Why Do We Fast On Asara B'Tevet?
The Story Of Asara B'Tevet
The 17th of Tammuz, 10th of Av, and Tzom Gedaliah all commemorate conquest, destruction, exile, the downfall of a kingdom… they're horrible, and of course we mourn those days. But on the 10th of Tevet, we remember when the Babylonian armies surrounded the walls of Jerusalem… and then waited… for two and a half years.
Why do we fast on this day? What is the significance of Asara B'Tevet, that it's still important thousands of years later?
Every year we have four different fast days that commemorate the events surrounding our national exile. They are Shiva Asar B'Tammuz when the Babylonians broke through the walls of Jerusalem to capture the city, then three weeks later Tisha B'Av, the day that the first and second temples were destroyed, then right after Rosh Hashanah, we have Tzom Gedaliah, the day that the last hope for Jewish sovereignty in Israel after the destruction was violently slashed down. And finally, Asara B'Tevet, when Babylonian army surrounded the walls of Jerusalem where they waited for two and half years. Oh, they also built some towers there. Conquest, destruction, exile, the downfall of a kingdom. Each of these is a really big deal—a stand-alone catastrophe—and then there's Asara B'Tevet: a foreign nation surrounds Jerusalem's walls, and put up some scaffolding. They didn't invade; they didn't shoot any arrows or take any captives. They just came and set up camp. Why fast on this day?
Why Do We Fast on Asar B'Tevet?Now it's true that Asara B'Tevet doesn't seem to be so significant when compared to the other three fast days, but if we look at how the days are described in Tanakh, a slightly different picture begins to emerge—a picture that helps us understand why Asara B'Tevet is commemorated with its own fast day.
The first place it's described is at the end of M'lachim Bet where we're given a play-by-play of the siege and the events that followed it. We find a very similar account in the final chapter of the book of Jeremiah. We also hear about it, though, in the book of Yechezkel in chapter 24, and unlike M'lachim and Jeremiah, Yechezkel gives us a different perspective. He was a prophet already living in exile in Babylonia at the time of the siege of Jerusalem. On that day, the tenth of Tevet, Yechezkel received a message from God, but instead of telling Yechezkel about the details of what was happening in Jerusalem, God sends him a different kind of message. Let's take a look.
[From Yechezkel 24:1–2]
בַּשָּׁ נָה הַתְּ שִׁ יעִ ית, בַּח ֹדֶ שׁ הָעֲשִׂ ירִ י, בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַח ֹדֶ שׁ
On Asara B'Tevet, the tenth day of the tenth month
לֵאמ ֹר: בֶּן-אָדָ ם כתוב- (כְּ תָ ב-) לְ ך אֶ ת-שֵׁ ם הַיּוֹם
God said: write down this day, record it.
אֶת-עֶצֶם, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
this selfsame day.
סָמַךְ מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל אֶל-ירְוּשׁלַָםִ
the king of Babylonia has laid siege to Jerusalem
בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
on this selfsame day.
This phrase, עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ("this selfsame day"), shows up not once, but twice. Now through out the Torah, this phrase is pretty unique. It shows up at critical moments of transition when an era comes to an end, and a new one begins. A "selfsame day" includes an event that is so dramatic that what came before it is forever changed. For example, when Noach and his family stepped into the ark as the world around them is about to be drowned out by flood, the Torah says, it's בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. The old world is coming to an end, and at the same time, on that "selfsame day," the potential for life in the new world enters into the safety of the ark. We see it again at the moment of the Exodus from Egypt. As Israel turns their back on hundreds of years of slavery, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, they're transformed into free people. It marks the moment when their exile comes to an end, and their redemption begins.
Here in Yechezkel, it's also בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. But how is Asara B'Tevet such a massive transitional moment? Such an epic event that it ushers in a new age of history?
The Story of Asar B'Tevet in the BibleLet's take a look at the other text that describes the events of Asara B'Tevet, and we'll see.
[from Kings II 25:1]
וַיהְִי בִשְׁנַת הַתְּשִׁיעִית לְמָלְכוֹ, בַּחדֶֹשׁ ירִיהעָשֲׂ בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחדֶֹשׁ
In the ninth year of the reign of King ### on the tenth day of Tevet,
בָּא נְבֻכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל הוּא וְכָל חֵילוֹ עַל-ירְוּשׁלַָםִ
Nebu'chadnetzar King of Babylonia moves against Jerusalem with his entire army.
וַיּחִַן עלָיֶה וַיּבְִנוּ עלָיֶה דָּיֵק, סָבִיב.
He besieges it and he builds towers all around its walls.
The siege isn't just an act of intimidation. The Babylonians aren't merely flexing their military muscles. They freeze the city's resources. Jerusalem is closed off to the outside. No food can enter the city, and soon enough, the people begin to starve. For two and a half years, they encircled Jerusalem, and a terrible famine takes hold of the city. Then קַעתּ בּ הָעִיר, the wall of the city is breached. The Babylonians invade a city that's already too weak and starved to defend itself. This happened on the seventeenth of Tammuz which will become a day of fasting and morning.
