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The Hidden Meaning Behind Tzom Gedaliah

What Tzom Gedaliah Is Really About


Rivky Stern

Executive Producer

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are two of most powerful holidays of the Jewish calendar. But smack between them, we’re hit with… Tzom Gedaliah? Wait, what? Who? Gedaliah? Who was he again? A leader who was killed? And we fast because.. It’s his yahrzeit? It just seems so random – why do we have this fast day right after Rosh Hashanah? And why does this guy, who most of us have never heard about, get his own fast?

In this video, we’ll dive into the story of Gedaliah, and we’ll see that Tzom Gedaliah isn’t merely commemorating some tragedy that happened once upon a time. The story of Gedaliah represents a major turning point in our nation’s history. And, if we dig a bit deeper, we may discover another very well known story lurking just beneath the surface, that carries a critical and much needed message for our day and age.

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Transcript

Rosh Hashanah is one of the most powerful holidays of the Jewish calendar. We spent two days in prayer, recommitting ourselves to our relationship with God, and we’re ready to build on that in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. But then, right out of the gate, we’re hit with… Tzom Gedaliah?

Who Was Gedaliah ben Achikam?

Wait, what? Who? Gedaliah? Who was he again? A leader who was killed? And we fast because.. It’s his yahrzeit?

It just seems so random – why do we have this fast day right after Rosh Hashanah? And why does this guy, who most of us have never heard about, get his own fast? Okay, yeah, I mean, no one likes political assassinations, but why should we be so pained over this one, thousands of years later?

When I was growing up, we used to say, “you know, we eat so much on Rosh Hashanah, so we fast to burn off those extra calories.” And it’s kinda funny – but what if we could approach Tzom Gedaliah meaningfully this year?

I think, if we actually look into the story of Gedaliah, we’ll be able to understand why this fast day is so significant. Because Tzom Gedaliah isn’t merely commemorating some tragedy that happened to the Jewish people, once upon a time. The story of Gedaliah’s rise and fall represents a major turning point in our nation’s history. And, it carries a critical message with relevance for all generations.

The History Behind Tzom Gedaliah

The story of Gedaliah is related to us through the lens of Jeremiah.

Let me set the scene for you: The Babylonians have burned the first Temple to ashes. Most of the nation has either been killed or driven into exile, with only a few Jews remaining in the land of Israel. Those surviving Jews, they had lost everything – their Temple, their government. It looked like all was lost.

Jeremiah returns to dwell amongst these survivors. He had until now been taken in chains to Babylonia with the other exiles, but Nevuzaradan, the רַב-טַבָּחִים, “the chief butcher,” – which is a bit of an odd title for the head of the Babylonian military – he lets Jeremiah go.

Nevuzaradan says, “You can go join the remnants of the Jews in Israel, וְשֻׁבָה אֶל-גְּדַלְיָה בֶן-אֲחִיקָם בֶּן-שָׁפָן, and return to Gedaliah, the son of Achikam, the son of Shafan. אֲשֶׁר הִפְקִיד מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל בְּעָרֵי יְהוּדָה whom the king of Babylonia has appointed over the land of Judah.

This is remarkable. The Babylonians had all but wiped out the Jews, but it looks like things are turning around. Jeremiah had been in chains, taken into exile, but now, he’s freed. The people had been being forced from the land, but a remnant is allowed to stay. And now, they are even allowed a Jewish leader. Gedaliah is appointed by the Babylonian King!

After all of the death and destruction of the past few years, finally, good things are happening for the Jews back in their homeland. Gedaliah begins to organize the people, he swears to protect them, and organizes them economically. And he becomes a beacon of hope – his sphere of influence expands. Jewish refugees in foreign lands begin to hear the good news...and they begin to return home.

It almost seems like the Kingdom of Judah is being given a second chance for survival. וַיָּשֻׁבוּ כָל-הַיְּהוּדִים, מִכָּל-הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר נִדְּחוּ-שָׁם – the text tells us that all the Jews returned from all the places where they were driven out. Almost like a total undoing of exile! Can there be a turnaround greater than this?

One of the officers who join Gedaliah, Yochanan ben Kareach, a former captain of the Judean army, he approaches him publicly, with a warning. Baalis, the king of Ammon, has sent an assassin – Yishmael ben Netanyah – to kill you. Gedaliah refuses to believe it. He refuses to believe that Yishmael, a fellow Jew, would be working for a foreign agent.

But Yochanan persists. He warns him a second time, as the text tells us, בַסֵּתֶר, in secrecy. Why does the text tell us it was a secret? Well, maybe what he was saying was: Gedaliah, I understand this show of unity you’re doing, this show of strength, but why don’t you let me take care of things for you? Let me go, let me kill Yishmael. וְאִישׁ, לֹא יֵדָע, don’t worry, no one will know!

