Quia Absurdum

2 10 2011

Today is the most ridiculous day in the entire Hebrew calendar. It is the fourth of Tishrei, which this year (because yesterday was a Shabbat) is the Fast of Gedaliah.

Named for the Babylonian-appointed governor of the province of Judah who was ruthlessly murdered (or so we are taught) at the hands of a prince named Ishmael ben Netaniah, the fast in question is a day on which we mourn the onset of the Babylonian exile. These events are recorded, somewhat laconically, in 2 Kings 25:25-26, and at more length in Jeremiah 41:1-18. The institution of a fast is recorded in Zechariah 8:19, in which it is referred to as “the fast of the seventh month”. Whatever other candidates might have existed for this title, the Talmud (Rosh haShana 18b) makes it clear that this is in reference to the murder of Gedaliah, and then derives from this the fact that the deaths of the righteous are as significant as the destruction of the Temple itself.

We have no shortage of days on which to mourn for these events:

• There’s the 10th of Tevet (acc. to one opinion in the Talmud, the date that Zechariah refers to as “the fast of the tenth month”), which is the day on which Nebuchadnezzar rallied his army and commenced his siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1-4);

• There’s the 17th of Tammuz, on which we recall the breaching of Jerusalem by the Romans, c.69 CE. Originally, this fast day is believed to have been held on the 9th of Tammuz, which Jeremiah 39:2 describes as the day on which Nebuchadnezzar broke through the city’s walls some six hundred years earlier. According to Rabbi Akiva, the 9th of Tammuz is therefore the day that Zechariah referred to as “the fast of the fourth month”, although it is interesting to note that the Palestinian Talmud (Ta’anit 4:5) suggests that the fast of the fourth month was always and only ever the 17th of Tammuz, and that Jeremiah got the date wrong;

• Most famously, there’s the 9th of Av (“the fast of the fifth month”). If you have ever found impressive the string of events that people relate to the 17th of Tammuz (the smashing of the tablets, the cessation of the perpetual offering, the breaching of the walls, etc), then the list of things related to the 9th of Av is staggering indeed. According to tradition, this is not only the anniversary of the destruction of the first temple but of the second temple as well. Yet, so far as the first temple is concerned, the author of 2 Kings 25:8 refers to this event as being on the 7th of Av, Jeremiah 52:12 refers to it as being on the 10th of Av, and Josephus (Antiquities 10.8.146) refers to it as being on the 1st of Av. Go figure.

So, here’s the million dollar question. Do we need another day of mourning? There have certainly been times and places throughout history when communal fasts were instituted in remembrance of a dire circumstance. The most famous example of this would probably be the 1st of Sivan, in remembrance of the 11th century butchering of the Jews of Worms. Today, while it is not a fast day, the institution of Yom haShoah serves as a contemporary example, and a good case study of rabbinic opposition to innovation. While some traditional communities embraced the idea of instituting a new date on the Hebrew calendar, the events of the Shoah being either too large or too recent to suggest merging their remembrance with an established date, it was to the established dates that various other traditional communities pointed when asked about mourning.

And yet, while I’ve great sympathy for both sides of this discussion, I found myself affronted by an ignoramus a little while back, whose article in Haaretz made the absurd claim that fast days are no longer of any relevance (they were only ever as relevant as people wanted them to be), now that we are no longer in exile. His opinion was perfectly valid, although his polemical tone was most unpleasant, and I was struck by his evident unfamiliarity with the book of Zechariah. In it, the prophet insists upon the continuation of the fast days, despite the fact that they had only been in effect for less than a century, and despite the fact that he was living during the period of the restoration.

The history of second temple and rabbinic Judaism has caused us to view the destruction of the temple as the most important feature of the exile, but exile is only ever determined by the loss of civic autonomy. Zechariah lived to see the reinstitution of the temple cult, but the absence of any form of government made the fast days relevant in his day as well. For us, they remain relevant for the opposite reason: we have seen a reintroduction of Jewish sovereignty over most of the land of Israel, but the absence of the temple has become the chief indicator of a persistent “exile”.

Nonetheless, while I do have sympathy for those who wish to preserve the integrity and the relevance of the 17th of Tammuz, the 10th of Tevet and the 9th of Av, I can’t help but find it odd that the 3rd (or, in this case, the 4th) of Tishrei should have persisted for so long. The Fast of Gedaliah? Really? Was his death so relevant, and his circumstances so unique, that it is worth fasting for him, from sun-up to sun-down, and mourning the consequences of his demise over two-and-a-half millennia since he ceased to exist? Does anybody know anything about him, save the scant and spurious information that is recorded in the books of Jeremiah and Kings?

Or is it merely that his passing was so ordinary, and our continued commemoration of it, long after he may as well have been a piece of fiction, so terribly absurd, that it actually becomes somewhat sublime? As Tertullian never said, “Credo, quia absurdum”. I don’t, although I appreciate the sentiment.

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4 responses

2 10 2011
Annelise

I’ve become interested in the gleanings you can make from preserved literature, about those aspects of culture, conversation and individual thought that are often lost in the big picture of history. What insights can we gain into people’s lives in the past, more on a level that their friends would have known them on than just focusing on political and social movements? So I wonder whether you can trace the personal interpretations (symbols and significance, particularly) that this day has been given by communities in the past. As you say, it can’t simply be personal mourning for anyone who never met this man Gedaliah.

You mentioned the interpretation that the deaths of the righteous are as significant as the temple itself; that’s a pretty profound concept, possibly justifying a place in the archetypal fabric of the calendar. The Babylonian exile is also very symbolic and significant, linked closely as it is to prophecies that still resonate.

Taking this fast at face value, though, as a day of mourning for one man who lived so long ago, quaintness might not be the only form of worth. Grief is not efficient. That’s part of its nature. To allow mourning for big events or for large groups of people, and not for an individual, is very problematic in itself. So you could suggest that today does add an underlying perspective to all the other more ‘acceptable’ mourning days, if they themselves have real value. Even if this is not its actual or even usually its symbolic value, the suggestion that this is inevitably conveyed is not implausible.

2 10 2011
Annelise

(A bit like this, I guess? http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/meditation17.php

Though most of the imagery there is now a bit foreign, I like the thought. “Now this bell, tolling softly for another…” It was part of Donne’s landscape, just like fasts and days are part of the atmosphere of a year. We’re wired in such a way that telling a single story on a lot of large and small scales together helps us to understand it most effectively. Themes, atmospheres and motifs are best woven in a way that refracts events, settings and characters, and vice versa. I like how the sense of loose connectedness adds to both realism and to poetic meaningfulness, especially in this case where the event is in the first place historical.)

9 10 2011
francesco

Dear Simon,
I dealt with Gedaliah’s fate in a paper published in Rivista Biblica Italiana. In my opinion there could have been some interesting reason to fast Gedaliah’s death. On one side Gedaliah’s death meant the definitive loss of a narrow authonomy within the Babyonian Empire – I guessed that Gedaliah could have been a sort of puppet king – and the opportunity to recover a suffering Judaean economy by giving lands to the poors of the land ; on the other fasting his death could also be a caveat against a lunatic nationalism which was able to doom the country’s fate, as it happened in the 66-70 A.D.

26 10 2011
S.

Isn’t the real question not why it persists to this day, but why it persisted through the Talmudic period (or why was it revived, if that was the case)? I don’t know of any Talmudic practices which are considered biblical which have subsequently abated, particularly if they survived through the alleged period of the Rishonim. The question is how it got to that canonical point.

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