On Translation, the Fasts of Tevet, the “December Dilemma,” and the Hebrew Language

Some thoughts on reviewing an essay I wrote back in 2002 about Asarah b’Tevet

Seth Ward

I posted this essay two days ago, as I wanted it to be posted before the Tenth of Tevet. I realized later that there were a few important corrections to minor points, and removed it to be reedited, which I have now accomplished.

While editing this morning I learned of the passing of Miriam Goldberg, the mother of Rabbi Goldberg, whose comments I discuss in the essay. Mrs. Goldberg was quite a lady, for decades and decades, the publisher of the Intermountain Jewish News. May her memory be a blessing.


This post is largely an essay I wrote some time ago. Even these remarks, before the essay, are based on something I wrote some time ago, although this introduction has been more carefully edited in 2017 than the essay below.

This essay – as it stands – talks about the importance of Hebrew and connects it to a “season” of fasts referred to in the liturgy of the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet. The starting point was a talk at the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue by Dr. Hillel Goldberg, also published as an essay in the Newspaper of which he is the Editor, the Intermountain Jewish News.

I have used some of the ideas I first developed in this essay in various ways in talks around the time of the Tenth of Tevet, a minor fast that falls in late December or early January. I have used this and related material about the Tenth of Tevet often over the past years to talk about one or more of five themes: Translation and Hebrew; the December Dilemma; Laying siege to Jerusalem (or learning about its destruction); Ha-Kaddish ha-Kelali and the way we remember the Holocaust; and Chaim Nachman Bialik. The first two relate not to the 10th of Tevet but to the 8th and 9th of the month; Bialik’s birthday was the 10th of Tevet, and it has been declared a day for remembering him.  Usually these talks—most often at the Allied Jewish Senior Apartments (now Kavod Senior Living), where I have run Sabbath morning services for over two decades, or at the EDOS or similar locations, and they are very limited in time, so I do not have the scope to develop the ideas at length.

I strongly support arguments for the necessity of Hebrew to understand Bible, and by extension, all of what we call “Torah” in the widest sense, and as a central value in Judaism. Perhaps this should be linked to the fast of the 8th of Tevet, found in an appendix to Megillat Ta’anit and copied into the Shulhan Arukh. Megillat Ta’anith is usually considered quite early; mostly assembled in the early first Christian assembly and completed in the early 2nd century, but the Hebrew commentary and appendix are usually considered to be much later.

It has not been possible to edit the essay below very much from that time, and I do not believe that I ever published it or posted it on a weblog. I did, however, collect primary sources, and organize it as a very brief “Shiur” in the EDOS. According to my records, the source sheet was prepared at the end of 2011.

The Fast of the 9th of Tevet may have been observed in the time of the Tannaim—the putative time of Megillat Taanit or in the early Islamic period, the time in which the appendix was written down, although I do not believe there much evidence for this. The most important reference to it actually being observed may well be Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud’s discussion of the death of Joseph Ha-Nagid in Spain (30 December 1066) at the hands of a popular uprising against the powerful vizier, inspired by an inflammatory antisemitic poem.

Some modern sources (including Internet discussions) talk about a “season” described by the 8th-9th and 10th of Tevet. There is some justification for this as some of the Selihot for the 10th of Tevet mention events such as the death of Ezra which are usually ascribed to the 8th or 9th, but I am not sure that this should be considered more than an erudite reference to some fasts listed in the list of fasts included in editions of Megillat Taanit and more importantly, in the Shulhan Arukh. These are fasts that are no longer relevant and mostly forgotten by the Jewish people. It seems to me important that our normative tradition has included references to these other observances in liturgical poetry, including the poem by Yosef ben Shmuel Bonfils (Tov Elem) recited in the Selihot for the day,[1]  but resisted the proliferation of references such as “five things[2] that happened on or near Asarah Be- Tevet” as a frequently-invoked passage in Mishnah Taanit (4:6) does with the 17th of Tammuz and especially with Tish’a Be-Av, when events of the 7th and 10th of Av are included. At least it has resisted doing so until the advent of the Internet.

In modern times though, the 10th of Tevet has added some new dimensions. It is also used to mark the Holocaust, without implying that anything happened on this day. The Israeli Rabbinate has declared it “The day of General Kaddish” and, for example, the British Book of Authorized Selihot by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld has included in the ritual for the Tenth of Tevet a modern piyyut by S. Fundaminsky (and edited by Rosenfeld) memorializing the victims of the Holocaust.[3] Perhaps it is significant to note that in November 2005, the United Nations adopted a Holocaust Memorial Day on the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, January 27, closer to the 10th of Tevet, rather than Israel’s Yom Ha-Zikkaron laSho’a ve-lagevurah “Holocaust and Heroism Day” in Nisan, usually April or May—although I would not argue the General Kaddish is linked in any way to the date of the liberation of Auschwitz or conversely, the Israeli initiative to have the UN establish January 27th as an international day of remembrance is linked to the 10th of Tevet in any way, without further research; neither linkage seems particularly likely to me at this stage.

