Asarah B’Tevet: The (Babylonian) Empire Strikes Back & The Torah Awakens

Asarah B’Tevet:

The (Babylonian)

Empire Strikes Back

& The Torah Awakens

Once more, in honor of inyana d’yoma – “the topic of the day” – another post l’chvod the release of the new Star Wars movie… and the more traditional inyana d’yoma of Asarah B’Tevet. This post is about Star Wars and Torah – but mostly Torah, so if you’re not a Star Wars fan, my apologies again, but it’s still worth your while. And I promise to return to astronomy and Torah next time.

We’ve just recently celebrated Chanukah, a holiday focused on events that strongly resemble the story of Star Wars Episode IV:  A small scrappy band of rebels win a great victory against a mighty evil Empire led by a power-hungry Evil emperor. In both cases demonstrating that ruchniut – spirituality – can triumph over superior military might. (This resemblance is not so surprising; the Maccabean revolt is one of – if not the – historical archetypes for such stories in literature and film.)

However, h, respectively – and losing another battle against their respective imperial enemies.

A quick Jewish history refresher: Asarah B’Tevet – the 10 of Tevet – is a “minor” fast day that commemorates the Babylonian Empire besieging Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of the First Temple and the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. The events are specifically mentioned in the prophet Ezekiel:

יחזקאל פרק כד,(א) וַיְהִי דְבַר-ה’ אֵלַי בַּשָּׁנָה הַתְּשִׁיעִית, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָעֲשִׂירִי, בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ, לֵאמֹר.  (ב)  בֶּן-אָדָם, כתוב- (כְּתָב-) לְךָ אֶת-שֵׁם הַיּוֹם–אֶת-עֶצֶם, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  סָמַךְ מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל אֶל-יְרוּשָׁלִַם, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה

Ezekiel 24:1 The word of the Lord came to me in the ninth year, in the tenth month, in the tenth of the month, saying: 2 ‘Son of man, write the name of the day, even of this very day; the king of Babylon besieged Jerusalem this very day.

(Note that the Babylonian Empire was chronologically much earlier than the Seleucid Greeks and Antiochus. It’s only with respect to our calendar and our experience of these days that Chanukah is before Asarah B’Tevet. Note also that the Maccabean revolt itself did not continue to go so smoothly and victoriously after the rededication of the Temple that is celebrated on Chanukah. In the fight against the Seleucids the Jewish “rebels” were “on the run” for many years before again regaining the upper hand.)

An interesting aspect of Asarah B’Tevet is that we have a tradition that it’s one of three adjacent fasts – or, in practice, three fasts rolled into one – on which darkness descended on the world (“The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” ―Yoda ).

The Shulchan Aruch explains these (and the Aruch Hashulchan glosses that the first two are not observed…)

Shulchan Aruch (16th cen.), Orach Hayim 580: Days that are Fasted On

1. These days troubles happened to our fathers and it is worthwhile to fast on them…

Aruch Hashulchan (c. 1900): But nowadays in our locales we’ve never heard of anyone who fasts these fasts. Because there was no decree but they wrote that it is worthwhile. Furthermore: After the completion of the Talmud, no one has the authority to decree [decrees] on all of Israel.

שולחן ערוך · אורח חיים · סימן תקפ: ימים שמתענים בהם

סעיף א: אלו הימים שאירעו בהם צרות לאבותינו וראוי להתענות בהם 

ערוך השולחן: אך עתה בזמנינו ובמדינתינו לא שמענו מי שמתענה בתעניתים אלו שיתבאר. שלא היתה הגזירה מהגאונים להתענות בהם, אלא כתבו שראוי להתענות בהם. ועוד: דאחרי חתימת התלמוד אין ביכולת לגזור על כל ישראל

On the 8th of Tevet the Torah was written in Greek in the days of King Ptolemy, and there was darkness in the world for three days.

