Sunday, December 25, 2005

Winter's Darkness

In the non-Jewish world, the winter season is dubbed “the holiday season,” yet, ironically in the Jewish world it is deemed a time of darkness and fright. In the five month (sometimes six month, during a leap year) winter, there are only two Jewish holidays: Chanuka and Purim. Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Sperling quotes[1] the Likutei HaPardes, which states that there was a custom in Europe to refrain from learning Torah on winter nights in the Bais Midrash because the enemies of the Jews would go out and mercilessly beat random Jews whom they saw outside or in the streets. Therefore, he says, the Great Rabbis of the previous generations decreed that on such nights Talmudic scholars should learn in their own houses and should not stroll outdoors[2]. Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter (1799-1866, famed author of Chiddushei HaRim and first Rebbe of Ger) relates that a certain priest asked Rabbi Yonasan Eibeshitz (1660-1764, died in Metz, Rav of many cities including Posen, Prague, Altuna, and author of many books/seforim) an interesting question based on the custom cited above. If the entire world depends on Torah learning for its continual existence[3], then how can the world survive if the Jews stop learning during certain periods of the year as per the custom? Rabbi Yehonossan Eyebeshitz answered that the fulfillment of a custom constitutes Torah learning and thus, by refraining from learning in instances where the custom calls for such action, the world has its lifeline. In defense of this custom, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Schapira (1785-1841, celebrated author of the Bnei Yissaschar, and Rebbe of Dinov) explained that Kabbalistically, the Hebraized name for the Christian object of idolatry (i.e. Jesus) represents the angel of dogs. He told that it occurred many times that Jews violated the decree and still went to learn in the Bais Midrash during the winter; as a result, vicious dogs followed them back into their houses and attacked them.[4] This exemplifies the fear that Jews had of the winter months and the pain caused to the Jewish community during the winter season; the Jewish fear and darkness of the winter season is a direct result of the Christian holidays.

The penultimate halachik authorities, the Arba'ah Turim (“Four Rows,” written by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher Ba'al ha-Turim, circa. 1270-ca 1340) and Shulchan Aruch (“Prepared Table,” Maran Rav Yosef Ben Ephraim Karo, 1488-1575), enumerate[5] the fast days which are no longer observed. In their listing, they explain that on the eighth day of the month of Teves[6], the Egyptian-Greek king Ptolemy Talmai ordered seventy Jewish elders to translate the holy Torah from Biblical Hebrew into Greek (the product is now known as the Septuagint) and thus he caused darkness to overcome the world for three days[7]. The simple explanation of the cryptic end to the story is that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (“Reish Lukish”) once explained[8] that a certain verse describing darkness[9] refers to Greece who darkened the eyes of Israel with her despotic anti-Torah decrees. Thus, the actions of the Greeks, who represent darkness, brought upon darkness to the world because of their interference with the sustaining factor of the world, namely the Torah. However, how does this account for the specific mention of three days in the writings of the medieval poskim (Halachik deciders)? Both the Tur and Shulkhan Aruch mention that on the ninth of Teves there was also a fast day in the previous generations, but both state that they did not know the reason for that fast day. On the tenth day of Teves, as all observant Jews know, there is a fast day that was accepted to commemorate the besiegement of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar[10]; the fast was already accepted in the times of Zachariah and is referred to in scripture[11] as the “Fast of the Tenth”. Thus, technically, starting from the eight of Tevet, there are three fast days in a row, which correspond to the three days of darkness mentioned, which resulted from the writing of the Septuagint.

