New York – An interesting calendarical anomaly is set to happen this week. One that’s appearance is quite sporadic and actually quite unique on the Jewish Calendar. I am referring to the upcoming Fast of Asarah B’Teves, which this year falls out on a Friday. Exclusive to this fast, is that it is the only one that we do actually observe as a fast on a Friday. Even Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the actual destructions of our Batei HaMikdash, gets pushed off. Yet, this Friday, for a fast best known for being the year’s shortest (for everyone in the Northern Hemisphere), all of Klal Yisrael will fast.
Why This Fast?
The reason given for fasting on Asarah B’Teves is that it is the day that the wicked Babylonian king, Nevuchadnetzar, commenced his siege of Yerushalayim, foreshadowing the beginning of the end of the first Beis Hamikdash, which culminated with its destruction on Tisha B’Av several years later. Therefore, Chazal declared it a public fast, one of four public fast days that memorialize different aspects of the catastrophes and national tragedies associated with the destruction of both Batei HaMikdash.
What makes Asarah B’Teves’s Friday observance even more interesting is that there is a whole debate in the Gemara (Eiruvin 41a) about how to conduct fasts on a Friday, when we also must take kavod Shabbos into account, implying that it is a common occurrence. However, according to our calendar, a Friday Fast is only applicable with Asarah B’Teves, and it happens quite infrequently. The last few times Asarah B’Teves fell out on a Friday were in 1996, 2001, and 2010. The next expected occurrence is in 2020.
Yet, obviously, to maintain this distinction of being the only Fast Day that we actually do observe and fast on Friday, there must be much more to the Fast of Asarah B’Teves than meets the eye. In turns out that Asarah B’Teves has several exceptional characteristics that are not found in any other fast day.
A Shabbos Fast?!
Possibly, the most important attribute of Asarah B’Teves is that according to the AbuDraham, if Asarah B’Teves would potentially fall out on Shabbos, we would all actually be required to fast on Shabbos! (Notwithstanding that with our calendar this is an impossibility.) He cites proof to this from the words of Yechezkel referring to Asarah B’Teves (Ch.24, verse 2) that the siege transpired “B’etzem HaYom HaZeh”, implying that the fast must always be observed on that exact day, no matter the conflicting occurrence. This would also explain why it observed on Friday, as opposed to any other fast.
Yet, the AbuDraham’s statement is astounding, as the only fast that halachically takes precedence over Shabbos is Yom Kippur, the only Biblically mandated fast. How can one of the Rabbinic minor fasts push off the Biblical Shabbos? Additionally, Asarah B’Teves commemorates merely the start of the siege, and not any actual destruction. How can it be considered a more important fast than Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction and loss of both of our Batei HaMikdash? In fact, the Beis Yosef questions this declaration of the AbuDraham, stating that he “does not know how the AbuDraham could know” such a ruling. As an aside, this does not seem to be the actual halacha, as other Rishonim, including Rashi and the Rambam both explicitly state that if Asarah B’Teves falls out on Shabbos then it gets pushed off.
Commencement Is Catastrophic
Several authorities, including Rav Yonason Eibeschutz and the Bnei Yissaschar, understand the AbuDraham’s enigmatic statement as similar to the famous Gemara in Taanis (29a) regarding Tisha B’Av. It seems that historically the Beis HaMikdash only started to burn toward the end of the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av) and actually burned down on the 10th. Yet, Chazal established the fast on the 9th, since Aschalta D’Paranusah Adifa, meaning that the beginning of a tragedy is considered the worst part. Likewise, they maintain, that since the siege on Asarah B’Teves was the commencement of the long chain of tragedies that ended with the Beis HaMikdash in ruins and the Jewish people in exile, its true status belies the common perception of it as a minor fast, and potentially has the ability to push off Shabbos.
The famed Chasam Sofer takes this a step further. He wrote that the reason Chazal established a fast for the siege on Asarah B’Teves as opposed to every other time Yerushalayim was under siege over the millennia, is that on that day in the Heavenly courtroom it was decided that the Bais HaMikdash was to be destroyed a few years hence. There is a well known Talmudic dictum (Yerushalmi Yoma Ch. 1, 1; 6a) that any generation in which the Beis HaMikdash has not been rebuilt, is as if it has been destroyed again. Therefore, he explains, every Asarah B’Teves the Heavenly court convenes and decrees a new Churban. That is why the fast of Asarah B’Teves, even though it is considered a minor fast, nonetheless has the potential to possibly override Shabbos. These explanations would also certainly explain why we would fast on a Friday for Asarah B’Teves.