As it happens, I had the opportunity to ask Rabbi David Stav about Ha-Kaddish Ha-Kelali this morning, after Shaharit on the Tenth of Tevet—and with Rosenfeld’s Selihot open to Fundaminsky’s poem. “מדברים על זה –“—“People speak about it” he said, but no one actually does anything about it

The 9th of Tevet has been suggested to be a dies natalis “birthdate” related to what was perceived as a calamity (see my essay); in our own times the Tenth of Tevet is noted as the natal day of Chaim Nachman Bialik, whose contributions to Hebrew language in general, to poetry, to awareness of Aggadah, to Hebrew literature and Zionist thought could easily be seen as nothing less than playing a key role in the restoration of Hebrew, part of the “beginning of the flowering of redemption.” Of particular note is Bialik’s important work of translation of the Aggadah from an archaic Hebrew register with many Aramaic words difficult for modern readers of Hebrew, into a more modern Hebrew retaining the flavor of Rabbinic language but fully accessible to contemporaries.

Looking over the essay, one of the thoughts that deserves better development than given in this essay is the whole “December Dilemma” idea. I referenced this concept in the title of the essay, but it is a more serious issue that deserves more than a reference to the Ninth of Tevet (or for that matter to the curious practice of Nittl Nacht, another topic I have lectured on and posted sources about).

Finally—the source sheet I developed for the talk at EDOS was not really designed for circulation. But I have edited it and posted it as well.

Seth Ward

On Translation, the Fasts of Tevet, the “December Dilemma,” and the Hebrew Language

Seth Ward

“. . . There is no short cut to the penetration of the Hebrew Bible. There is no escaping the study of the Hebrew language.”-Dr. Hillel Goldberg, Intermountain Jewish News, December 20, 2002

The centrality of Hebrew language study to understanding the Bible—and indeed to any Jewish endeavor—was eloquently voiced last year at this time by the Executive Editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, in the framework of an editorial largely based on a Devar Torah he had offered the previous Saturday morning. Based on the date in the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Goldberg used the occasion to discuss the Fasts of Tevet, including not only the Tenth of Tevet, a fast day observed in 2002 on Sunday, December 15, but the Eighth and Ninth of Tevet, using especially the Eighth of Tevet to argue passionately for the importance of the Hebrew language to understanding the Hebrew Bible and the values it mandates for Judaism. Indeed, Goldberg grounded the importance not merely in Rabbinic thought, but in Divine inspiration: He spoke of the Tenth of Tevet, as “marking a season, not simply a day;” in which case, the prophetic establishment of the Fast of Tevet—underscored by Goldberg—would include the message of the 8th and 9th as well. (I am not necessarily convinced that there are Prophetic grounds for either the establishment or meaning of the “Tevet Season” beyond the Tenth of Tevet, and tend to prefer the idea of Ibn Ezra (on Zechariah 8:18-19) that the fasts mentioned in that verse were instituted by the community, much as had been the fasts and feasts of Adar mentioned in Megillat Esther (9:27).[1]

The crucial value of Hebrew is indisputable in some circles, yet the reality of the American Jewish community is that it bears repeating from time to time. Goldberg’s talk suggests that the fasts of the second week of Tevet are a good time to reflect on Hebrew, on translation issues, and on understanding the Bible in the Diaspora, points to be addressed in the present essay. Indeed, it may be that this “season” relates explicitly to what is often called the “December Dilemma”—and offers better correctives.

  1. The Fasts of Tevet

While Jewish tradition knows of several events commemorated in the first half of Tevet, they are independent of each other. Jewish tradition recognizes only the 10th of Tevet as an obligatory public fast. Before the Internet, the 8th and 9th were sidebars to study of fasts and feasts in the Jewish calendar—miscellaneous dates put in postscripts and marginal notes, as we shall see. The Internet has not really changed this, but it has made several essays mentioning them more readily available.

