High Holidays: The Third of Tishrei – For Whom to Fast?

As we rush back to our daily routines following the majestic two day Rosh Hashanah, it is easy to overlook the third day of Tishrei, Tzom Gedaliah, a minor fast. When the First Temple was destroyed, in 586 BCE, a remnant of Jews was left in the land, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah ben Ahikam to rule over them. Radical segments of the Jewish population viewed him as a Babylonian puppet and collaborator, and a Jew killed him, removing the last vestige of Jewish sovereignty in the land ofIsrael.

Tzom Gedaliah is one of the four fasts commemorating the events around the destruction of Jerusalemhinted at in Zechariah 8:19, along with the 10th of Tevet, 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Zechariah, speaking as work began to rebuild the Temple, looked ahead as well: “these [fast] days shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” Centuries later R. Papa in the Talmud explains how we know whether fasting or joy and gladness is appropriate: “When there is shalom, these days should be for joy and gladness; in the time of persecution they shall be fasts; in times when there are neither persecution nor shalom people may fast or not, as they see fit” (Rosh Hashanah 18b). Rabbinic authorities have been discussing the precise meaning of shalom ever since: Is Jewish dwelling in the land enough? What if there is still non-Jewish sovereignty? Need we wait until the Temple is rebuilt? Now that we are living in the third Jewish commonwealth, even without the Temple, some might consider this the shalom that renders transforming the three minor fast days (but not Tisha b’Av) into times of joy and gladness.

While I am sympathetic to this position, the events of 12 Heshvan 5756 (November 4, 1995) prevent my supporting it. On that date another sovereign Jewish leader, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a fellow Jew displeased with his policies. More than 2500 years after the killing of Gedaliah, the Jewish people have not learned the lesson. I was amongst those who advocated making Tzom Gedaliah the date for commemorating Rabin’s murder. The Knesset chose the 12th of Heshvan. In actuality, some observe November 4 and many do nothing at all. It has taken only a decade and a half for chaos and indifference to diminish the memory of Rabin’s calamitous demise. It is unlikely that either of those dates will be remembered for long, but the third of Tishrei, whether a day of weeping or joy, shall endure.