Before understanding what significant connection the three days of fasting have to the three days of darkness, one must first understand what the reason for the establishment of the fast on the ninth day of Teves was. Many of the commentaries[12] on the Tur and Shulchan Arukh[13] explain that on the ninth day of Teves, Ezra the Scribe (and—some say—his counterpart Nehemiah) passed away[14], and a fast was established in his memory. In fact, the Taz (an abbreviation of the commentary Turei Zahav, “Golden Rows,” written by Rabbi Dovid Ben Shmuel HaLevi Segal, 1621-1663) expresses astonishment about the fact that the Mechaber (lit. “Author”, used in reference to Rabbi Caro who wrote the Shulchan Aruch) did not explain this as the reason behind the institution of a fast day on the ninth of Teves. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1888) explains[15] that the reasoning behind the fast was originally not known, but in subsequent generations, it was revealed as the yahrzheit (Yiddish for “yearly anniversary of death”) of Ezra HaSofer. Rabbi Yaakov Chayim Sofer (1870-1939) differs[16], and explains that Ezra’s yahrzeit was actually on the tenth of Teves, but a fast was decreed on the ninth in order to differentiate between the reasons of the two fasts; otherwise, the Tenth of Teves would only be remembered as one of its two anniversaries. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud (1110-1180) explains[17] that on this day that Jews of Granada, Spain were massacred, and the son of Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Naghrela HaNaggid (993-1056), the vizier to the Spanish King, was murdered. Another explanation of the former fast on the ninth of the month is recorded in a footnote to the Machon Yerushalayim edition of the Shulchan Aruch[18]. The footnote quotes from the Vilna print of Megillas Ta’anis (the pre-Mishnaic “Scroll of Fasts”) that states that on the ninth day of Teves, “that man” was born; “That man” is a Jewish euphemism for Jesus, and accordingly, the fast was decreed on his birthday as would have been decreed for any day of pain and suffering. This ninth day of Teves is the middle day of the three days of darkness and abstention from food, which included the eighth and tenth days of Teves.

Rabbi Eliyahu (Makatovsky) Kitov (1912-1976) wrote[19] that there seems to be a link between the three days of fasting in Teves and three days of darkness mentioned in both the Tur and Shulchan Aruch after their descriptions of the Greek translation of the Torah. However, he does not explain the correlation between these seemingly unrelated two matters. Furthermore, “darkness” is inexplicably mentioned in respect to another Jewish winter anniversary, namely Purim. The Talmud[20] cites an exegetical statement from the Amora Shmuel who explained that the name of the Persian King was “Achashverosh”[21] because he blackened (hushcharu) the faces of the Israelites in his days like the bottom of a burnt pot. What does it mean that Ahasuerus blackened, or darkened, the faces of the Jewish people of his time?

Perhaps, the answer can be given based upon various selections from the Gemara that seem to associate the lack of eating (i.e. fasting) with darkness and the blackening of one’s face. Rav Nassan Bar Abba said in the name of Rav[22], “all [people] who anticipate [i.e. rely on] the table of others, [the] world is darkened for them, for it says[23] ‘He wanders about for bread [i.e. food]—where is it?—the day of darkness is ready in his hand’.” When a man does not eat, but rather waits for others to feed him, his actions are tantamount to fasting in his denial of food, and thus the Gemara teaches that the world is dark for such a person, for only food can bring to him lightness. A proof to this is the explanation in the Gemara[24] why Caleb son of Jephunneh was given a different name in Chronicles 1 4:5, where the Scripture called Caleb, “Ashchor,” instead of “Caleb” because he blackened (hushcharu) his face through fasting. Rashi[25] explains that Caleb sat many fasts requesting divine help to save him from the evil influence of the spies[26]. Because of his many fasts, his face blackened and darkened. The same idea can be said about the Yehudim in the times of Achashveyrosh that as a result of Ahasuerus ‘s evil decrees, the Jews sat for three days fasting[27] and thus they faces blackened. One can say that the blackening of the Jews’ faces was caused directly by Ahasuerus. This is why Shmuel said that the king’s name was Achashverosh because he blackened the faces of the Israelites; it is because he caused them to fast and thus darken their faces. This understanding can also answer why Shmuel specifically compared the blackness of their faces to the bottom of a burnt pot because he was trying to hint that it was connected to matters relating to food.

This also leads to a better understanding of Tur and Shulchan Aruch who spoke about three days of darkness following the translation of the Holy Torah into the profane Greek language. Since there were three days of fasting in a row—the eighth of Teves because of the translation, the ninth because of Jesus’ birthday or the death of Ezra, and the tenth because of the besiegement of the Golden City[28]—the faces of the Jews blackened. When the faces of G-d’s chosen people darkened, it was as if the entire world itself darkened.

