The Prophet Yirmiyahu, the author of the Books of Melachim, uses succinct language at the end of Melachim Bet to describe the pillage of the Temple, its burning, and the destruction of the City of Jerusalem. Here his language is terse and controlled; in Megillat Eichah, he elaborates tearfully upon the same events. In Sefer Yirmiyahu, we find a description of the tiny fragment of the Jewish Community that has been allowed by King Nevuchadnezzar of Babylon, who ordered the destruction, to reconstitute itself around Gedaliah ben Achikam, whom he has appointed governor. Jews from several surrounding countries have begun to trickle in, and have started an agricultural community. It is a description of the “calm after the storm.”
The King of Ammon, however, unhappy that the Jews are enjoying any success, prevails upon Yismael ben Netanya to assassinate the Jewish governor. Yirmiyahu (40:13-16) relates how Yochanan ben Kareach informs Gedaliah that Yishmael ben Netanya is on his way to kill him. Gedaliah refuses to accept the “lashon hara,” slander, concerning a God – fearing Jew. Yishmael, taking advantage of his cordial reception, assassinates Gedaliah on the Third of Tishrei and, together with a band of ten men, murders a number of other Jews, along with the Babylonians who have been left behind to keep their eyes on the Jews. The rest of the community, out of fear of the response of Nevuchadnezzar, and in defiance of the prophetic warning of Yirmiyahu to remain in Israel despite the assassination, flees to Egypt.
The Rabbis decreed a Day of Fasting to commemorate the assassination. And yet, this Fast has seemed somewhat puzzling in the context of the other non-Biblical Fasts. For they are all related to profound national catastrophes – actual or potential. “Asarah B’Tevet” (10th of Tevet), “Shivah Asar B’Tammuz” (17th of Tammuz) and, of course “Tishah B’Av” (9th of Av) are all related to the destruction of the national spiritual center, the Temple in Jerusalem. “Ta’anit Esther” (Fast of Esther) is related to the avoidance by a hidden miracle, of the genocide of the entire People. By contrast, “Tzom Gedaliah” seems relatively small, relating only to a miniscule remnant of the People that had been allowed to stay on after the destruction of the Temple and the City and, at first glance, without comparable historical impact. The Talmud in Rosh HaShanah 18b takes up the question and makes the following declaration: “… The Fast of the Seventh Month is the Third of Tishrei, when Gedaliah was assassinated. And who killed him? Yishmael ben Netanya was the murderer – to teach you that the death of the righteous is equal to the burning of the House of God…”
Rabbi Yisrael Gottlieb, Shlit”a, of Congregation Bais Torah in Monsey, discussed this matter, invoking the opinions of the Rambam and the Maharsha. In Hilchot Ta’aniot (5:1), the Rambam discusses the concept of the Fast on days of national tragedy in order to arouse our hearts to Repentance. In Ta’aniot (5:2), he begins the list of these Fasts with a reference to “Tzom Gedaliah:” “And these are those Fast Days: the Third of Tishrei, on which Gedaliah ben Achikam was assassinated…” And now the Rambam will introduce a new idea, with a dramatic expression not mentioned here in the Talmud, that magnifies the historical impact of that event – “… and with that act was extinguished the last burning coal of Israel, that sealed the entry into Exile of the People…”
The Maharsha on Rosh HaShanah 18b asks the following question on the assertion of the Talmud that, at first glance, the death of any righteous person is equal to the burning of the Temple: “…Is not Jewish History replete with the deaths of many, many righteous people? Is it possible to establish a Fast Day on the Anniversary of each of their deaths?…” He suggests that the murder of Gedaliah, combined with the flight of the Jewish Community to Egypt, in defiance of the prophetic warning of Yirmiyahu, compounded the sin, and the magnitude of the tragedy. But this suggestion remains difficult because the Talmud seems to classify Tzom Gedaliah among the other Fasts related to the destruction of the Temple, and does not refer to later events.
Then the Maharsha adds a new idea that seems to fit better with the fact that this great sin – this murder – happened on the Day after Rosh HaShanah, thereby raising the level of the tragedy to a spiritual catastrophe! In the words of the Maharsha, “… Another idea is that the murder occurred during the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yishmael ben Netanya should have been aroused to repent, but was not. And his failure in that regard caused great harm to the Community of Israel… Scripture writes, ‘He will grant us life after two days…,’ which is a reference to the first two days of the Days of Repentance, during which we pray for life, but on the third day of the Days of Repentance, on which Gedaliah was murdered, we experienced a national falling into sin on that very day. And therefore, we have to be more worried, and to ask for greater Mercy from Heaven, for two reasons: that God raise us up from that great fall, and that He restore our verdict of Life that we merited on Rosh HaShanah.”
Thus, the Fast of “Tzom Gedaliah” embodies the concept of the frailty of Man in the sense of his spiritual commitment, that on the day immediately following the Day of Judgment we fell back into sin, and we pray that HaShem take this weakness into account in judging us, and remember that “we are but dust.”
A scary though really – how do we maintain the highs of Rosh Hashanah for even one day?