13 Dec

Today on the Hebrew calendar was the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, one of four fast days that commemorate tragedies that befell the Jewish people in ancient times.  The Tenth of Tevet is unique among these fasts, though, in that it is the only one of them that can override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.  When one of the other historical fast days falls on Shabbat, we postpone our fasting and mourning until Sunday.  We even do this for Tisha B’Av, one of the two full-length twenty-five hour fasts, but the Tenth of Tevet, which is only a dawn to nightfall fast, overrides Shabbat.  While the calendar works out in such a way that the Tenth of Tevet cannot fall on a Saturday, it is the only fast that can fall on a Friday, and because Shabbat starts at sunset but the fast doesn’t end until nightfall (the emergence of three stars in the sky), we have this short period of about an hour during which we are fasting on Shabbat.

 

The specific event marked by Fast of the Tenth of Tevet is the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the First Temple.  To explain why this fast overrides the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat, many scholars note that, when talking about the event, God commands Ezekiel to take note of “this exact day (Ez. 24:2)” on which the siege began.  This same phrase is used in Lev. 23:29 to describe the requirement to fast on Yom Kippur, which is the only other fast day which overrides the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.

 

While Halachicly sound, this explanation still seems lacking.  After all, would it not be just as important to make sure that we observe the exact day when multiple major tragedies have befallen the Jewish people, such as on the Seventeen of Tammuz and on Tisha B’Av?  Shouldn’t those fasts override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat, too?

 

The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839, Hungary) provides an explanation for this.  He says that it was on the Tenth of Tevet at God decided that the Temple would be destroyed and that the Jews would be exiled.  Now, every year on the Tenth of Tevet, God decides whether or not the Temple will be rebuilt this year, fulfilling God’s promise in Zachariah 8:19 to turn all of the fast days of tragedy such as Tisha B’Av and the Tenth of Tevet into days of joy.  Thus, while on other fasts we fast to commemorate the past, on the Tenth of Tevet, we fast in hope for the future.  Just as we fast on Yom Kippur to show our piety by forgoing our worldly needs to show our dedication to examining our behaviors and sincerely repenting in the hope that God will judge us favorably for the coming year, we fast on the Tenth of Tevet in the hope that God will judge us favorably and turn these days of sadness into days of joy.  Because we are fasting in hope for a better future, the fast is allowed to override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.

 

Just like with Yom Kippur, though, simply fasting is not enough.  If we want to bring about a better world, we need to do so through our actions.  Coming exactly three months after Yom Kippur, the Tenth of Tevet is a good time to examine how we are doing so far this year.  How well have we kept all of those promises of self-improvement that we made to ourselves and to God on Yom Kippur?  Is there anything we should be doing that we aren’t?

 

In this week’s parshah, Joseph’s brothers realize that despite living peacefully together in Egypt for seventeen years, they have never actually apologized to Joseph for selling him into slavery (which a midrash says actually happened on the Tenth of Tevet).  When they do so, Joseph tells them that he has already forgiven them, and assures them that he will make sure that they and their descendants are sustained, and together they become one group again.  On Yom Kippur we pray for ourselves and focus on how we can improve ourselves, but on the Tenth of Tevet, we focus on what we can do for the whole of the Jewish people.  Just as Joseph and his brothers do their parts to restore the family to oneness, so too do we need to do make sure we are doing our part to work towards a better future.

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