Three weeks later an even greater terror strikes:
וּבַחדֶֹשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי בְּשִׁבְעָה לַחדֶֹשׁ
on the seventh of Av,
נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן בָּא ,בָּא נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב-טַבָּחִים, עֶבֶד מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל–ירְוּשׁלָָםִ
the chief slaughter of Babylonia comes to Jerusalem and a blood bath ensues,
he burned down the house of God,
וְאֶת בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ; וְאֵת כָּל-בָּתֵּי ירְוּשׁלַָםִ
he burns the king's palace and all the houses of Jerusalem,
וְאֶת-חוֹמתֹ ירְוּשׁלַָםִ סָבִיב נתְָצוּ
and they tear down the walls of Jerusalem on every side.
There's carnage, destruction, and ruin. The Temple has been burned to the ground, and Jerusalem is left in shambles. This is describing the first Tisha B'Av. Jerusalem is then pillaged. The Temple's gold and vessels are looted, and thousands of Jews are sent into exile in Babylonia. And then as the dust and ash settle, an unexpected ray of hope is revived: Nebu'chadnetzar decides to appoint a leader over a small number of Jews who remained in the land of Israel.
[from Kings II 25:22-26]
וְהָעָם, הַנּשְִׁאָר בְּאֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר, הִשְׁאִיר, נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל–וַיַּפְקֵד עֲלֵיהֶם, אֶת גְּדַלְיהָוּ בֶּן-אֲחִיקָם בֶּן-שָׁפָן
King Nebu'chadnetzar of Babylon put Gedaliah in charge of the people whom he left in the land of Judah.
Gedaliah assures his people that they are now safe, that their new rulers will treat them well. But his own kinsmen, they are not convinced.
וַיהְִי בַּחדֶֹשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי
in the month of Tishri,
בָּא ישְִׁמָעֵאל בֶּן-נתְַניְָה בֶּן-אֱלִישָׁמָע מִזֶּרַע הַמְּלוּכָה וַעֲשָׂרָה אֲנשִָׁים אִתּוֹ
a fellow Jew of royal descent visits Gedaliah with ten of his men,
וַיּכַּוּ אֶת-גְּדַלְיהָוּ, ויַּמָתֹ
וְאֶת-הַיּהְוּדִים, וְאֶת-הַכַּשְׂדִּים, אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ אִתּוֹ, בַּמִּצְפָּה
and also killed the others who were with him—Jews and non-Jews alike.
This is the final blow to the kingdom. Fearing for their lives, the remaining Jews flee to Egypt. There will be no more Jewish presence in the land. Exile is now a complete reality. The fateful day that this happened would forever be known as the "Fast of Gedaliah."
The Significance of Asara B'TevetSo when we read about the siege of Jerusalem in M'lachim Bet, it's much more than the day that the Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem; it's the first domino to fall in a string of events that includes all of the other three fast days: the siege is laid, the walls are then breached, the Temple is destroyed, and Gedaliah is assassinated. It all happens right here in this chapter, and it all begins with Asara B'Tevet. This day really was a בְּעֶצֶם-הַיּוֹם-הַזֶּה moment. When the Babylonians lay a siege upon Jerusalem, the tide begins to turn from the redeemed state of Jerusalem in the first Temple period to the beginning stages of the Babylonian exile.
Imagine what it was like. This was during the days of the first Temple. Jerusalem was the pride and glory of the Jewish people—the apple of God's eye. Great prophets like Yechezkel and Jeremiah lived among us. It was a time of spiritual vibrancy—an age of miracles. Although the people had been warned time and time again to stop straying from God, to stop turning to the idols of their neighboring nations, none of them imagined that God would ever really abandon them. God would never destroy His own palace! But the day came when they heard the chariots approaching, the blasts of trumpets calling for war. In the distance, they saw the Babylonians approaching—preparing to lay siege on the city of God.
When the Babylonian armies reached Jerusalem and set up camp around its walls, the people's sense of security quickly began to unravel. The unimaginable was taking place before their very eyes. The prominence and protection that they had enjoyed for all these years vanished into thin air.
Why Asara B'Tevet Is Important Todayבְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה This was the day that everything changed. At sunrise, we were in the lap of God's kingdom, but by nightfall, we were in the palm of our enemies not knowing what the next morning would bring.
So this really is a day of great sadness and loss. It marks the beginning of the end of the first Temple. It was the day when our dream began to shatter, and they shattered more and more in the days that followed. Jeremiah's cry – ! איכה ("how could it be!") – could only be heard once the Temple was burned to the ground, but its seed was planted on Asara B'Tevet.
On this day, we fast and we grieve. It's a day to remember—even now—because through out history, we continue to witness unthinkable horrors transform into new realities in a moment's glance. For the Jewish people, Asara B'Tevet is when those moments began.