Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Lessons for the 10th of Tevet
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Revital Bat Lea

Three Days of Torment


Rabbi Gideon Weitzman

2 min read
The elders who copied, concealed the jewels In the Greek translation they preserved from revealing They concealed the Torah of God, but showed only the covering. (Meged Yerachim, Tevet, 5671)
The dark shadow of the Greek translation Will turn into light, when the original Hebrew source is revealed in its purity. (Meged Yerachim, Tevet, 5674)
We have suffered greatly and continue to suffer from those who separated the Written Torah from the light of the Oral Torah; many of the movements that lead Jews astray taught the literal understanding without any of the commentaries that illuminate and magnify the simple understanding. (Ma’amrei HaRa’ayah, page 176)

Reasons for the Fast of Tevet
The tenth day of the month of Tevet, the tenth month of the Jewish calendar, is a fast day. It is one of the six fast days observed throughout the year. In common with other fast days, it commemorates events surrounding the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Traditionally, it is stated that the Fast of Tevet commemorates the siege that was laid on Jerusalem by the Babylonian king, Nevuchadnetzar in the year 3172, or 588 BCE. This was the beginning of the end of the city of Jerusalem. The city lay under siege for two years and then fell into the hands of our enemies. They not only overran Jerusalem, but, upon conquering the city, they destroyed the Temple and dispersed the Jewish people.

For this reason, the Sages established a fast day. It is a date on which to remember the destruction, or at least its initial stage, and to reflect on the reasons for the destruction, such as baseless hatred between fellow Jews, as well as many other causes proposed by the prophets in the Tanach and the rabbis in the Gemara.

However, as we will see, there is clear evidence indicating that this is not the only reason for fasting on the tenth of Tevet. On each fast day special prayers are added to the usual morning and afternoon prayers. An addition is made to the morning Amidah prayer which asks God to answer us and comfort us. It is added by the sheliach tzibur, the leader of the prayers, as a separate berachah, between the berachah for redemption and that for health. The congregation adds it in the afternoon service as part of the Shema Koleinu, Hear Our Voice, the final berachah of the body of the Amidah.

The text of the prayer reads,
Answer us, God, answer us, on the day of our fast, as we are in great trouble. Do not turn to our sins, do not hide Your face from us, and do not ignore our pleas. Be close to our cry, may Your kindness comfort us, answer us before we cry to You, as it is written, "Before they cry, I will answer, they are still speaking and I will hear" (Yeshayahu 65:24). You answer in times of need, [You] redeem and rescue in all times of trouble and distress. Blessed are You, God, Who answers in time of trouble.

This is a generic prayer that is added on every fast day. In addition, on all fast days special prayers are added between the Amidah and the reading of the Torah. These prayers, known as Selichot, prayers asking for forgiveness, are added to the Tachanun, supplication prayers, thus creating an elongated form of Tachanun. The Selichot are fast specific, each fast day carrying its own particular Selichot that relate to the nature of the day. The Selichot were written much later than the Amidah and other prayers that were composed by the Men of the Great Assembly around the time of the Second Temple. The Selichot were written by different rabbi-poets as late as four hundred years ago, relatively recently in historical terms.

The Selichot for the 10th of Tevet open with the following passage:
I remember the trouble that happened to me, He smote me three times on this month...
He hit me on the eighth on the left and on the right, due to three of them I instituted a fast
The Greek king forced me to write the Greek faith...
I was humiliated on the ninth... the giver of beautiful words was torn apart, he is Ezra the scribe.
On the tenth day [Yechezkel] ben Buzi the prophet recorded in the book of prophecy,
In memory of the disgraced and degraded people, this very day.
It seems clear that the poet who composed this prayer viewed the fast of Tevet as not only connected to the events surrounding the tenth day of the month and the Temple. He also saw the fast as connected to a number of events that all occurred during the month of Tevet. The fast is the culmination of events that occurred on the eighth, ninth, and tenth days of Tevet.

