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Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

Reading the TaNaKh in the 21st century

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The First Day After Rosh Hashanah

 

The first day after Rosh Hashanah (3 of Tishrei), is a fast day to recall the assassination for political reasons of one Jew by another.

Though the event happened more than twenty-five hundred years ago, the fast is an admonition that historical moments are not one-time past facts. They are better-considered footnotes on human nature’s inability to learn from its shortcomings.

 Besides the dawn to dusk fast, special prayers and Torah reading frame the commemoration. A probable reason why Jews who are not ritualistic inclined miss this should-be lesson of Jewish experiences. But even within the synagogue’s environment, the tendency through time has been to minimize a moment that has been compared not by a few to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

In the summer of 587 B.C.E., after a devastating two-years siege, the city of Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Babylonians.

Nine years earlier, King Zedekiah of Judah, caught between the two biggest empires of the time, had signed a treaty promising the Babylonian ruler “that would surely keep the country for him and attempt no uprising nor show friendliness to the Egyptians.” Yet, now, reneging his oath, he rebelled against the Babylonians provoking them to destroy Jerusalem and exiling thousands of Jews in what is one of the most momentous events in Jewish history.

What pushed Zedekiah to change his position and rebel is unclear. The Hebrew Scriptures- the TaNaKh- offers no explanation providing no clues about why the Judean political hierarchy though it had a chance to succeed. The fact is that king Zedekiah succumbed to the desires of the faction within his government which favored the throwing off of the yoke of Babylonia, creating the tragic consequences.

Never again would Judah be ruled by a Davidic king, and for a long period-until 1948- Judah would not be a state independent of foreign control (except for a brief period under the Maccabees in the second century BCE).

The Babylonians, however, had not intended to destroy Judea, their aim was restricted to prevent the Jews to rebel again. So, on the very day on which Jerusalem was destroyed, the Babylonian general responsible in charge of the onslaught appointed a member of a prominent Judean family, Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan,  a known advocate of a pro- Babylonian policy under the deposed regime, as the country’s administrator.

Though Gedaliah was not a member of the Davidic family, with him the restoration of the country had begun. The support given to him by the prophet Jeremiah and the general population in Judah would suggest that large segments of the population were willing to go along with a non- Davidic monarch. Jews from neighboring areas who had fled the country returned and submitted themselves to Gedaliah’s authority

Gedaliah’s policies were intended to provide bread and jobs. He restored agricultural productions and the food supply of the population with astonishing speed. The bitter response from the former property owners deported to Babylon suggests that Gedaliah saw the redistribution of land from the perspective of the Deuteronomic social reform.

Several princes and princesses of blood royal who had fled to the neighboring countries during the conflagration had returned under Gedaliah. Among them Ishmael ben Nethaniah who was appointed “one of the chief officers” of Gedaliah.

After only a short period of rule, Ishmael murdered Gedaliah. The Babylonians then didn’t appoint a new Jewish governor putting an end in this way to hopes of even a small measure of Judean independence.

 

In commemorating Gedaliah’s murder the Jewish calendar marks the final destruction of the First Hebrew Commonwealth. As historian Solomon Grayzel wrote: “The Jews themselves completed what the Babylonians had begun.”

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