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Day of Confinement

Mrs. Elana Moskowitz

If Asarah B’Teves isn’t a day of destruction, why fast?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

W hen I anticipate significant days on the Jewish calendar, what does it for me most is the weather. Perhaps that’s why I sense a distinct incongruity on Asarah B’Teves: Churban, destruction, in the winter? Churban is for Tammuz and Av, the dense heat reminiscent of the destructive smoke that decimated the Mikdash. Fasting over the imminent destruction of Bayis Rishon in the midst of a snowstorm strikes me as odd.

When it comes to taaneisim, Asarah B’Teves is indeed an anomaly. It is the only time we fast on Friday instead of delaying it until Sunday, and if the fast hypothetically presented on Shabbos, we would forgo our festive seudos and fast (Tur 549). This inflexibility is even more peculiar when we consider the classic reason for the fast: On the Tenth of Teves during the time of Bayis Rishon, the Bavlim laid siege to Yerushalayim, rendering the Holy City impenetrable.

Fasting over the Churban is an exercise in mourning loss. On the Seventeenth of Tammuz we lament the loss of our Korban Tamid, an enduring fixture in the Mikdash, whose twice-daily offering sheltered Yerushalayim from hostile incursion. Simultaneously, we mourn the breach of its city walls, which exposed a vulnerable populace and a holy edifice to eventual destruction. Three weeks later on Tishah B’Av we weep for our fallen Mikdash, whose two-thousand-year absence is the basis of our nation’s grievous, continuous losses.

The fasts of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tishah B’Av are Klal Yisrael’s response to the twin losses of Yerushalayim and the Beis Hamikdash. But what exactly did we lose on Asarah B’Teves? Inter-city mobility? True, the siege of Yerushalayim was a precursor to the tragedies of Tammuz and Av, a harbinger of anguished weeks to come in which a nation was stripped of its status and sovereignty. But while it marks the dawn of a deeply painful process, it does not commemorate an actual loss. Imagine we were to observe the yahrtzeit of a loved one on the day they first fell ill instead of the day they died. This is ostensibly what Asarah B’Teves is, a yahrtzeit for the day Yerushalayim and the Mikdash first “fell ill.”

The Chasam Sofer explains that on Asarah B’Teves, the celestial decree for the Churban was sealed. On this day, the trajectory of Klal Yisrael and the Beis Hamikdash pivoted toward destruction, a point of no return for both. Yet devastating as the repercussions were, Asarah B’Teves still does not indicate loss in the classic sense as much as it portends tragedy and demise. The question, then, remains. Why do we fast?

“Two roads diverged in a wood…” Life is replete with decisions whose outcomes vary in their impact. Every so often we encounter a diverging road where a critical choice will make all the difference. Each juncture is a zeman gorali, a decisive moment, the proverbial fork in the road.

Sometimes we encounter our own personal zeman gorali. Deciding to live in one neighborhood versus another or to go back to school instead of staying at home — crucial moments that define our family and self. A zeman gorali can be a distressing time. Whittling down choices and eliminating options is more than defining, it’s constricting. When I choose X over Y, I’ve narrowed my path and restricted my options, and I chafe at the contracting borders of my life.

The Rambam teaches that on Asarah B’Teves, the Babylonian king subjected Yerushalayim to “matzor umatzok,” a military siege (Hilchos Taanis 85:2). Matzor sources from the root “tzar,” narrow and constricted. From that day onward, the city’s inhabitants were confined within the narrow perimeter of the city walls. It was a zeman gorali in the most ominous sense of the word, a limiting, confining gezeirah.

Asarah B’Teves should actually be the third in a sequence of fast days. According to the Tur, on the 8th, 9th, and 10th of Teves tragic events befell our nation at different points in Jewish history. Since we are incapable of fasting for such a sustained period, we consolidate the fasts and mourn on the Tenth of Teves for all three events. What transpired on the 8th and 9th of Teves that justifies fasting?

On the 8th of Teves, King Talmei summoned 70 Jewish elders to translate the Torah into Greek. They were isolated in 70 solitary rooms, yet miraculously their translations were identical. As a consequence of this event, known as the Targum Shivim, the Tur notes that “darkness descended on the world for three days.” What’s so harmful about a simple translation?

Torah is vibrant and dynamic. Words and phrases brim with multifaceted meaning, deep precepts are mined from the slightest variations in language and syntax. One short pasuk in Torah ignites endless reams of halachic and aggadic interpretation, radiant in their clarity and depth. When Talmei ordered the Torah translated to Greek, he forced each multi-layered phrase into a straitjacket; infinite depth and vibrancy were compressed to monochromatic Greek. On the 8th of Teves, Torah was placed under “matzor umatzok,” constricted to fit the limitations of a Greek tongue.

On the 9th of Teves, the Magen Avraham relates, Ezra Hasofer died. According to many opinions he was Malachi, the last of our neviim. His passing signified the end of an era; no longer would devar Hashem flow from the lips of our prophets. Additionally, the corpus of Torah shebichsav was sealed with no further additions permitted. This was a fork in the road of Jewish history; the edifying voice of nevuah was silenced and the miraculous and “mundane” were no longer chronicled in our written Torah. The medium of expressing Hashem’s will was now in the vise of “matzor umatzok,” inhibited by the loss of nevuah and the Chasimas HaTanach.

Asarah B’Teves memorializes more than a blockade of swords and stone. It is an expression of grief for the vise of “matzor umatzok,” the chokehold placed on our nation and our Torah. At this decisive time, the borders of our holy city shriveled and our holy Torah was shrunken. Consequently, we as a nation withered as well. We became smaller people, suffering from diminishment in stature, in understanding of Torah, and in connection to Hashem.

And that change endures. Consider the areas where we find ourselves lacking and small: the petty disagreements and narrow-mindedness, the trivialities that suck our positive energy, and the inconsequential distractions that divert us from more meaningful pursuits in life. These are all aspects of our withered state and this is the reason we mourn today, a nation “b’matzor umatzok.”

On Asarah B’Teves we were a nation at a crossroads, faced with the diverging paths of churban or salvation. At that zeman gorali, we were unfortunately led down the path to destruction. But with every experience we gain direction. When we reflect on all that we have lost or gained at decisive moments in life, we resolve to approach future junctures with the earnestness and sincerity they deserve. Hopefully this inclines us toward choices that engender positive outcomes.

The opportunity begins now. The Chasam Sofer teaches that just as Asarah B’Teves was the zeman gorali that portended the Churban, every year on this day, Hashem determines if this will be the time for our Geulah.

This year, let’s give Him a good reason to decide that it is.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 621. Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.

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