Three Day Fast?
According to the special Selichos prayers said on the fast, an additional unique aspect of Asarah B’Teves is that we are actually fasting for two other days of tragedy as well; the 8th and 9th of Teves. In fact, both the Tur and Shulchan Aruch assert that if possible one should try to fast on all three days. Nevertheless, of the three, only Asarah B’Teves was actually mandated as a public fast day.
The 8th of Teves
On the 8th of Teves, King Ptolemy II (285 – 246 B.C.E.) demanded and forced 72 sages separately to translate the Torah into Greek (the Septuagint). Although miracles guided their work and all of the sages made the same slight, but necessary amendments, nevertheless this work is described as “darkness descending on the world for three days”, as it was now possible for the uneducated to possess a superficial, and frequently flawed understanding of the Torah, as well as providing the masses with a mistaken interpretation of true morality.
The 9th of Teves
Although several decisors write that the reason for fasting on the 9th of Teves is unknown, nonetheless many sources, including the Kol Bo and the Selichos recited on Asarah B’Teves, as well as many later authorities, explain that this is the day that Ezra HaSofer (as well as possibly his partner Nechemiah) died. Ezra, the Gadol HaDor at the beginning of the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash, had a tremendous impact upon the nascent returning Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael. He drastically improved the spiritual state of the Jewish people and established many halachic takanos, many of which still apply today. With his passing, the community started sliding from the great spiritual heights Ezra had led them. Additionally, since Ezra was the last of the prophets, his passing signified the end of prophecy.
Other sources attribute fasting on this day due to the passing of other specific Tzaddikim, including Shimon HaKalphus, ‘who saved Klal Yisrael during the days of the Pritzim’, and whom ‘Nishmas’ is attributed to (it has been surmised that he was a Jewish pope, placed by Chazal to infiltrate the early Christians, to ensure that Christianity became a separate religion), and Rav Yosef HaLevi, son of Rav Shmuel HaNaggid, who was assassinated on the 9th of Teves in 1066, thus ending a Golden Age for Jewry in Spain. Another interesting reason rationale posited, dating back to the 12th century Sefer HaAvor, by R’ Avraham bar Chiya, is that the real reason for fasting on this day is that the 9th of Teves is the true birthday of ‘Oso HaIsh’, the founder of Christianity, in whose name myriads of Jews over the millennia were r”l murdered. An additional reason for fasting on this day is cited by the Rema in his commentary to Megillas Esther (Mechir Yayin,Ch. 2, 16) that this was the day that Esther was forcibly taken to Achashveirosh’s palace.
The Sefer HaToda’ah posits that it’s possible that “the darkness descended on the world for three days” alludes to the triple woes of these three days: the 8th, 9th, and 10th of Teves.
Halachos of a Friday Fast
The halachos of a Friday fast generally parallel those of a regular fast day. In fact, even though there is some debate in the Rishonim as to the Gemara’s intent that ‘Halacha – Mesaneh U’Mashlim – a Friday fast should be completed’ whether one may be mekabel Shabbos early and thereby end the fast before nightfall, nonetheless, the halacha follows the Shulchan Aruch and Rema that since Asarah B’Teves is a public fast (taanis tzibbur) and not a taanis yachid, one must fast the whole day and complete it at nightfall (Tzeis HaKochavim) before making Kiddush.
There are those who maintain it is preferable to daven Maariv earlier than usual this Friday Night to enable us to make Kiddush, and break our fast, exactly at Tzeis HaKochavim.
The Rambam famously exhorts us to remember the real meaning underlying a fast day. It’s not just a day when we miss our morning coffee! The purpose of fasting is to focus on the spiritual side of the day and use it as catalyst for inspiration towards Teshuva. In this merit may the words of the Navi Zechariah, that the “Fast of the Fourth (month, 17th of Tamuz), the Fast of the Fifth (month, Tisha B’Av), the Fast of the Seventh (month, Tzom Gedalyah), and the Fast of the Tenth (month, Asarah B’Teves), shall be (changed over) for celebration and joy for the household of Yehuda”, be fulfilled speedily and in our days.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim.For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.