We have already said that the siege of Jerusalem started on the tenth of Tevet. The above prayer speaks of Ezra the scribe who died on the ninth of Tevet. We will now look at the reference regarding the eighth of Tevet. We have also to investigate whether all these events are connected, or whether it is mere coincidence that they all occurred in such close proximity.

The Eighth of Tevet
The poet spoke about the Greek king who "forced me to write the Greek faith." The rabbi who composed this prayer alluded to the famous story of the Septuagint, called in Hebrew the Targum HaShivim, the translation by seventy-two Jewish elders who were forced to translate the Torah into Greek. The story is recounted in several places throughout the rabbinic literature, but we will examine just one of the sources.

There was a case that five elders wrote the Torah in Greek for Talmi the king. The day was as difficult as the day that the Golden Calf was made, as the Torah could not be translated sufficiently.

There was another case concerning Talmi the king who assembled seventy-two elders and enclosed them in seventy-two separate rooms and did not reveal to them why he gathered them. He went to each one and said, "Write for me the Torah of Moshe your rabbi." God gave each one a council in his heart and they all agreed to the same idea and wrote the Torah by themselves. They [all] changed thirteen different verses: "God created in the beginning" [instead of "In the beginning God created" (BeReishit 1:1)]; "and God said, ‘I will make man in a form and an image’" [instead of "Let us make man in our form in our image" (ibid., 1:26)]; "and He finished on the sixth day and rested on the seventh" [instead of "and He finished on the seventh day" (ibid., 2:2)]; "He created him male and female" [instead of "He created them male and female" (ibid., 5:2)]; "I will go down and mix up" [instead of "Let us go down and mix up" (ibid., 11:7)]; "and she laughed with her relatives" [instead of "Sarah laughed within her" (ibid., 18:12)]; "in their anger they killed a bull, and willingly uprooted a trough" [instead of "in their anger they killed a man and willingly uprooted a bull" (ibid., 49:6)]; "and Moshe took his wife and sons and put them on the carriers of man" [instead of "and Moshe took his wife and sons and put them on the donkey" (Shemot 4:20)]; "the dwelling place of the Children of Israel that they had dwelled in the land of Egypt and in the land of Cana’an for four hundred and thirty years" [instead of "the dwelling place of the Children of Israel that they had dwelled in the land of Egypt for four hundred and thirty years" (ibid., 12:40)]; "he sent the precious ones of Israel" [instead of "he sent the young men of Israel" (ibid., 24:5)]; "I did not take any precious article of theirs" [instead of "I did not take a donkey of theirs" (BeMidbar 16:15)]; "the short armed animal" [instead of "the rabbit" (VaYikra 11:6)]; "and God gave them to give light to all of the nations under the sun" [instead of "that God had given to all of the nations" (Devarim 4:19)], "that I did not create to serve them" [instead of "the other gods that I did not command" (ibid., 17:3)] (Sofrim 1:7).

The Sages revealed the details of the Greek translation of the Torah. Talmi the king is identified as being Ptolemy II (Philadelphus, who ruled in Egypt and lived from 3475 to 3514, 285 - 246 BCE). He assembled these 72 rabbis and commanded them to compose a Greek translation of the Torah. The day was considered a black one in Jewish history, likened by the rabbis to the calamity of forming and worshiping the Golden Calf.

Why were the rabbis so opposed to the translation of the Torah? Even if it were not perfect, it would have to do. It is true that translation is a flawed and delicate art, this is true of any translation. The Torah was even more delicate and so the translation would be even trickier. Still, the rabbis conjured up an image of the Golden Calf, which holds great foreboding and is laden with symbolism for Jews. Why is this so?

Another question arises out of the text, before we even seek to explain all of the adjustments that the rabbis independently made. We can assume that the rabbis were extremely concerned and afraid. Talmi had gathered them for an unspecified purpose, and this usually heralds misfortune for the Jews. When he revealed his plan they must have worried even more. It can be assumed that Talmi intended to use these translations as weapons in his fight against Judaism and the Jews. If he were to detect any discrepancies between the translations he would be incensed and might well harm the Jews as punishment for this travesty.