Because, Gedaliah, he warns, think of the alternative! לָמָּה יַכֶּכָּה נֶּפֶשׁ, how can we just let him kill you?? You know what’s gonna happen, Gedaliah, you know what happens if he kills you? וְנָפֹצוּ כָּל-יְהוּדָה הַנִּקְבָּצִים אֵלֶיךָ, everyone who has gathered here in Judea, they’ll be scattered. וְאָבְדָה, שְׁאֵרִית יְהוּדָה, and the remnants of Judah, who you have been sustaining, will be lost. This precarious thing you’ve been building? It will be shattered – and everything will be destroyed.

Many of us don’t even remember that Gedaliah gets warned, like, why is this a part of the story? To show us how naive Gedaliah was? Maybe, maybe not, but either way, for us following along, we’re terrified!

If this were a movie, we’d be screaming at our TV, “Gedaliah, get out of there! Run away! Or at least get some bodyguards!” But Gedaliah once again refuses to believe Yochanan’s report.

And then, וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי, it came to pass in the seventh month – the month of Tishrei – בָּא יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן-נְתַנְיָה בֶן-אֱלִישָׁמָע, Yishmael comes, and this time we hear more about who this guys is, and maybe even a clue as to his potential motive. He’s מִזֶּרַע הַמְּלוּכָה וְרַבֵּי הַמֶּלֶךְ, Yishmael is of royal descent, he comes from the family of the Kings of Judah and he was an advisor to the previous King, who was exiled by the Babylonians. וַעֲשָׂרָה אֲנָשִׁים אִתּוֹ – he’s got 10 men with him too.

They all come to Gedaliah’s place in Mizpah – וַיֹּאכְלוּ שָׁם לֶחֶם יַחְדָּו – and they sit down together to break bread with Gedaliah. For Gedaliah, this is a great victory. Yishmael is a member of the king’s family – his support could be very useful in re-establishing a government in Judah.

But then, as they’re all feasting, וַיָּקָם יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן-נְתַנְיָה וַעֲשֶׂרֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ אִתּוֹ, Yishmael and his 10 men, they rise up, וַיַּכּוּ אֶת-גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן-אֲחִיקָם בֶּן-שָׁפָן בַּחֶרֶב–וַיָּמֶת אֹתוֹ, and they kill Gedaliah by the sword.

Gedaliah אֲשֶׁר-הִפְקִיד מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל, בָּאָרֶץ, who, the text reminds us, was appointed by the King of Babylonia to govern over the land. He was the Jewish people’s final hope for political autonomy, but Yishmael and his men dash their dreams. They go on to kill everyone else who was gathered there – Jew and non-Jew alike. It’s a bloodbath that leaves the Jewish people leaderless.

The sun rises the next morning, and word of this massacre has not yet gotten out. וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִשְּׁכֶם מִשִּׁלוֹ וּמִשֹּׁמְרוֹן שְׁמֹנִים אִישׁ – eighty men show up from Shechem, Shilo and Samaria – מְגֻלְּחֵי זָקָן וּקְרֻעֵי בְגָדִים, וּמִתְגֹּדְדִים – they’ve shaven their beards, they’ve torn their clothes and they’ve cut themselves in mourning over the Temple’s destruction. Remember, they don’t know what happened to Gedaliah. They’re crying over the temple’s destruction.

וַיֵּצֵא יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן-נְתַנְיָה לִקְרָאתָם, מִן-הַמִּצְפָּה – Yishmael goes out from Mitzpah to greet them – הֹלֵךְ הָלֹךְ, וּבֹכֶה – and he’s crying as he walks towards them. He’s faking. He greets them and says – בֹּאוּ אֶל-גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן-אֲחִיקָם – come on, let’s go to Gedaliah. We’ll go see him.

But he’s setting up a trap. וַיְהִי, כְּבוֹאָם אֶל-תּוֹךְ הָעִיר; when they reach the city, וַיִּשְׁחָטֵם יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן-נְתַנְיָה Yishmael and his men slaughter these refugees and they throw them into a pit. Why does he do this? Perhaps he wanted to wipe out all people who may have been loyal to Gedaliah. Perhaps he didn’t want his terrible deed discovered, and his murderous rampage is an attempt to cover up his tracks. Either way, the tragedy just continues.

After all the chaos and turnover, the people, seeking security, eventually make their way down to Egypt. And, for the first time since the days of Joshua, the continuous presence of the nation of Israel in the land comes to an end.

