Tzom Gedaliah

Tzom Gedaliah (Fast of Gedaliah) is an annual fast day instituted by the Jewish Sages to commemorate the assassination of Gedaliah Ben Achikam, the Governor of Israel during the days of Nebuchadnetzar King of Babylonia. As a result of Gedaliah’s death the final vestiges of Judean autonomy after the Babylonian conquest were destroyed, many thousands of Jews were slain, and the remaining Jews were driven into final exile.

The fast is observed on the day immediately following Rosh Hashanah, the third of Tishrei. In the Prophetic Writings this fast is called ‘The Fast of the Seventh’ in allusion to Tishrei, the seventh month.
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There have been many, many righteous people who have died. In fact, there is probably no day in the year which did not have a righteous person die on it. Does this mean that we should fast every day?

The Maharsha, who asks this question, provides the following explanation: We fast on this day not solely because Gedalya was killed. It is true that Gedalya’s death in it of itself was a tragedy, as he was righteous. However, it is because of the effect his death had – that all Jews left the land of Israel and went into exile – that we fast. We see how great of a tragedy the death of a righteous person is by the fact that the mention of this fast in the verse in Zecharia is juxtaposed with all the other fasts which commemorate the destruction of the Temple. The common denominator between the four fasts listed in the verse is the fact that the extent of the tragedy of all of them is equal, because the death of a righteous person is on par with the destruction of the Temple. Although this is true, we do not, and we practically could not, fast on every day a righteous person died.

The Maharsha continues and tells us what we are supposed to learn from the events which we are commemorating with a fast today. This murder took place in the days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur – the holiest time of the year. Yishmael should have thought about what he was going to do, realized what time of the year it was, and instead of assassinating Gedalya, he should have repented. We all know that did not happen. Yishmael not only killed a person, he killed a righteous person, and caused the nation of Israel to suffer a great tragedy which we feel to this day.

We see that after the two days on which the whole nation of Israel prayed for life and a good year, we suffered a great downfall. On this day, we should truly feel troubled and worried about our devotion to Hashem. We should focus our prayers on requesting mercy from Hashem. We should not be so confident that the prayers we just completed on Rosh HaShana sufficed. We should ask from Hashem that not only should He raise us from the depths to which we have sunk after our downfalls, but He should decree a good and long life for the whole nation.

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We’re All Broken Vessels – The 17th of Tammuz

Based on a lecture By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller which can be found here.

The first major tragedy in history was when Adam ate the fruit and internalized confusion. Prior to that sin, confusion was external, but after the sin the confusion was internalized. Man went from an objective reality of true and false to an often confused subjective reality of good and evil.

Much of the negativity in the world is due to this confusion, where collective mankind brings upon itself tragedies such as hunger, poverty and war. This is the negative side of free choice and these tragedies result from our confusion. If we had G-d awareness, we would be able to get past these tragedies. If we had a strong sense of G-d’s presence, confused negative traits like selfishness, violence, cruelty and abusiveness would not exist.

After the first sin, G-d withdrew His presence from the world, but it was restored by people such as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov until a full awareness of G-d was acheived at Sinai. So how did the people worship the golden calf shortly thereafter?

Nobody thought the golden calf was the creator of the world. Nobody creates an idol in the morning and thinks that it created him in the afternoon. The golden calf was representative of the powers of nature and strength, it was a representation of G-d. What is so bad about this? What’s so bad about idol worship is that we were created to elevate ourselves. Idol worship brings G-d down to man instead of man rising up to G-d. When we try to make G-d small, we fail as humans, we stop moving upwards. This lack of spiritual ambition was the second great tragedy.

Many people today are not intellectually confused, they are spiritually lost. They don’t see the value of becoming “big”. When we build golden calves we weaken spiritual ambition and cause spiritual diminishment.

When Moshe came down from Sinai on the 17th of Tammuz and saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets. The Midrash says the tablets were very huge and the letters of the tablets carried the weight of the stone, the spirit carried the body. When he saw the golden calf, the spirit was gone and all that was left was stone, so the tablets fell under their own weight and were smashed.

Today we live in a world of rampant materialism and foreign lifestyles. It is a world where spirit is gone and what is left is stone. This is one reason why we fast today.

The next significant event is that the sacrifices were stopped before the destruction of the temple. Even during the siege of Yerushalayim, the Jews would offer sacrifices. They would send down money over the wall and an animal would be sent up. One day they sent down money and a pig was sent up. It was at that point that the sacrifices stopped.