The 10th of Tevet is one of four mandatory fasts mentioned, which are discussed at the very beginning of the section on laws of fasting in the Shulhan Arukh. (549:1). The four fasts are mentioned in the Biblical book of Zechariah (8:19), which also refers to the fasts of the fourth, fifth and seventh month. While the days of the month observed as Fast Days were presumably known in Zechariah’s time, they are the subject of Rabbinic discussion, including the precise date of the “Fast of the Tenth Month.” The discussion of this issue in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b) starts with the assumption that the fast is on the 10th of Tevet, the day in which G-d commands Ezekiel to “write the name of the day for on this very day the King of Babylonia set himself against (samakh) Jerusalem, this same day.” (Ezekiel 24:1-2). The date of the siege is also referred to in Jeremiah 39:1, and the nearly identical  passages Jeremiah 52:4-5 and 2 Kings 25:1-2. (Many commentators on the Shulhan Arukh passage combine language from Ezekiel and Jeremiah/Kings, but this is not done in the Talmud). A second view assigns it to the 5th of Tevet, when Ezekiel heard about the fall of Jerusalem from a refugee (Ez 33:21). This view is rejected.[2]

Both viewpoints recorded in the Talmud consider the Fast of the Tenth Month one of the four fasts instituted around the occurrences of the fall of Jerusalem. There is no assumption that there were multiple events associated with the same fast—as is the case for Ninth of Av and the 17th of Tammuz (Rosh Hashanah 18b). In modern times, however, the Israeli Rabbinate has declared the 10th of Tevet to be “The day of General Kaddish” (without indicating that anything in particular happened on this day. Presumably this is the reason that Rabbi Abraham I. Rosenfeld composed an elegy for the Six Million to be recited on this occasion, included his Authorized Selihot.

The 8th of Tevet is indeed one of the dates on which “evil befell our ancestors and it is suitable to fast on them,” according to a postscript to the laws of fasting in the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayyim 580:1-2). The 9th of Tevet is also mentioned as a fast day, although “no one knows why.” (580:2). This passage follows the Tur and is based largely on an appendix to Megillat Ta’anit. The main part of Megillat Ta’anit is a list of days on which fasting and in some cases eulogies were not permitted, which mostly dates to the time just before the Temple was destroyed, but the appendix is from much later, perhaps after the close of the Talmud.[3] In any case, it was “cancelled” by the Rabbis;[4] perhaps the reason that there is no mention of the minor fasts, for example, in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, although it was cited in other major compositions.[5]

Thus we see that neither the Fast of the 8th nor of the 9th of Tevet are part of Biblical, Prophetic or Talmudic discourse, and must be firmly distinguished from the Fast of the 10th of Tevet, one of four fasts relating to the fall of Jerusalem.

  1. 9th of Tevet: “The Fast of the Dies Natalis

The link to the “December Dilemma” rests in part on the identification of the 9th of Tevet. The appendix to Megillat Ta’anit says “Our Masters did not write what this was about.” Some assume this was the date of death of Ezra or of Ezra and Nehemiah, but several other dates of death are given for these individuals, including 2 Tevet (Ginzberg, Legends 6:447) and 10 Tevet itself. Moreover, it is hard to imagine why the Rabbis would have refused to write down the reason for a fast based on this event.

The medieval historian Ibn Da’ud wrote that the ancient fast presaged the assassination of Joseph Ha-Nagid in Granada on this day in 4827 (Saturday, December 30, 1066):

Indeed, a fast had been decreed for the ninth of Tebet as far back as the days of our ancient rabbis, who composed Megillat Ta ‘anit; but the reason had not been known. From this [incident] we see that they had pointed prophetically to this very day.[6]

The late E.J. Wiesenberg, author of articles about the Jewish months and calendar in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, connected this date with what he calls “the dies natalis in 3761.” (Article “Teveth”). Dies natalis means birthday; according to the calculations used today, the 9th of Tevet in the Jewish year 3761 corresponded with 25 December, 1 B.C.E.  His comment is based on an anonymous informant cited in the commentary Tosafot Hadashim in the Vilna edition of Megillat Ta’anit 22b: “I heard from a great man that on that day Oto ha-Ish [‘that man’—a reference to Jesus] was born,” although Wiesenberg, with his interest in chronology, could and probably did check the date out for himself.[7]

The celebration of the birth of oto ha-Ish on December 25 did not become standard for several centuries in the Christian world, nor was the dating of this event to 1 BCE standard before the publication of the Easter calculations of Dionysius Exiguus in the early 6th century—but this is consistent with the post-Talmudic dating of the appendix to Megillat Ta’anit.

It is interesting to speculate about the relative value of marking this occasion by a fast determined by the Jewish calendar. In Eastern Europe at least, some Jews marked the anniversary of this event by playing card-games—but as far as I can tell, they did so on the day celebrated by their Christian neighbors, not on the anniversary of the date in the Jewish calendar. The practice of card-playing on Christmas was described, for example, by the adventurer and author of Hatikva, Naphtali Hertz Imber, in an essay for the Rocky Mountain News.[8]

  1. The Fast of the Faulty Translation

We next must explore more fully the fast associated with the Eighth of Tevet. Megilat Ta’anit says: “On the eighth of Tevet, the Torah was written in Greek in the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness came to the land for three days.” A parallel text is found in the tractate Sofrim, “Scribes,” one of the “minor tractates” of the Talmud, and, like Megillat Ta’anit, strictly speaking, outside the normal canon of the Talmud. [9]  We read in Tractate Sofrim 1:7: “Five Elders wrote the Torah in Greek for Ptolemy. This day was as difficult for Israel as the day in which the Golden Calf was made, for lo hayta ha-torah yekhola lehitargem kol tzarkah the Torah could not be translated adequately.” No date is given for this event.