It’s an awful and tragic story. But, where’s the lesson in it for us? And, why does it merit its own fast day? Doesn’t it feel almost like Tisha b’Av: The Epilogue, kinda like we’re beating the dead horse of tragedy? Isn’t one day of mourning over the Babylonian destruction enough?

Connections to Gedaliah in the Bible

There’s something about this Gedaliah story that’s different. Something that has independent relevance to us, years later, that makes it worth commemorating. I want to try to uncover some of that meaning with you now.

Consider the end of the story. Yishmael takes the corpses of those he has massacred and throws them אֶל-תּוֹךְ הַבּוֹר – into a pit.

Where have we seen that before? Maybe in another story, where one man rises to power under a foreign king, and uses his power to take care of his brothers? Where the mistreatment of that brother sets the family on a path that ultimately ends in exile, in Egypt?

Doesn’t the Gedaliah story sound eerily similar to the story of the sale of Joseph? I don’t think these parallels are coincidental. They’re all over this story: Remember Nevuzaradan, the chief military officer who releases Jeremiah from captivity and send him back to Gedaliah? His title was רַב-טַבָּחִים, master butcher. It’s a curious name, and possibly refers to his military prowess, but it’s also a neat hint. Where is the only other story where we have a Sar Hatabachim? Potiphar, to whom Joseph is first sold, is the Sar Hatabachim, the minister of butchers!

Okay, that’s cute. But there’s more: Nevuzaradan tells Jeremiah he can go back to the land of Israel: וְשֻׁבָה אֶל-גְּדַלְיָה בֶן-אֲחִיקָם בֶּן-שָׁפָן, and return to Gedaliah, the son of Achikam, the son of Shafan. אֲשֶׁר הִפְקִיד מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל בְּעָרֵי יְהוּדָה, that the King of Bavel appointed in all the cities of Judah. And that word, hifkid – to appoint, or to entrust – it shows up all over the Joseph story.

It’s first used when Potiphar appoints him head over his household. And then, when Joseph is thrown in jail, once again he’s appointed – וַיִּפְקֹד – to be in charge of the prison. Then, when Joseph first appears before Pharaoh, he advises him to appoint people throughout the land. And the words he uses: וְיַפְקֵד פְּקִדִים עַל הָאָרֶץ.

And there’s more. Yishmael and his gang are described as 10 men who sit down to break bread: עֲשָׂרָה אֲנָשִׁים אִתּוֹ…וַיֹּאכְלוּ שָׁם לֶחֶם. Who are those other 10 men who once sat down to break bread before getting set to perform the most heinous of deeds? The brothers of Joseph were 10 men. Joseph and his brother Benjamin, also a child of Rachel, they weren’t involved in the sale, but the other 10 brothers were. And what does the text tell us they did directly before Joseph is sold into slavery? וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם, the 10 brothers sat down to break bread…

And think of the way in which Gedaliah was murdered: Through treachery, deceit, and sneakiness. They ensnare Gedaliah, and then entrap the refugees that come to join him the next day. Those refugees, the text tells us, were coming from Shechem – Shechem is where the sale of Joseph happens. It’s where Jacob sends Joseph to find his brothers.

Yishmael sneakily draws in the refugees, those men who are mourning, tearing their clothes, and crying. To pretend he is on their side, הֹלֵךְ הָלֹךְ, וּבֹכֶה; Yishmael goes out crying to greet them. Yishmael sheds crocodile tears.

The brothers, too, engage in deceit that causes others to tear their clothes, and to mourn. When the brothers bring Joseph’s bloody coat to their father Jacob, we’re told וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו, Jacob tears his clothes, וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל-בְּנוֹ, יָמִים רַבִּים, he mourns over his son for many years, וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו, and he cries for Joseph. The brothers, too, would’ve had to shed their own crocodile tears to keep up the ruse.

And speaking of the bloody coat, remember how it got bloody in the first place? וַיִּשְׁחֲטוּ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים – the brothers slaughtered a goat, and took its blood to deceive their father. That same word is used to describe what Yishmael does to those refugees from Shechem – וַיִּשְׁחָטֵם, he slaughters them.

And, here’s what clinches it for me. Yishmael throws his victims אֶל-תּוֹךְ הַבּוֹר, into the pit. Doesn’t that sound like it was taken straight out of the Joseph story? וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ, his brothers grab him, וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ, הַבֹּרָה, they cast him into the bor, the pit. It’s as if the text is calling out to us – the story of Joseph. It’s happening again!

And now, we face the obvious question: why? Why are all these parallels here? What’s it mean? When you hear the story of the assasination, you can’t help but identify with Gedaliah – he’s the good guy and Yishmael and his despicable band of 10 men, they’re the bad guys. But you know the problem with stories about good guys and bad guys? They don’t really have any great lessons.

