Why we remember Gedaliah

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By Saul Golubcow

Special to WJW

Many of us pay scant attention to Tzom Gedaliah, the fast right after Rosh Hashanah. “Another fast a week before Yom Kippur? Really!” But we might be more understanding if we examine how the events surrounding the assassination of a Jewish hero named Gedaliah calls attention to a consequential moment in Jewish history and holds significance for us today.

Who was Gedaliah? He lived during the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. Just about everything we know about Gedaliah comes from the biblical books of 2 Kings and the prophet Jeremiah, and from a more elaborate rendition by the first century CE Roman-Jewish historian Josephus.

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After the first Temple was destroyed, and with large numbers of Jews killed or dispersed, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah, scion of a prominent Jewish family, as governor of the Judean province. The surviving Jews could stay in Judea as long as they were peaceful and sent taxes to Babylon.

Resisting corruption, Gedaliah promoted the reclamation and cultivation of the land as the way to heal his community. With tax revenue raised through the prosperity of the residents, Judean security was maintained. Hearing of his success, exiles in surrounding territories who had fled the Babylonian invasion returned to Judea.

About five years later, Gedaliah was warned that a political rival, Ishmael ben Nethaniah, was planning his assassination. Gedaliah refused to listen, insisting that Ishmael, from a royal Judean family, could not possibly be so treacherous.

Sadly, Gedaliah misjudged Ishmael’s character. Whether out of jealousy that he had not been chosen governor instead of Gedaliah, or because he was in the employ of the king of the neighboring Ammonites, Ishmael murdered Gedaliah and several followers, along with the small Babylonian protective garrison.

A short civil war ensued in Judea, and many Jews, fearing Babylonian vengeance, contemplated fleeing to Egypt. The prophet Jeremiah, invoking divine guidance, warned the people that a decadent and effete Egypt could not protect them against the more powerful
Babylonians.

Jeremiah exhorted the Jews to remain steadfast in their own land, where they would be under God’s providence. Most did not listen, and fled to Egypt where they were killed or exiled when Babylonia destroyed Egypt, and Judea was once more decimated. Judea lay desolate for more than 100 years, until the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to their homeland.

Hundreds of years later, the talmudic sages established a dawn-to-dusk fast to mourn Gedaliah’s death and its repercussions. Although Gedaliah’s murder appears to have taken place on Rosh Hashanah, the sages set the fast day to follow immediately after, since fasts are not permitted on a holiday other than Yom Kippur.

But don’t we also have a major fast, Tishah B’Av, to commemorate not only the destruction of the first Temple but also the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE? So why Tzom Gedaliah, a seemingly duplicative fast? And is there more to the fast’s placement than merely avoiding a conflict with Rosh Hashanah?

Enmity among Jews, lure of false protectors and distancing from Israel were main factors contributing to the destruction of the first Temple. With lessons seemingly unlearned, these elements also led to the calamitous events surrounding Gedaliah’s assassination just five years later.

They were also in play during the Maccabean Wars of the second century BCE, and the sages had clearly felt their catastrophic impact leading to the Roman destruction of the second Temple.

Thus, adding a fast day between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a period of private and communal reflection and self-examination, may have been a way for the sages to urge us to: “Pay special attention to those behaviors that have led to a repetition of the Gedaliah and similar tragedies. It can happen in any generation.”

Tzom Gedaliah this year occurs on Sept. 21. Whether you fast or not, take a look at the Gedaliah story. It deserves our thoughts as we start the New Year.

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.

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