Magazine article Tikkun

2008 - A Year to Remember Gedaliah

Magazine article Tikkun

2008 - A Year to Remember Gedaliah

Article excerpt

"GEDALIAH? WHO'S THAT?" IF SUCH Words express your first reaction to the title, you've plenty of company. Almost certainly the least known figure whose name designates a day in the Jewish calendar, the Fast of Gedaliah (pronounced guhdahl-yuh) itself has also been little noticed for many decades. Yes, it's still listed in traditional printings of Jewish calendars as 3 Tishre, the day following the second day of Rosh Hashanah (for those who observe two days), but even in these printings it receives only the uninformative description, "commemorates the climax of the disasters that befell the Jewish Commonwealth in 586 BCE." The URJ and the WRJ calendars take no notice of it, and neither Hayim Schauss in the 1938 UAHC volume, The Jewish Festivals, nor Theodor Gaster in his 1952 Festivals of the Jewish Year, bothers to mention it. Quite likely, then, even many who use traditional calendars pay little attention to the day.

Why, then, propose that we remember Gedaliah this particular year? To answer the question, a few words about the historical period in which Gedaliah lived are necessary. During the turbulent times of 587/586 BCE, as the Babylonians advanced on Jerusalem to subdue the Judean kingdom, the Jews were sharply divided on the best response. One faction favored a political alliance with Egypt and its army to fight the Babylonian threat; another advocated a negotiated submission to the Babylonians to ensure the survival of a Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Jewish life and religious practices within the Judean Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah was a strong advocate of this neutralism, rejecting an alliance with Egyptian power as the safeguard against Babylonia. His words denouncing royal collaboration with the Egyptians angered pro-Egyptian Jewish princes and other prophets, and in a dramatic trial, Jeremiah was threatened with death (see Jeremiah 26 for the vivid account). In this situation, a member of a politically prominent family, Ahikam, son of Shaphan, used his high-level influence to save Jeremiah from falling into the hands of the people who wanted to execute him.

Following further periods of dramatic and dangerous prophetic activity (see Jeremiah 27-39 for the remarkably exciting details), with Babylonian advance units having already breached the walls of Jerusalem, Jeremiah again passionately urged accommodation with the Babylonians. This time, too, as popular feelings grew more heated, there were again arrests and threats to Jeremiah's life. This time it was Ahikam's son, Gedaliah, who, like his lather, became Jeremiah's protector. Gedaliah used his political position and his personal power to ensure Jeremiah's survival. As events unfolded, Gedaliah became governor of those Jews who remained in Jerusalem and Judea, cooperating with the Babylonians while also securing concessions from the invaders to improve the lives of the conquered.

Was this treasonable collaboration or life-preserving accommodation? Just as our assessments might differ, Jews at the time also disagreed, some quite vehemently (for lively details, see Jeremiah 40-41). One faction, encouraged by the King of Ammon and led by Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, undertook a mission to assassinate Gedaliah. Advisors to Gedaliah warned him of the plot, but he refused to take seriously their reports, and was, indeed, slain, along with many of his advisors. According to tradition (the sources are not clear about the exact timing), this assassination occurred on the 3rd of Tishre, and to commemorate Gedaliah, the rabbinic sages enacted a fast day.

This enactment reflected the rabbinic judgment that there had been advantages for the Jews from the non-entanglement-with-big-powers policy that Jeremiah advocated and that Gedaliah administered. Josephus (Antiquities, 10:9) gives details of an extensive resettlement policy. Jews who had fled the Babylonian invasion could return, reclaim land for cultivation, and live Jewish lives if they would accept Babylonian sovereignty. …

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