The Fast of Gedalia
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The Fast of Gedalia

The Fast of Gedalia

One day after Rosh Hashanah commemorates a tragedy in Jewish history whose message reverberates for us today.

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The day after Rosh Hashanah marks the Fast of Gedalia, one of the "minor fast days" in the Jewish calendar year. The fast begins in the early morning at dawn, and ends in the evening at dusk.

What is the meaning of this fast, and why does it occur during the intermediate days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

The Story of Gedalia

After the destruction of the First Temple 2,500 years ago, the majority of the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon. The conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar, eventually eased some of his harsh restrictions and allowed some Jews to remain in the Land of Israel. He even appointed a righteous Jew named Gedalia to administer the territory. Gradually, more Jews who'd escaped from the horrors of the war into neighboring countries began to return to their homes in Israel.

Gedalia was realistic about the limitations of Jewish sovereignty. He understood that for their own self-preservation, the Jews in Israel needed to fully cooperate with the nation who had conquered their land.

But this political subservience was intolerable to some Jews. A man named Yishmael ben Netaniah, spurred on by jealousy and foreign influence, arose and ignored the King of Babylon. On the third of Tishrei, Yishmael treacherously killed Gedalia as well as many other Jews and Babylonians.

Answer On Yom Kippur

In the aftermath of Gedalia's murder, the Jews feared reprisal from the King of Babylon. They thought to flee to Egypt to save themselves. But since Egypt was a morally corrupt society, the Jews were in a quandary ― weighing the physical threat against the spiritual danger. So they turned to the prophet Jeremiah, who was secluded in mourning, to ask for advice.

For an entire week, Jeremiah pleaded with God for an answer. Finally, on Yom Kippur, he was answered. Jeremiah called the Jews and told them to stay in Israel and everything would be fine. God was planning to make the Babylonians act mercifully toward the Jews, and before long, all the exiled Jews would be permitted to return to their own soil. But, Jeremiah told them, if the Jews decided to go to Egypt, the sword from which they were running would kill them there.

Unfortunately, the prophet's words did not penetrate, and the people refused to believe. All the Jews remaining in Israel packed their bags and went down to Egypt. They even kidnapped Jeremiah and took him with them! Now the destruction was complete; the Land of Israel was completely barren.

You can guess what happened next. A few years later, Babylon conquered Egypt and tens of thousands of Jewish exiles were completely wiped out. The lone survivor of this massacre was Jeremiah. His prophecy had become painfully true.

The initial event ― the murder of Gedalia ― has been likened to the destruction of the Holy Temple, because it cost Jewish lives and brought the end of Jewish settlement in Israel for many years. The prophets therefore declared that the anniversary of this tragedy should be a day of fasting. This day is the third of Tishrei, the day immediately after Rosh Hashanah.

Lessons for the Fast of Gedalia

Lesson #1 ― The Jewish people had sunk to one of their lowest levels in history. The Temple was destroyed, the majority of Jews were exiled, and things looked hopeless. But God changed their desperate situation and had the righteous Gedalia appointed. Yet Gedalia was murdered by a Jew and all hope was wiped out.

It was at this point that Jeremiah prayed to God for some insight and assurance. This was during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This story is memorialized to teach us an important message for these days: No matter how far away you are, you can return and God will forgive you.

Lesson #2 ― The Jews who went to ask Jeremiah for advice were subconsciously sure that God would give the answer they wanted to hear. So when God answered differently, they rebelled.

Yet these were not evil people. What happened?

Though these Jews were in one sense dependent on the will of the Babylonians, they were unwilling to be dependent on the will of God. The lesson is that attaching oneself to God means following Him at all times, not just when it happens to coincide with what you want.

A good rule in life, when faced with a tricky moral dilemma, is to ask yourself: "What would God say? What does He want me to do?"

Lesson #3 ― When one Jew murders another, it is a deep, terrible tragedy, which can have enormous historical repercussions. There is no excuse for such violence. Do we have philosophical and political differences? We must work them out with calm and tolerance. It is the only acceptable way.

Published: May 26, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 25

(23) Katrina Garcia, September 10, 2013 6:04 PM

Because HaShem Said So

I have a son who wants a tattoo and I told him he can have one as long as it's fake. He asked me why he can't have a real one. And I said, "Because G-d said so!" He responded with, "Well, there you go!" If HaShem our G-d commands it, we can trust that it is a good thing because He is merciful and all-knowing.

(22) Jo-Chanah, September 8, 2013 10:16 PM

We are admonished to fast and pray

My mother always taught us that when we were confronted with a decision that we couldn't handle on our own, we were to "Turn down our plate" fast and pray until we heard from HaShem. This wisdom has always worked for me.

(21) Aaron K., September 8, 2013 7:29 PM

We Jews are a people of lost opportunities.
One tragic outcome which no one mentions is that it would seem that God's plan was that Jews would remain in Judea so that when Jews would return after 70 years, there would be an infrastructure already in place in Judea. With the assassination of Gedalya and the subsequent exile to Egypt, the Land was devoid of Jews.
The result is quite apparent. Had Gedalya not been assassinated, or had the Jews heeded Yirmiyahu's advice and remained in Judea, a Jewish presence in the Land would have meant that the returning Jews would not have faced the conditions they did meet. There would have been a religious & political infrastructure. The economy might have been on a solid foundation and the Shomoronim might not have dared interfere with the returning Jews. One can even postulate that more Jews would have returned.
But we are indeed a people of lost opportunities.

(20) Amichai, October 4, 2011 1:23 AM

Instead of fasting, do something good. Plant a tree in Israel!

It's one thing to retell a story with a moral (that's good) and another to make your life miserable, as if you're reliving the story (that's self-defeating). Better to do something positive. Mortifying the body is not a Jewish principle.

Anonymous, September 16, 2012 1:59 PM

Not a Jewish Priniple?

"Mortifying the body is not a Jewish principle." It's true that our greatest goal should be to do something good for others, but how can we say fasting is not a Jewish principle when we're instructed by HaShem to fast on Yom Kippur? The fast for Gedaliah (Melakhim 2 25:25) is also mentioned in Zechariah 7:5 as well, showing that this was a practice. They were admonished for turning it into a time to merely hang the head rather than doing mitzvoth. Rather than throwing out the practice of fasting or claiming it's not Jewish, we should be busy doing mitzvoth along with our fasting as described in Zechariah 7 & Yeshayahu 58. Without a humbling of heart and reaching out to others in need particularly while fasting (as we should at all times) , we miss the point entirely and risk partaking in a practice that fails to accomplish anything of value. L;shana tova

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