Today, many of us have trouble with sacrifices both emotionally and intellectually. But most of us have no problem using animals for food or for leather. We are fine with exploiting animals for our physical purposes, but if we talk about using an animal for spiritual means it becomes barbaric and ridiculous. This is because we have stone and we don’t have spirit, we can relate to eating, but we can’t relate to worship.

Animal sacrifice is a way of experientially relating to G-d. The person offering the sacrifice had to put their hand on the animal, saying I am mortal, I came from you and I will return to you. It was an extremely powerful way of relating to G-d. The reason we’re concerned about the day the sacrifices stopped is because of what it says about it. The fact that the temple could be destroyed is an example of spirit turning to stone and the animal sacrifices being another symptom.

The other tragedies on this day were the Torah was burned, an idol was brought into the temple and the walls of Yerushalayim were breached, leading to the destruction on the 9th of Av. When we talk about losing the Temple, it’s hard to grasp what that means. The temple was called a mountain by Avraham, a field by Yitzchak and a house by Yaakov. A house is a place where you can personally express yourself. For a Jew, personal self-expression means putting back spirit where there is only stone. The Beis Hamikdash was a place where spiritual experience was a part of physical experience, it wasn’t two different worlds like it is today.

We can’t relate to what we are missing in the temple experience, because we have never met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who saw the Jewish people when our major identity was spirit and not stone. We don’t know who we are anymore.

What does this have to do with us personally? When we think about what gives our life joy it comes down to two things, triumph and love. If we think about our happiest moment, there is no doubt there is triumph and love. Triumph and love only happen when spirit is greater than stone. Our world is very banal and grey and the only thing that allows us to rise above this physical existence is the moments of triumph and achievement that are truly spiritual that come to us through the mitzvos.

The 17th of Tammuz is a personal day when we have to do an accounting of our soul, a cheshbon nefesh. We have to figure where we are, where we want to be, where we want to be next year. What do we want people to say about us in the end, how would we want today to look if it was our last day? It’s a heavy day, it’s meant to be heavy.

In addition to looking at this personally, we have an obligation to look at this collectively. Collectively, we are not in such great shape, especially in regard to events in the Middle East. We are all collectively responsible for the state we are in.

Today we have to say, can we be the person we talk about every day in the Shema? Can we love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our possessions? Do we live up to the ideal of spirit over rock. G-d has promised us that when we live up to our potential, He will give us the land and He will give us peace. When we fail, we are expelled. This is what we say in the Shema, if we serve Hashem with our heart and our soul we will get blessings. But be careful that your heart is not seduced. We can’t let our emotions lead us to choosing the physical over the spiritual. This will lead us to worshipping and serving other G-ds, our own private golden calves. We all know at least one person who is enslaved to their ego, or their income or their career. This is personal enslavement. When we reach that state of enslavement, G-d will expel us from the land, because He cares for us. G-d on his side wants to give, but do we want to receive?

Fasting has two purposes to move us away from the physical and to recognize our fraility. We move away from the physical pleasure, specifically eating which is a big part of our life. As it gets late in the day, many of us will ask, when is the fast over. We will be concerned about the phyisical. This need for the physical reminds us that we are frail and we are physical. Part of raising the spiritual over the physical is being forgiving of each other. The more we are aware of our own fraility, the easier it is to remember that every person we encounter is a member of the brotherhood of the frail. Everybody else faces the physical and gratification struggles that we do. We need to forgive them like we want G-d to forgive us.

In the time of the sacrifices in Shilo, after pottery vessels were used for libations, they had to be broken within sight of the alter. After coming in to possession of some of these pottery shards, Rebbetzin Heller realized that these shards were pieces of someone else’s Teshuva. She sent some of these shards to a friend in the States who had suffered some great losses. She asked her what she thought about the shards. Her friend told her, “We’re all broken vessels”.

Once we see everybody as a broken vessel, we can forgive them, we can love them, we can let what we see of their spirit overcome what we see of their stone. This is the key that will help us overcome the destruction that we find ourselves in now. This is the way the Third Temple will be built.

First Posted on July 3rd, 2007

Ten for the Tenth of Teves

Ten points about the Tenth of Teves from an article by Rabbi Berel Wein.

1) The Tenth of Tevet marks the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia, and the beginning of the battle that ultimately destroyed Jerusalem.