We can imagine that each rabbi agonized over his translation. Yet, lo and behold, when the translations were all compared with each other, Talmi seemed satisfied with the results. Each rabbi was perplexed, each knew that he had changed thirteen verses in the Torah. Is it possible that Talmi had not noticed these alterations? Then the great miracle was revealed. God had once again saved the day by performing a miracle and ensuring that each rabbi translated the verses in exactly the same manner, making the same thirteen changes. A disaster was averted. This should be a cause for celebration, not a fast day. Why was this viewed as being part of the reason for the Fast of Tevet?

The Changes Made in the Text
The rabbis all changed certain verses. They were all concerned with Talmi’s reaction to reading the actual verses of the Torah. This necessitated changes in order to produce a document that would be acceptable to Talmi while not compromising the true meaning of the text. They were careful not to leave verses that could have been misinterpreted or held against the rabbi-translators or their congregants. Therefore, the aim of each change was to hide a potentially problematic expression.

The Torah states, "BeReishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz," usually translated as, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," but which literally reads, "In the beginning created God etc." This verse could be understood to mean that there was a being in existence prior to God that was called BeReishit. This being created God, who then proceeded to create the heavens and the earth. In order to negate such a possibility, the rabbis translated the verse to read "God created, in the beginning."

The next change was in the verse, "Let us make man." Saying "Let us make man" leaves room for the misunderstanding that there is more than one God. They therefore changed the verse to read, "I will make man."

The Torah says that God completed the process of creation on the seventh day. This could give rise to the question of God working on Shabbat. If the act of creation was sealed on Shabbat and not on the sixth day, Friday, then the following day should be the day of rest, Sunday instead of Saturday. To ensure that this claim could not be made, the rabbis recorded the verse thus, "And He finished on the sixth day and rested on the seventh."

The rabbis translated the verse, "He created them male and female," as "He created him male and female," as the previous verse states, "on the day that God created man, in the image of God He created him." This verse clearly writes that man was created as an individual, "created him," whereas the following verse implies that man was not created alone, "created them." The rabbis therefore changed the second verse to prevent any misunderstanding.

The next change was, "I will go down" instead of "Let us go down," to negate the possibility of polytheism, of the existence of more than one God.

Sarah was punished for laughing at the promise that she would have a child at the ripe age of ninety. However, when God told Avraham the same information we find a similar reaction. "Avraham fell on his face and laughed" (BeReishit 17:17). Why was Sarah punished while Avraham was not; after all, they both laughed? The seventy-two rabbis solved the problem. When it came to Sarah they translated the verse as, "She laughed with her relatives" in a public place and therefore she was punished, whereas Avraham, who had only laughed privately was not disciplined.

The rabbis changed the verse dealing with Shimon and Levi’s decimation of the city of Shechem as a punishment for raping their sister, Dina. Instead of saying that they killed people, they wrote that they killed a bull and overturned a trough, crimes that were less severe and could not be held against the Jewish people.

The Torah says that Moshe put his wife and family on a donkey. One could use this to degrade the great Jewish leader, Moshe. Was this the best that he could do, was this the ultimate in transport? Did he not have a horse or a camel, but only a lowly donkey? The rabbis translated the verse to read, "carriers of people," an ambiguous term that could be read as a horse, camel, chariot, or the like.

The Jewish people lived in Egypt for two hundred and ten years, but this was in direct conflict with the Divine promise to Avraham, that his children would be exiled for "four hundred years" (BeReishit 15:13). When the Jews left Egypt the Torah said that they had dwelled there for "four hundred and thirty years," but this was incorrect. In order to avoid problems, the rabbis simply wrote, "That they had dwelled in the land of Egypt and in the land of Cana’an for four hundred and thirty years."

In the events surrounding the receiving of the Torah on Har Sinai, Moshe instructed some people to offer sacrifices. The verse says that they were young men of Israel, but the rabbis changed it to read that they were the precious ones of Israel, lest one should ask whether it was appropriate to send young men to perform such a critical task. The altered text implies that only important people were selected for this service.

