Lecha Dodi and an empty, grumbling stomach don’t really go together, do they? But in fact, the Avudraham, one of the famed Rishonim of Spain, writes that if Asarah B’Teves would fall out on Shabbos itself, we would fast. (According to the way our calendar is set up it never happens though.) So it is not surprising that many times, like this year, the fast falls out on Friday, causing us to enter Shabbos weak and hungry. But why is this so? If Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the actual destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, gets pushed off to Sunday, why does this fast, which commemorates merely the beginning of the siege, remain on Shabbos?
Let us first understand the reason for the fast. Many people do not realize that it is actually due to three different events, as stated in the selichos of Asarah B’Teves. On the eighth of Teves King Ptolemy forced Chazal to translate the Torah into Greek, and three days of darkness descended on the world. On the ninth of Teves, Ezra HaSofer passed away. And on the tenth, the siege on Yerushalayim began. These were originally three separate fasts, but were then combined into one fast on the tenth of Teves.
The fact that we mourn these events together tells us that there must be some connection between these seemingly unrelated misfortunes. What is that? Furthermore, the Rambam tells us (Taanis 5:1) that the public fast days were instituted so that we should realize that the reason we suffer from the same misfortunes as our forefathers is because we are repeating their misdeeds. It is hoped that this realization will arouse us to do teshuvah and mend our ways. Which area in our lives are these misfortunes telling us to fix?
The Mashgiach of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, Rav Elchonon Meir Fishman, explains that the theme of these events is mourning the loss of pnimiyus, inner essence. When the Torah was translated, it became confined strictly to that translation. We know that the depth and wisdom contained in Torah is endless, and much can be understood based on how things are spelled and written. The thirteen rules of how the Torah is elucidated become ineffective when the words are “all Greek.” The Torah now took on a new form, one lacking its inner essence, without the ability to reveal the deeper meaning.
On the ninth of Teves Ezra HaSofer was niftar. The Gemara (Megilah 15a) tells us that Ezra was actually Malachi – the last prophet. With his passing, the glorious era of nevuah, prophecy, came to an end. Nevuah was not simply about knowing the future – it was Hashem’s way of conveying to us what our tafkid, our job on earth, was at any given moment. The Ramban (Vayikra 26:11) tells us that in those days if a person got sick, he didn’t need a doctor. Rather, he went to the Navi who told him why he was being punished. Once the person fixed the problem, his illness disappeared. The Navi was able to tell each person what his specific avodas Hashem was. And on a global level, Hashem sent us and the other nations messages regarding what needed to be fixed. With Ezra’s passing we were left to grope in the dark. Even though the Torah reveals the purpose of this world, prophecy revealed it to us in an even more precise manner.
On the tenth of Teves, Nevuchadnetzar began the siege around Yerushalayim. Until that day, Yerushalayim enjoyed an elite status world-wide. Everyone remembered how Sancheirev’s massive army was wiped out overnight when they attempted to attack the Holy City, and so no one even dared to try again. But now the world saw that this was a city like any other. While nothing physical was done to the city, the damage to its very essence was enormous.
Chazal instituted this fast to bring to our attention how unfortunate it is to live a life of exteriority, without an understanding that there is a plan and purpose and inner meaning to everything. It is not by chance that this ta’anis comes immediately after Chanukah, as the Midrash (Breishis 2:4) tells us that the Greek exile was a state of “darkness.” This is because the Greeks lived by the ideology “if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” What greater darkness can there be than not realizing that there is a Creator who made this world for a purpose? And this mistake continues until this very day in the Western Culture, which is governed by the dictates of science. Even those who practice some sort of religion do so mostly to remove that feeling of emptiness from their lives, not because they feel that there is purpose to their existence in this world. Such service will usually not be done with any true emotion.
Unfortunately, this problem has spread to our circles as well. We must make sure that our Torah and mitzvos are not mitzvos anashim melumadah, done without feeling and emotions. This is what we mourn on this ta’anis and need to fix.
Two Types Of Shabbos
Let us return to Shabbos. Perhaps the reason why we would fast on Shabbos is because this problem even affects the way we keep Shabbos. A person can go through the motions of keeping Shabbos and still miss the boat! For example, there are two people filling themselves with the tastiest foods on Shabbos. Even though both enjoy themselves immensely, they are not doing the same thing. You see, one has in mind that his actions be to honor Shabbos, and is, therefore, doing the mitzvah of oneg Shabbos. However, the second one is just interested in his own pleasures, and has fallen into the trap of overindulgence of worldly pleasures.
Shabbos can be “a day with Hashem” or it can be a day of prohibitions. In order to experience Shabbos properly we must not only focus on the outward motion of a mitzvah, but also on its pnimiyus, its very being and soul.
In this aspect, Asarah B’Teves is different from all other fasts. Even though on Tisha B’Av we mourn a much greater tragedy, Shabbos, which is a preview of the next world where there is no sorrow, overrides all mourning. However, on this fast we address the ailment of exteriority, which, if not taken care of properly, will destroy the entire essence of Shabbos, causing it to be a day like any other. Therefore, we fast even on Shabbos, because if we haven’t addressed the issue of doing mitzvos in an empty manner, our Shabbos itself will also be lacking.
We are just one week after Chanukah, the time when we received an injection of rejuvenation for our avodas Hashem. Let us start with this Shabbos, which began with the conclusion of the fast of Asarah B’Teves, and pump some fresh “pnimiyus” into this day. For example, Friday night, on the way home from shul, let us try to think about the special guest of Shabbos, i.e., Hashem, Who has just arrived. This will help us put some extra life into kiddush and our seudah, and perhaps after doing this for a while we will merit moments of truly feeling Hashem’s presence! The main thing is to take that first step – whatever it may be – towards putting more meaning into our Shabbos!
About the Author: Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus, raised and educated in Los Angeles and subsequently Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, is the Rosh Kollel of the Zichron Aron Yaakov Kollel in Kiryat Sefer , Israel. He lectures for the public and is the director of the Chasdei Rivka Free Loan Gemach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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