On the 9th [of Tevet] it is not known what the the trouble that happened was.

Aruch Hashulchan: It was revealed afterwards that Ezra the Scribe died.

בח’ בטבת נכתבה התורה יונית בימי תלמי המלך והיה חושך בעולם שלשה ימים

וט’ בו לא נודע איזו היא הצרה שאירע בו

ערוך השולחן: ונתגלה אחר כך שבו מת עזרא הסופר

According to this tradition, three days of darkness descending on the world (galaxy…) began on the 8th of Tevet due to the original translation of the Torah, into Greek, the Septuagint.

We should also note the interesting thematic contrast with Chanukah: Days of Darkness follow shortly after a Festival of Light. Incidentally, (and here’s an astronomy related tidbit…) this year, 10th of Tevet happens to coincide with the winter solstice, the “darkest” day of the year (i.e. the longest night and shortest day, at least in the northern hemisphere. See my earlier post.) That’s good for easier fasting; but more darkness… It’s also interesting to notice that both have to do with the Jews’ early encounters with and relationship to Greek “culture”.

Now, about this darkness stemming from the translation of the Torah into Greek… was it really so dark? In the context of the halachic question of whether a Greek Sefer Torah can be used, the rabbis in Tractate Megillah refer to this event:

Bavli Megilah 9a

… say therefore; ‘Our Rabbis permitted them to be written only in Greek’. And it is taught: ‘R. Judah said: When our teachers permitted Greek, they permitted it only for a scroll of the Torah’. This was on account of the incident of  King Ptolemy, as it has been taught: ‘It is related of King Ptolemy that he brought together seventy-two elders and placed them in seventy-two [separate] rooms, without telling them why he had brought them together, and he went in to each one of them and said to him, Translate for me the Torah of Moses your master. God then put into each one of their hearts and they all conceived the same idea and wrote for him…

מסכת מגילה דף ט,א גמרא

…אלא אימא רבותינו לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יונית ותניא א”ר יהודה אף כשהתירו רבותינו יונית לא התירו אלא בספר תורה ומשום מעשה דתלמי המלך דתניא מעשה בתלמי המלך שכינס שבעים ושנים זקנים והכניסן בשבעים ושנים בתים ולא גילה להם על מה כינסן ונכנס אצל כל אחד ואחד ואמר להם כתבו לי תורת משה רבכם נתן הקב”ה בלב כל אחד ואחד עצה והסכימו כולן לדעת אחת וכתבו לו

First of all, note that only the Greek translation of the Torah is approved for use by the Talmud. This is because it was miraculously translated. In the episode of King Ptolemy as related here (see the Letter of Aristeas for a totally different, non-rabbinic, take on the story), he forces 72 Jewish sages to translate the Torah into Greek individually, and God performs a miracle and they each produce the exact same translation – even where it deviates from the literal meaning of the Hebrew text (a list of such places follows what I excerpted above, but I didn’t include it here). So, there was some unpleasant coercion involved, but God performed a miracle in the original production of the Septuagint. So why would that be a sad/darkness inducing event? Typically, when God does a miracle to prevent or alleviate something bad happening to Jews, it’s cause for celebration, not fasting.

Furthermore, a little farther down the page, the Talmud shows us that the rabbis’ opinions of the Greek language were hardly negative. On the contrary, these subsequent statements seem to be encouraging the use of Greek (the “beauty of Japhet” – Noah’s son, from whom the Greeks are descended) in the beit midrash (=study hall) and/or synagogue! (i.e. the “tents of Shem” – from whom Jews are descended. BTW the word “synagogue” itself comes from Greek!)

“R. Simeon b. Gamaliel says that books [of scripture] are permitted to be written only in Greek.” R. Abbahu said in the name of  R. Johanan: The halachah follows R.S.b.G. R. Johanan further said: What is the reason of R.S.b.G? Scripture says, God enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; [means] that the words of Japheth shall be in the tents of Shem…  R. Hiyya b. Abba replied: The reason is because it is written, Let God enlarge [yaft] Japheth: implying, let the chief beauty [yafyuth] of Japheth be in the tents of Shem.

