Bringing New Light to a Lesser-Known Fast-Day
Asara B’Tevet is one of the more obscure fast days of the year. It happens right after Chanukah, a more major event on the Jewish calendar; and is often confused with other fast days like Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and Tzom Gedalia. These four fasts share a common historical context, quite unfortunately, considering the fact that these are all days of mourning. Like these other fasts — which the Zechariah 8:19 connects to the collective destruction of the Temples — Asara B’Tevet commemorates the Jews losing to a larger and stronger army and being forced to live in fear and deprivation. This specific case saw the Babylonian army lay siege on Jerusalem around the year 600 BCE — the beginning of the end of the era of the First Temple; Shiva Asar B’Tammuz commemorates the actual breach of Jerusalem’s walls. Tisha B’Av marks the full completion of the First Beit Hamikdash era, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the eventual expulsion of the Jewish people. Adding insult to injury, the remaining Jews killed one of their own after the Babylonians put him in charge of them. All of these fast days center around the same time period in history, but what else connects these days?
In Zechariah 8:19, Hashem Tells the prophet that when the Mashiach comes, all of these fasts “shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” But how in the world does that make sense? As Rav Hana bar Bizna teaches in the name of Rabbi Shimon Hasida (Rosh Hashanah 28b), fast days are meant to evoke feelings of sorrow and pain Even if the requirement to fast in itself does not indicate that it should be a sorrowful day (Yom Kippur, for example, focuses on repentance and judgement), the placement of these fast days on some of the most devastating times in Jewish history would certainly indicate that these were not meant to be days of “joy and gladness.”
Nonetheless, Rabbi Shimon Hasida does provide an explanation as to why these fast days would be happy. “When there is peace in the world, they will be times of joy and gladness,” he says. This means that not only should these days serve as commemorations for dark times in our past, but they should also serve as an inspiration to better ourselves so that this future of joyful days comes sooner. Rather than remember these events as distant memories, we must draw from these pieces of history to inspire us to make our world a better place. We must take these days to love a little more, and hate a lot less.
Perhaps we can see a similar concept in a holiday we celebrated a few weeks ago: Veterans’ Day. Originally, this holiday was called exclusively “Armistice Day,” to commemorate the truce between Germany and the Allied Forces in World War I. Why was it changed to Veterans’ Day? President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation changing the name of the day declares, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” If we simply looked at November 11 as a day in history, that would be well and good, but what difference would it make? We study history to learn from our mistakes and identify what is important to us. When many of the Allied Forces looked at Armistice Day, they did not just see a day in history; they saw an opportunity to honor those without whom the day would not have been possible. Armistice Day is now a national holiday, honored by the entire country. It gives us the opportunity to truly thank our veterans for their service and for working towards the greater good, like a worldwide cease-fire.
Looking back at the terrible events that we commemorate on these four fast days, we can both mourn and draw hope. We know who we are as a nation now, and we will stand stronger and more united than ever, making sure to give each and every person kindness and respect. On Asara B’Tevet, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and Tzom Gedalia, we need to look closely at the root of these terrible experiences, and of all oppression, which is a lack of kindness. To properly honor the spirit of the day, we must look at ourselves and those around us and find ways to live in harmony. Only once we capture this spirit of peace, can we finally have these joyous days.