During the winter, when the days are shorter, and the dark nights are longer, one must keep in mind the darkness which lurks in the outside world. The Talmud tells[29] that after Adam sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, he noticed that the days began to grow shorter and shorter (because this occurred in Tishrei, around the time of the autumnal equinox). He thought that HaShem was doing that as a punishment for his eating the fruit, so he fasted for eight days in repentance for the “original sin”. When he saw the period of Teves (the winter solstice) from when the days began to grow longer again, he figured out that the way of the world is to have longer and shorter days depending on the time of the season, and thus he made an eight-day festival. The next year he celebrated all sixteen days as one long holiday. The Talmud[30] also tells of a similar story of when the first night fell and Odom HaRishon was scared that it was a punishment for his violation of the prohibition to eat from the Eitz HaDa’as. We see from these two stories that darkness and night are really forms of evil and punishment, but especially punishment for sins regarding eating forbidden items. Throughout the entire dark winter, there are only two sources of light: The light from the candles lit to commemorate the miracles of Chanuka and the light emanating from the Jewish nation’s learning of Torah throughout the "winter Zman"[31]. Accordingly, there are always at least two days of Chanuka that are to be celebrated in the month of Teves, which follows Kislev. The rest of the light for the dark winter must come from the Ohr HaTorah, the light of the Torah. Amongst the gentiles, there are many holidays celebrated on or near the day of the winter solstice, including but not limited to Yalda, Saturnalia (a pagan holiday named for the governing planet of Teves, Saturn), Christmas, Karachun, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Zamenhof Day, and of course, Kalenda/ Calenda[32]. Those holidays which Adam, the first man, established in the winter were originally done for the sake of heaven to give thanks to G-d, but in the subsequent millennia, the festival was perverted into becoming days of pagan impurity, licentiousness, and extreme frivolity. This is also why darkness and fear fall upon the world during the winter times.

[1] Ta’amei HaMinhagim, “Reasons of the Customs,” pg. 500, Eshkol edition
[2] Historically, the Lithuanian Jewish communities did not accept this custom from the onset.
[3] See Nefesh HaChaim 4:11
[4] It is interesting to note that the Dinover Rebbe himself passed away on the 18th of Teves.
[5] Orach Chaim, §580:2
[6] Rabbi Eliezer HaKallir, the son of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai seemingly wrote in his Krovetz (liturgical poem) for Chanukah that this event occurred on Chanuka, not a week after.
[7] Megilla 9a-b
[8] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 2:4
[9] Genesis 1:2
[10] Based on Jeremiah 52:1-27 and Kings 2 25:1-7
[11] Zechariah 8:19
[12] Be’er HaGoleh, Beiur Heitiv, Mishna Berura, et al.
[13] Orach Chaim, §580:2
[14] See Seder HaDoros, Year 3448, which has an alternate version that Ezra passed away on the tenth of Teves, not the ninth.
[15] Aruch HaShulchan
[16] Kaf HaChaim
[17] Sefer HaKabbalah
[18] ad loc., published in Jerusalem in 1994
[19] Sefer HaToda'ah (“The Book of Our Heritage”) exposition on the month of Teves
[20] Megilla 11a
[21] Esther 1:1
[22] Beitza 32b
[23] Job 15:23
[24] Sotah 12a
[25] To Sotah 12a
[26] See Numbers 13-14
[27] Esther 4:3
[28] Ezekiel 24:1
[29] Avodah Zarah 8a
[30] Ibid.
[31] As seen from Rabbi Yehuda’s explanation of “light” in regard to Purim in Esther 8:16, see also Proverbs 6:23
[32] The pagan holiday still celebrated by some which was mentioned in the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 8a


Mar Gavriel said...

on the eighth day of the month of Teves, the Egyptian-Greek king Ptolemy Talmai ordered seventy Jewish elders to translate the holy Torah from (Biblical) Hebrew into Greek

Interestingly, Qallir (in the Krôvêtz for Chanukko) seems to imply that this event occurred on Chanukkko.

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

indeed interesting.

Batya said...

This post is featured on Havel Havelim #51.

Here it is. Choose your venue.

Please put a blurb on your blog, advising your readers to visit. And send around the links for people to read it. There's quite a variety of posts.

Shavua tov, chodesh tov and Chanukah Sameach,

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