Moshe claimed that he never took anything from his followers, even a donkey. However, this could be misinterpreted to mean that he didn’t take a donkey but he did take other more valuable items. Therefore, the translation was made as "precious item" in place of the word donkey.

The next change was personally connected to Talmi, and is rather humorous. Talmi’s wife was called Arnevet, the Hebrew word for rabbit. The rabbis were worried that he would say, "The Jews tried to make a mockery of me and put my wife’s name in the Torah" (Megillah 9b). Instead they wrote of the animal with short arms.

The verse in Devarim warns, "Lest you look up to the heavens and see the sun and the moon... and bow down to them and worship them, that God gave to all of the nations of the world." This could be understood to mean that God gave the sun and moon to the other nations to worship. It could lend a certain legitimacy to sun and moon worship. The rabbis added the words, "to give light to," so that the verse now stated that the sun and moon were not meant to be worshiped, but had been given to the entire world as sources of light.

The final change was also in the Book of Devarim. God forbade worship of other gods that He did not command. In order to prevent the interpretation that God did not command these others to exist, rather they created themselves, the rabbis added the words, "to serve them." God did not create such gods to be served, and therefore we are forbidden to serve them.

With this we have explained all of the changes, alterations, and adjustments that the seventy-two elders made in their translation. However, our previous problems with this text still remain. Why were the rabbis so negative about this event?

After carefully analyzing all the changes we could ask another question. We can appreciate the rationale behind all of the changes, possibly with the exception of "the short-armed animal" for "rabbit." The verses did present some theological problems: polytheism, historical discrepancies, problems with reward and punishment, with Moshe’s leadership, and so on. The changes that the rabbis made seem to clear up a number of problematic concepts and verses. If so, why is the Torah text written as it is? Why weren’t the rabbis’ changes incorporated into the Torah text? The problem is compounded by the fact that God Himself instructed the rabbis to make these changes. Did He think that the rabbis’ version was better than the original? If not, why were the changes made?

The Importance of the Midrash
The truth is that each of these verses carries a great idea and a message. The Midrash had already analyzed each of these verses, considered the problems and the discrepancies, and given a profound explanation. However, as so often is true with Torah, the messages were encrypted into the text. The verses seem to present a problem. We are forced to turn to rabbinic and midrashic material to gain a proper and deep comprehension of the verse and the concept.

Let us look at the first change that the elders made. Instead of the words, "BeReishit bara Elohim," they wrote, "God created in the beginning." Rashi quotes the Midrash that explains these three words in a completely different way.

"For the Torah that is called ‘Reishit,’ as in the verse, ‘the first of His ways’ (Mishlei 8:22), and for Israel who are called ‘Reishit,’ as in the verse, ‘the first of His harvest’ (Yirmeyahu 2:3)" (Rashi on BeReishit 1:1).

The Midrash understands this first verse as a rationale, not an introduction. This verse does not come to say that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and here is a description of how He did it. Rather, the verse supplies the reason that God chose to create the universe. He fashioned the entire cosmos on account of the Torah or the Jewish people. The whole world was created and exists for the purpose of the Torah, or the Jewish people, or both.

Of course, the rabbis did not know for certain that the world was created for the Torah, or for Am Yisrael, but in this Midrash they make a very powerful statement about the importance of Israel and the Torah. Both the Torah and Israel are central and essential for the creation and continual providence of the world.

By translating the words as, "God created in the beginning," the rabbis omitted an entire worldview. The same is true of the next change, and of all the others.

The Ramban, Nachmanides, explains the words, "Let us make man," in the following way. "God created ex nihilo, form from nothing, on the first day of creation only. When He came to man, he said, ‘Let us make,’ to imply that the earth and I will make man. The earth will supply the physical elements and He will give the spirit. ‘In our form and image,’ that man will resemble the earth in his physical form, and the heavens in his non-physical soul" (Ramban on BeReishit 1:26).

Man was the ultimate creation, a fusion of all of the elements and a culmination of all existence up to that point. God employed the royal We, He spoke on behalf of the whole of creation. All matter would forge together to create, develop, and form man. Man was not just another creation, rather, he was the creation that brought the rest of creation together. He is both spiritual and physical, a fusion of the heavens and the earth. All this is alluded to in the word "us," "Let us make man." Again, this is lost in the translation of the seventy-two elders.

