One of the most unusual fasts on the Jewish calendar fell out on Thursday of this week – the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet.
Most Jews are not even aware of it nowadays, but once upon a time, it was considered so significant that an exception was made for it, so that it may be observed even on the eve of Shabbat.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day With the exception of Yom Kippur, fasts are prohibited on Shabbatot and on the day that precedes it, meaning Friday. For that reason, calendar adjustments were made 1,800 years ago to prevent any statutory fast from occurring on a Friday.
The Tenth of Tevet was the lone exception, apparently because it marked the beginning of the events that would lead to the seemingly endless series of tragedies that traverse the course of Jewish history over the next two-and-half millennia. (See 2 Kings 25:1-4 for a description of the events of that dark day.)
Because Asarah b’Tevet, as it is known in Hebrew, is so all-encompassing, tradition gave it a second name and a second meaning: Yom Hakaddish Hak’lali, loosely translated as “the day of the general kaddish.” On it, the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited for all those people for whom the date of their deaths are not known.
It is that aspect of the day that moved the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to ascribe yet another meaning to it – the ritual observance of the Shoah, or Holocaust. However, this is controversial, even among many Orthodox congregations.
Fast days, after all, are not meant to commemorate historical events. Rather, they use those events to remind us of our obligation to lead the moral and ethical lives commanded by God. As Ezekiel 24:1-14 teaches us about this day specifically and fast days generally, fasting for the destruction of Jerusalem is a wasted effort. Fasting as a means of reminding us of the sins that led to the destruction – and then correcting our behavior – is the only valid fast.
To attach a memorial to the Shoah to Asarah b’Tevet, then, would require either watering down the purpose of fasting by turning the day into a purely historical observance, or doing something regarding the Shoah few would do: blame the victims by suggesting that their “sins” caused their deaths.
Ordinarily, of course, such a suggestion would be consistent with Jewish belief and, indeed, some rabbis have attempted to use this argument. Notable among them is the late Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, who blamed Zionism for the death of the Six Million, because it “appealed to the hearts of the nation and violated the oath prohibiting hastening the end [of the exile] by assuming power and freedom before the designated time [meaning before the arrival of the Messiah son of David.” (See “Va’yoel Moshe,” section 100.)
The late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was more subtle in his approach, and broader.
“Imagine, for example, a person who happens to be in a hospital and enters an operating theater,” the late Chabad leader once declared in a speech delivered in Yiddish. “He is confronted with a frightening spectacle: a person tied down to an operation table is surrounded by ten or so people, their faces covered with masks, knives in their hands. They are about to remove one of his limbs. If the ‘visitor’ knew nothing about modern medical practice, he would be sure that he was witnessing a cannibalistic practiceâ€¦.
“Had he known that the limb to be removed was hopelessly poisoned, and that its removal was necessary to save the patient’s life, and that to save his life the doctors and the professor at their head have to operate and remove the affected limb, he would have reacted differently…. God, like the professor surgeon, understands the situation and knows what is good for Israel. Thus, everything that happened was for the goodâ€¦.[W]hen God is the ‘specialist surgeon,’ there can be no room for questioning.” (The translated text appears in Prof. Yehudah Bauer’s “Rethinking the Holocaust,” pages 200 ff. as do the quotes below.)
Despite the attempts by Chabad to later deny that the rebbe ever made such a statement, Schneerson himself defended the remarks in a letter written to Member of Knesset Chaika Grossman. The suffering of the Shoah, he wrote, “does not nearly equal the tikkun [the correction] that is achieved.”
Most rabbis and religious philosophers, of course, reject such hateful suggestions. They also refuse to attribute any guilt to the victims of the Shoah. Notable among these are Rabbis Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University; the late Eliezer Berkovits; and Irving Greenberg.
Each has his own approach to a theological explanation of the Holocaust, while nevertheless agreeing that the Shoah belongs outside the normal course of events. Lamm’s is perhaps the most direct in removing any notion of God having had a hand in the murder of the Six Million. Rather, he says, the Shoah was the result of God’s absence from these events, an absence that derives from the principle of “hester panim,” of God’s turning His face from us following the razing of the Second Temple. This is consistent with Deuteronomy 31:16, in which God vows to turn His face from Israel when it sins.
Because of the sins of the ancient past, Lamm argues, God’s face remained turned away in the days of the Shoah, thus leaving us susceptible to the dangers that lurk in the world.
That being said, using Lamm’s interpretation of events makes it possible, in my view, to use Asarah b’Tevet as a day on which to religiously memorialize the Shoah through fasting and prayer. That is because the culpability of the Six Million in their own death would not be an issue. The Shoah would be the most horrendous example of what our ancient ancestors wrought, not what our parents and grandparents did to themselves. Our fast would be yet another means of concentrating on the as-yet incomplete task of getting God to turn His face fully back to us (that He already began to do so should not be doubted by anyone). That task will not be complete until we complete the task we willingly accepted from God at Sinai – to repair the world.
Until then, the evils that still exist will continue to threaten us and all of humankind. If confronting this reality is not worth a fast, nothing is.