2) The date of the Tenth of Tevet is recorded for us by the prophet Yechezkel, who himself was already in Babylonia as part of the first group of Jews exiled there by Nebuchadnezzar, 11 years earlier than the actual destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem itself.

3) The Tenth of Tevet is viewed as such a severe and important fast day that it is observed even if it falls on a Friday (erev Shabbat), while our other fast days are so arranged by calendar adjustments as to never fall on a Friday, so as not to interfere with Shabbat preparations.

4) On the eighth of Tevet, King Ptolemy of Egypt forced 70 Jewish scholars to gather and translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Even though the Talmud relates to us that this project was blessed with a miracle

5) The 70 scholars were all placed in separate cubicles and yet they all came up with the same translation

6) The general view of the rabbis of the time towards this project was decidedly negative. The Talmud records that when this translation became public “darkness descended on the world.”

7) The ninth day of Tevet is held to be the day of the death of Ezra the Scribe. This great Jew is comparable even to Moses in the eyes of the Talmud. “If the Torah had not been granted through Moses, it could have been granted to Israel through Ezra.”

8) Ezra led the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. It was under his direction and inspiration, together with the help of the court Jew, Nechemiah, that the Second Temple was built, albeit originally in a much more modest scale and style than the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple.

9) Since fasting on the eighth, ninth and 10th days of Tevet consecutively would be unreasonable, the events of the eighth and ninth were subsumed into the fast day of the Tenth of Tevet.

10) The rabbinic policy of minimizing days of tragic remembrances played a role in assigning the Holocaust remembrance to the Tenth of Tevet for a large section of the Israeli population.

Learning from Leiby’s Murder

Reprinted with permission from Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller’s Weekly Letter

Dear friends,

Many of you have heard of the cruel and brutal murder last week of Leiby Kletzky, a nine-year-old who was on his way home from his day camp in Brooklyn, alone for the first time, after pleading with his parents as only a nine-year-old can, to be able to be allowed to go home by himself like his pals. His mom was planning to meet him half way, but as you probably know, he never got there. He got lost, and the friendly stranger who offered to help him, and to give him a ride in his beige Honda, murdered him and dismembered his body.

At least three thousand people were involved in searching for Leiby. Amazing Savings, Glatt Mart, and other large stores provided food, space for an improvised headquarters, and whatever else was needed. The boy’s teacher involved his father, who initially thought the child would be found within a short time. When this proved tragically to not be the case, he went from store to store asking to see the surveillance films until he found the one that provided the police with the shot of the boy entering the car.

What do you do with a story like this?

Do you ignore it?

What was the murderer like? Why, how could a human do something so malicious? Of course there will be the knee-jerk response, “He must be mentally ill”. In other words, the proof that he isn’t accountable for his deed is that he did it. To me, for one, that doesn’t hold water. Neither of his two ex-wives thought of him as unaware of the consequences of his deeds, and in fact they were both shocked at what had occurred.

Would it have shocked Desmond Morris? Probably not. Back in 1994, he theorized that since 98% of our genes are almost identical to those of primates, that we are nothing (to use his words) more than “Naked Apes”.

We do indeed have dark places within the depths of what the Kabbalists call, “the animal soul”. That part of you is attuned only to attraction or rejection. You are attracted to whatever gives you pleasure. Food, sexually driven passions and every other form of immediate gratification is part of the package. You reject anything that threatens pain, punishment, or anything you see as toxic. Your fears, rages, and anger all stem from this drive. The refutation of Morris’ theory is that we have a spiritual soul as well. Hear how humans are described in Tehillim 8:

“What is man that you are mindful of him…Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him ruler over the works of Your hand. You put everything under his feet.”

We can face the animal soul and redirect its energy and passion. One way in which this took place in earlier times was through the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The underlying concept is that you would look at the animal, feel its pulsing life force and say, “This is me”. The word that is used for domesticated animals that were offered is “bakkar”, which means cattle. It is linguistically related to the word “boker” which means morning. There is a reason that we talk about “dawn breaking”. It is an unstoppable force, much like animals mindlessly stampeding, breaking every barrier in their path.