It’s All Greek to Me
When Yehoshua entered the Land of Israel he was commanded to establish an obelisk, a monument on the banks of the Yarden river, his point of entry. "Write on these stones all the words of the Torah well explained" (Devarim 27:8). The Gemara interprets the last words to mean, "in seventy languages" (Sotah 32a). The Torah was supposed to be translated, in fact this was to be done on the immediate entry of Am Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael.

The Torah was to be translated, but it was to be done so on our terms. The Torah was to act both as the Jewish people’s constitution and as a guide for the entire world. But in order to achieve this we would have to translate it and present it from a position of strength. Only under these conditions could we be assured that the Torah would be translated in all of her glory.

However, when Am Yisrael were weak and wary of what the world would say and think, it was not an optimum time to translate the Torah. In such circumstances, a weak and poor translation would have to be produced. Instead of revealing the greatness of the Torah and acting as a guide for the world, it would hide more than it revealed and make the Torah look just like any other book. Such a translation would not show the true Torah, only an imitation. In the words of Rav Kook, "The elders who copied the jewels concealed the Torah of God, but showed only the covering."

The Jews who built the Golden Calf took the Divine and formed it into a meek and meager image of the cow. So, too, did the elders take the vast body of Torah and attempt to translate it and contain it within the Greek language, an impossible task. The day of the translation was a sad and catastrophic one, even though it contained a miracle.

The Ninth and Tenth of Tevet
There is a link between the three tragedies of Tevet: the translation of the Torah on the 8th, the death of Ezra on the 9th, and the siege on the 10th. All of them reflect the constriction of a Divine ideal into a smaller, limited human ideal.

The Gemara informs us that "Ezra was worthy of giving the Torah, but Moshe preceded him" (Sanhedrin 21b). Ezra was viewed as being a great man and a great leader, in fact his leadership was compared to that of Moshe. The return to Israel, the Aliyah, was supposed to have been a repeat performance of the exodus from Egypt and entering the Land. "Israel should have witnessed miracles in the time of Ezra, in the same way as they did in the time of Yehoshua bin Nun, but the sin prevented this from happening" (Berachot 4a).

Rashi explains "the sin" as "that they did not go to Israel on their own accord, but rather due to the permission granted them by Koresh [Cyrus]" (Rashi ad loc.). The Jews preferred not to join Ezra and so the Second Temple period was not one of miracles and wonders. Instead of being grand and Divine, it became limited and human.

In a similar way the Gemara says that, when Nevuchadnetzar destroyed the Temple, a heavenly voice declared that he had "grinded ground flour" (Sanhedrin 96b) as "it had already been decreed" (Rashi ad loc.). The rabbis realized that our enemies did not destroy the Beit HaMikdash, they only physically torched it. But the real destruction had been carried out by the Jewish people themselves. We were responsible for the destruction of our Temple through our actions.

The fact that Nevuchadnetzar was capable of laying siege to the city of Jerusalem tells us that the city had ceased to be the Divine city that it should have been. Rather, it was reduced to being just another city, no longer Divine, but vulnerable and weak. In such circumstances it was easy to attack, conquer, and destroy. It was like grinding ground flour.

A Return to the Pure Ideals
Rav Kook wrote, "The dark shadow of the Greek translation will turn into light, when the original Hebrew source is revealed in its purity." This revelation of the Torah in her purity is the tikun, the rectification, of the fast of Tevet.

The common denominator of the three events was a limiting of the Divine; the repair of these past calamities will be through revealing the true "Hebrew source." We need to spread the message of the Torah. But we need to do so in a pure and holy form. When we are ready and capable of revealing the Divine in the world from a position of strength, then we will be ready to reveal the Torah to the entire world, to recognize the importance of the Land of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The answer lies with us. We must be willing to talk and live great ideals, holy and Divine concepts, and then the entire world will flock to hear our words and live in the shadow of our holy and Divine Torah.

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