Like everything else this year, we shall, somewhat unusually, fast a bit this Shabbos. The poskim (Tur and Shulchan Aruch 249; Nitei Gavriel, Teshuvah 14) rule that when Asarah B’Teves, as this year, falls on Shabbos, we fast all day and cannot break it until Tzeis Hakochavim, the usual time. The table is set, the kos is ready for Kiddush, but we must wait. As is well-known, the Bais Yosef (Orach Chaim 550:3) even writes that according to one of the Rishonim (Abudraham, Seder Tefillos Hataniyos), if this sad day fell on Shabbos, it would override our weekly day of rest and we would fast. For centuries, our rabbonim wondered why, other than Yom Kippur which is a de’Oraisa, no other fast day would displace Shabbos. Perhaps by exploring and internalizing the message of this special Erev Shabbos, we will learn from history and halacha, making the shortest but apparently most powerful fast day one that can change our lives and future for the better.
Let us begin with the words of Yechezkel Hanovi: “Then word of Hashem came to me…in the tenth month on the tenth of the month…this very day the king of Babylonia has reached Yerushalayim on this very day” (24:1-2). The crucial words “b’etzem hayom hazeh” are repeated, apparently for emphasis. The Bais Yosef sees this phrase as evoking Yom Kippur which overrides Shabbos. Therefore, so would the tenth of Teves, if the calendar ever allowed for such a confluence of days.
However, the Brisker Rov (Gri”z Halevi, Parshas Emor, and see also Ritvah, Rosh Hashanah 18b, and Minchas Chinuch, mitzvah 301) explains that this is not merely a matter of semantics. All of the other rabbinically-ordained fast days were assigned to a particular month. In reality, several other days of the month could have represented the tragedy of that month, but one was chosen for certain reasons. Only Asarah B’Teves commemorates an event – the siege of Yerushalayim and breach of its wall – that happened on a specific day. This is the true meaning of b’etzem hayom hazeh and its halachic ramifications for the Jewish calendar.
The Maharal (see Netzach Yisroel, chapter 8, Hartman ed., pages 214-215) adds the important idea that aschalta depuraniyos (Taanis 29a) – the onset of catastrophe – is always the most serious aspect of any tragic event. Therefore, since the commencement of the churban began with the breach of the wall, the fast of Asarah B’Teves mirrors the severity of Yom Kippur and could hypothetically override Shabbos.
The Bnei Yissoschor (Teves, maamar 14, Hatzevi Vehatzedek ed., page 262) points out that Teves corresponds on the shevet level to the tribe of Don, from whom the scourge of avodah zarah began with Pesel Michah (Shoftim 18:30).
The Chasam Sofer (Derash for 8th of Teves, page 74) reveals that the tenth of Teves is the 376th day of the year counting from Nissan. This spells ra’oh in Hebrew, which means “its sin.” Several generations later, on the ninth of Teves, which is the 375th day of the year, spelling ra’ah, meaning evil, Ezra Hasofer passed away. Eventually, in a different era, on the eighth of Teves, which falls on the 374th day of the year, spelling arad (a serpent, the embodiment of evil), began the three days of darkness culminating in the Greeks translating and attempting to hijack the Torah for their own nefarious purposes. The Chasam Sofer sees numerous Kabbalistic omens and harbingers in each of these calamities.
In a different place (Drashos, page 103), the Chasam Sofer points out a remarkable juxtaposition. He notes that the holidays of the notzrim always fall during our period of mourning, such as this week (see also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 580). On the other hand, when we are celebrating, during Adar and Nissan, they begin their own periods of sadness. The Chasam Sofer sees this as a function of the prophesy (Bereishis 25:23) concerning Yaakov and Eisav that “the might shall pass from one regime to another.” My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Pachad Yitzchok, Purim, first and last maamorim), interprets much of the past two millennia as flowing from this prophesy and its consequences.
But now let us allow Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l to bring us back down to earth for the practical lessons from this esoteric excursion into the inner meanings of halacha. He explains (Darash Moshe, page 397) that what happened on that first Asarah B’Teves was that “the people did not realize that the churban could result from that breach. On the contrary, many – following the radical biryonim – thought that they would be victorious and the Bais Hamikdosh would never be destroyed. In the case of first Bais Hamikdosh as well, the nevi’im Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel warned them to make peace with Nevuchadnetzar, but they did not believe (see Eichah 4:12) that the ultimate would actually happen. Only the prophets themselves and the very righteous believed and understood the magnitude of the tragedy that faced them. Had they repented and begged Hashem not to destroy the Bais Hamikdosh and send them into golus, these horrific events would not have happened. Had they done all this when the wall was first breached, when the time still allowed for avoiding the dire fate, history would have been completely different.
Rav Moshe goes on to remind us that “Klal Yisroel should have felt the weight of the coming tragedy and changes, but they didn’t. When the catastrophe is looming, but has not yet arrived, there is still time to ward it off.”
Rav Moshe alerts us to the idea that in many generations, if we would realize the magnitude of what is happening, the worst could be avoided through teshuvah and good deeds. But when there is apathy and indifference, that moment is the most tragic. That is, in effect, the Asarah B’Teves of that generation and each of those opportunities are lost. The war is lost at the outset, when triumph was there for the taking. It is for that reason that we actually fast in part this Shabbos, delaying our beloved Kiddush.
I would like to add a bit of a personal note to this profound teaching. Erev Shabbos is generally identified as a time of hachanah, preparation. Chassidim often teach us (see, for instance, Sefas Emes, Bamidbar 5633; Sheim M’Shmuel, Moadim, page 10) that often, the preparation for a mitzvah is even more important than the mitzvah itself. This was part of the avodah of the Baal Shem Tov, to teach Klal Yisroel not to “fall into a mitzvah,” but to prepare properly so that the maximum could be achieved by the act itself. The opposite is true also of avoiding sin and its catastrophic results. As soon as one sees that things are not going well – the wall is breached – the alarm must be sounded. As Rav Moshe taught us, one must react to danger. Today, the clarion call is, “If you see something, say something.” The nevi’im did, but we did not heed.
When Asarah B’Teves falls on a Friday, the day of preparation, we must remember the time when we did not prepare properly. When Hashem sent us the messages of frightening but avoidable events ahead, we should not have hid our heads in the sand. A Friday fast and a waiting kos of wine should shake us out of doldrums if a year of Covid-19 hasn’t yet done so. This time, we have the pleasant transition of eating a wonderful meal and entering the serenity of Shabbos after our deprivation. Let us not lose the moment and the gentle reminder. Prepare now and do the right things, the calendar is exhorting us. May our rather brief taanis this week be all that we need to bring us iy”H the geulos and yeshuos we so profoundly wish and seek.