What Is the Lesson Behind Gedaliah's Story?

What do we learn from Tzom Gedaliah? Don’t murder. Good. So what’s for break fast? Bagels and lox, anyone?? But what if this story is more complex… Who was Yishmael, and what motivated him?

Well, while we’re thinking back to stories in the book of Genesis, let’s go even further back, to Yishmael, the son of Abraham. Yishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, but it was Isaac, not Yishmael, who was chosen to carry on his father’s legacy. Despite being Abraham’s eldest, Yishmael was given second place status in the family.

And now, generations later, we have another Yishmael, who comes from royal descent, who served under the King of Judah, watching as somebody else from his family, his nation, sits upon the throne. And he can’t bear it. He doesn’t see Gedaliah as his brother, he sees him as an enemy. An enemy he needs to eliminate. And you know what? This isn’t the only story of sibling conflict where a Yishmael shows up.

He also makes a surprise appearance in the story of Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph was sitting in that pit, you know what they decided to do with him? They said, לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, the descendants of Yishmael, the first rejected brother in our family.

It’s as if Joseph’s brothers also identified with Yishmael, the rejected son, and they turned their resentment into vengeance against their brother. This is what the sale of Joseph is really about. Brothers fighting brothers. Brothers betraying brothers. And at its core, the tragic story of Gedaliah is a replay of this same dynamic.

Gedaliah was a glint of hope, a light at the end of a very dark tunnel. But what brought it crumbling to the ground, was brothers stabbing brothers in the back. We don’t know exactly why; maybe Yishmael was jealous of Gedaliah, he wanted to be the one in charge. Or, maybe he was self-righteously angry – remember, Gedaliah was appointed by the king of Babylonia; maybe Yishmael thought that Gedaliah was treasonous, cooperating with the enemy. Either way, Gedaliah and Yishmael’s politics differed, and for Yishmael, the ends justified the means.

But consider Gedaliah, why were we told that he was warned, to show you Gedaliah’s naivete? I don’t think so. When Gedaliah is told of a plot by one brother to turn on the other, he just won’t believe it.

In Gedaliah’s worldview, brothers lift up other brothers, they don’t tear them down. But the text tells us, he receives the warning again, this time, בַסֵּתֶר, in secret. Yochanan says,לָמָּה יַכֶּכָּה נֶּפֶשׁ, how can we let him kill you? Those words are also borrowed from the Joseph story. They are the words Reuven uses to plead with his brothers for mercy on Joseph’s behalf: לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ – let us not be murderers. What’s going on here? Why are we told about this warning twice, and in secret?

Why Do We Fast on Tzom Gedaliah?

The, text, I think, is telling us that Gedaliah could’ve stooped to Yishmael’s level. He could’ve donned the tactics of Joseph’s brothers. He was warned. He too could’ve let the ends justify the means. But Gedaliah will have none of it. Even in secret, even if nobody knows, he will not shed the blood of his brother.

So here’s what I take out of Tzom Gedaliah: There are many times where we hold self righteous political opinions.

There are times we think we are so right, and our opponents so wrong, that we let the ends justify the means. Most of us don’t consider assassinating our political opponents, that’s a little extreme – although there have been these kinds of idealistically motivated assassinations in our nation’s recent history – but how many of us lose sight of the humanity, of the brotherhood, that holds our nation together.

Consider how we relate to people who we don’t agree with politically. How easily do we let our self-righteousness blind us to the people on the other side of the aisle? How easily do we dismiss them and say, “It’s people like you who are destroying our country!”?

Jewish history is full of sinat chinam, of brother turning on brother. We divide ourselves into little camps, thinking that only we are right, when the goal of rebuilding a nation, when return, rebirth, and unity is tragically overlooked. It’s what happened between Joseph and his brothers all those years before, it happens again here, in the case of Gedaliah and Yishmael, and it still happens with us, today.

What Is Tzom Gedaliah Really About?

I think that this story carries an important message, specifically for this time of year. On Rosh Hashanah, we spend two full days focused on God, our King, our Creator, our Father. But if we have a parent, we also have siblings. And if we reconnect to our Father on Rosh Hashanah, well, we reconnect with our siblings on Asseret Yemei Teshuva – the days of repentance leading up to Yom Kippur.

This is the time to examine ourselves. When push comes to shove, can I see the humanity of my brothers and sisters? Can I work to find a common ground of communication? Can I cross the divide and connect with them, person to person, to see what we can accomplish together?

Only when I can make peace with my brothers, only when I begin to see myself as part of a larger family, can I expect to fully connect to God, the Father of us all. Have an easy and meaningful fast.

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