Asarah BeTevet – the Other Tragedy

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The fast day of the 10th of Tevet symbolises the first of a series of events which led to the destruction of the First Temple; that day marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Persian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.

‘Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the 11th year of King Zedekiah.’ (Kings II, 25:1-2)

The prophet Yeheskel [Ezekiel] was instructed by God to turn this day into a day of memory:

‘O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.’ (Yeheskel 24: 2)

Yet the date also marks an event for which the people of Israel fasted not one day but in fact three, namely the completion of the Torah’s translation into Greek, ordered by Ptolemy.

The resulting translation was considered a tragedy. If you are familiar with a foreign language and enjoy watching films or TV series in the original version, you will know that things get lost in translation. In addition Ptolemy wanted to Hellenise the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. Not a catastrophe you might object.

But by moving the Torah from the House of Study to the Greek Library, the whole process of reading and studying Torah the Jewish way was threatened. Reading Torah is not merely about perusing an ancient text. Reading Torah involves a confrontation with what others have written and still write about it and how it has shaped their lives, not just their intellect. It connects us to the Jews of the past and the Jews of today, to their lore, wisdom but also difficulties and struggles. When Torah study is carried out the Jewish way, the learner is challenged and might be led to change in the process.

In Pirkei Avot (1:6), the sages do not tell us to ‘find a teacher’ but urge us to ‘Make for yourself a teacher’. They incite us to connect actively to a tradition that began at Mount Sinai and is still vibrant today in the Houses of Study as well as in its more modern versions. They encourage us to seek relationship, not independence and intellectual neutrality.