 רשב”ג אומר אף בספרים לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יונית:  א”ר אבהו א”ר יוחנן הלכה כרשב”ג וא”ר יוחנן מ”ט דרשב”ג אמר קרא (בראשית ט) יפת אלהים ליפת וישכן באהלי שם דבריו של יפת יהיו באהלי שם… א”ר חייא בר אבא היינו טעמא דכתיב יפת אלהים ליפת יפיותו של יפת יהא באהלי שם

The corresponding discussion in the Yerushalmi (the Palestinian Talmud) is even more positive about Greek:

Yerushalmi Megilah 1:9 (10a)

Bar Kappara taught: “God enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” – that [they] should speak the language of Japheth in the tent of Shem.

תלמוד ירושלמי – מסכת מגילה

דף י,א פרק א הלכה ט גמרא תני בר קפרא (שם ט) יפת אלהים ליפת וישכן באהלי שם שיהו מדברין בלשונו של יפת באוהלו של שם (שם י)

(10b) Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: Even for books [Torahs] it was only allowed to write them in Greek; [Why?] they checked and it was found that the Torah could not be sufficiently [well] translated except into Greek. A “low-life” [lit. “hut dweller”] translated for them into Aramaic from Greek.

R. Yirmiah in the name of R. Hiyah b. [A]Ba: Aquilas the Proselyte translated the Torah before R. Eliezer and R. Joshua and they praised him; They said to him “Most excellent [lit. beautiful; from/pun on “Japhet”] of people!”

דף י,ב פרק א הלכה ט גמרא תני רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר אף בספרים לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יונית בדקו ומצאו שאין התורה יכולה להיתרגם כל צורכה אלא יוונית בורגני אחד בידא להם ארמית מתוך יוונית רבי ירמיה בשם רבי חייה בר בא תירגם עקילס הגר התורה לפני רבי אליעזר ולפני רבי יהושע וקילסו אותו אמרו לו (תהילים מה) יפיפית מבני אדם

Here we see that Torah translations into other languages are simply inferior to the Greek, not because of the miracle, but because “the Torah could not be sufficiently [well] translated except into Greek.” Furthermore, the subsequent Aramaic translation that was done from Greek, was of inferior origin.

Another, later, Greek translation, by Aquilas the Proselyte, was so loved by the rabbis of his time (2nd cen.) that they called him “Most excellent of people” – a play on the word “Japhet”. (Note that the Hebrew word for “praised” used here is “וקילסו” – which comes from the Greek word “καλoς” for beautiful and/or good!)

This last bit may give us a clue to understand these varying opinions better. Why would Aquilas have re-translated the Torah into Greek – especially if the Septuagint was miraculously produced? Historically, this re-translation – in the 2nd century CE – was after others began to use the Septuagint translation to spread another religion, and to dispute against Jews. Aquilas created a new translation, with the approval of the rabbis of that time, that made it more difficult to misinterpret and/or misrepresent the Torah’s meaning.

So which is it? Is the Greek translation of the Torah“darkness covering the world” or “most excellent” and “beautiful”? Perhaps it depends on how you look at things…

The rabbis liked the use of Greek – from a certain point of view: When it is used in the “tents of Shem” for increasing Torah learning in the world then Greek translation helps the Torah Awaken!

However, if it’s used against the Jewish people, then it is a source of darkness. Much like being seduced to the Dark Side of the Force.

On Asarah B’Tevet, as on other fast days, teshuvah is always a component of the day. As with The Teshuvah of the Jedi, let us strive to bring the world out of three days shrouded in darkness as the Torah Awakens due to our efforts to increase Torah learning, in any language.
And remember, the Torah will be with you, always…

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