You have to teach yourself to respect boundaries, and as a human you can. You can have a higher goal than the immediate gratification of the relentless demands of everything the beast demands. In this week’s parshah, Mattot, we find that Hashem told the Jews that they have to make war against the Midianites. This is because it was the Midianites who tried to redefine us in order to destroy us. As we found in last week’s parshah, they even used their own king’s daughter as bait in their attempts to seduce the Jewish men, an attempt that to a significant degree succeeded. “Their G-d hates promiscuity”, a nice civilized sounding word (it even has four syllables!) to describe the animal soul’s hallmark. Why would Hashem hate this or anything at all, for that matter? Love has demands! His love for us demands that we become something better than two legged animals. He believes in us far more than we believe in ourselves, and demands a minimum of honest self-discovery.

It is, of course, no coincidence that the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (July 19) takes place this week. It commemorates five terrible events that took place in our history.

1) The tablets of the law were broken when Moshe came down and saw the Jews debauched as they danced around the golden calf.

2) The walls around Jerusalem were breached.

3) The daily sacrifices had to be halted during the time of the first Temple (thus ending the possibility of collective spiritual recommitment to move beyond the animal self).

4) The Torah scrolls were burned.

5) An idol was placed in the sanctuary.

These events are more than history. They are the story of our present battle. Do you want the Law, or the calf? Do you want structure or inner anarchy in your private Jerusalem? Do you want to worship G-d or your fantasies?

The sages tell us that examining our deeds is even more important than taming the beast by fasting. They tell us, in fact, to examine our own deeds and those of your ancestors. Go back over your family’s spiritual history, not with the end goal of judging them, since you didn’t stand in their shoes, but with the goal of moving beyond their errors and not perpetuating their mistakes. I sometimes wonder how things would have worked out in my own family, if my grandfather would have really grasped that without Torah learning the heritage that he sincerely wanted to pass on would evaporate in two generations.

Love, and hope that next letter brings better news with it,

Tenth of Teves Reading and Listening

Rebbetzin Heller on Lost in Translation: The Month of Tevet

What’s the difference between the Septuagint (the 70-man translation) and ArtScroll?

Ptolemy wanted to Hellenize the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. To him it was inconceivable that a God-given document and one written by man should be treated differently.

The goal of Torah is to present us with a way of life; one that will change us and take us to parts unknown — Gods infinity. The purpose of other works is to give us greater insight into ourselves and into the world. One deals with human beings and their world, while the other deals with a world far beyond the limitations of human observation. The authors of today’s translations want to let everyone experience Torah by making them bigger. Ptolemy wanted to give everyone access to Torah by dwarfing its scope to fit the limitations of the human mind.

Rabbi Berel Wein on the Tenth of Teves:

The Tenth of Tevet is one of the four fast days that commemorate dark times in Jewish history. The others are Tisha B’Av (the day of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem), the 17th of Tammuz (the day of the breaching of the defensive wall of Jerusalem by Titus and the Roman legions in 70 CE), and the third of Tishrei (the day that marks the assassination of the Babylonian-appointed Jewish governor of Judah, Gedaliah ben Achikam. He was actually killed on Rosh Hashana but the fast day was advanced to the day after Rosh Hashana because of the holiday).

Rabbi Noach Weinberg on the Seige of Jerusalem:

On the Tenth of Tevet, 2,500 years ago, Nebuchadnezzar began his siege of Jerusalem. Actually, there was little damage on that first day and no Jews were killed. So why is this day so tragic? Because the siege was a message, to get the Jewish people to wake up and fix their problems. They failed, and the siege led to the destruction of the King Solomon’s Temple.

Today we are also under siege. Much of the Jewish world is ignorant of our precious heritage. Children whose Jewish education ended at age 13 now carry that perception through adulthood. The results are catastrophic: assimilation in the diaspora, and a blurring of our national goals in Israel.

Rabbi Yehudah Prero on The Fast of the Tenth of Teves, “Asara B’Teves”

The Aruch HaShulchan concludes that we fast on this day because it marks the beginning of our sorrows – the first event in a chain which resulted in the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the exile of the nation of Israel. In the event that it were possible for this day to fall out on Shabbos (which it can not, because of our calendar system), there are authorities which said that we would still fast, although fasting on the Shabbos day is forbidden. Why would we nevertheless fast? We would fast because the words used by G-d to describe the events to the prophet Yechezkel were the same words used in conjunction with the description of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, on which we fast even if the day falls out on the Shabbos: the words “On this very day” “B’etzem hayom hazeh.”

If you haven’t yet listened to Rabbi Schiller’s tape on Orthodox Achdus, which gives a sophisticated and realistic approach to dealing with differences within Orthodoxy, please take the time today to give it a listen. You can download or listen to Orthodox Achdus here.