The next passage in Sofrim refers to the translation of the Bible by 72 elders, also arranged by Ptolemy, in which miraculously, all 72 produced identical translations even though they worked independently, and Sofrim notes 13 places in which they diverged from the Hebrew. This story is known from the Letter of Aristeas and is also referred to in the Talmud, Megilla 9a.

Neither passage equates it with sin or darkness, thus leading us to suggest that there are two distinct stories of translations ascribed to this period—one by five and one by 72 scholars. It is not clear that the stories ought to be combined as, for example, was suggested by the medieval chronicle Sefer Yuhasin by Abraham Zacuto.  Zacuto wrote that Ptolemy originally commissioned the translation of the five scholars and, unhappy with the result, gathered the 72. (It should be noted, however, that the editors of the traditional edition of Sofrim were aware of a different manuscript in which there is only one translation). Without further details, it is difficult to know whether the result of the Faulty Translation was merely theologically problematic, linked to a physical event remembered as “darkness,” or led to a particular repression memorialized on the 8th of Tevet. (Borrowing a thought from the “Dies Natalis” idea, can this be a reference to the days surrounding December 25 in 1 BCE?) In any event, the three days of darkness—which would be the 8th, 9th and 10th of Tevet—is the only reference I found in classic sources that is consistent with the notion expressed by Dr. Goldberg of a “season” for the Fast of Tevet.

  1. Translations in Judaism.

There are many remarks about translation and alphabets in Rabbinic works, including languages or scripts which could be used, and comments about various Greek and Aramaic translators. These are highly germane but only a limited discussion can be attempted here. In practice, the Torah has been translated often since the Greek versions, and most traditional Hebrew editions of the Pentateuch include a translation—the Targum Onkelos—as well as the commentary of Rashi, who cites it liberally and has no qualms about translating individual words into French.  Translations also became intrinsic to other texts: in Eastern Europe, Torah, Talmud, the Passover Haggadah and other texts were often studied and recited with a Yiddish translation for each phrase; many Sephardic and Eastern Jewish communities had line-by-line or paragraph-by-paragraph translations into Aramaic, Arabic or Ladino. Interestingly, Soferim puts the difficulty in past tense and describes it as a partial problem, “The Torah was not able to be translated adequately”—not “The Torah cannot be translated.”

This latter opinion is in fact the standard Islamic attitude towards scriptural translation, which may be stated as “the Qur’an is itself a miracle and not able to be translated at all.” Although translations of the Qur’an into English are readily available today, traditional Islamic cultures produced Persian or Turkish extended paraphrases, rather than exact translations. Children who could not understand Arabic memorized Qur’an passages in Arabic, never translations.

Unlike the situation in Islam, translation has been an accepted part of Jewish culture. The story of the translations referred to above shows reticence about translations—which are likely to be inadequate and lead to disaster. But it also shows that translations can succeed and must reflect the unique needs of the audience. Whatever issues there were originally, Judaism has come to value a literal understanding of scripture for all, including those who needed to follow along in their everyday language, not Hebrew. In ancient times there were translators who translated each verse as it was read—and were required to do so orally, without a text. “What is written down must remain written down, what is oral must remain oral.” Written texts were no doubt used, and even oral translations may not have been extemporized but memorized, but presumably an oral translation would be more likely to keep in tune with popular understanding than a written one.

Nevertheless, the Torah is always read in the synagogue in Hebrew. The Targum, the Yiddish or Ladino, or for that matter the English is printed or recited together with the Hebrew text in books available to congregants, but an all-Hebrew Torah Scroll is retained. Torah is recited in Hebrew, but interpreted in the language of the people. The practice which the Jewish community has by and large come to adopt is thus not the Greek-only version prepared for the non-Jewish monarch, but one in which translations are available but the Hebrew text is still privileged and paramount. Understanding it—in the kind of detail that translations and commentaries offer—is also intrinsic to our approach, as is the presence of the Hebrew, telling us we must understand the interpretation only in conjunction with the Hebrew text.

Curiously, parallels with attitudes towards scriptural translation in Islam and Christianity are also instructive here. Lacking the privileged position of the Hebrew or Arabic texts in Jewish and Islamic ritual, issues of translation seem far more explosive in Christian churches than they are in Judaism and Islam, although, to be sure, different approaches to translation issues clearly differentiate the translations adopted in the various Jewish movements.

  1. Translation vs. transliteration

Dr. Goldberg’s illustration for the inadequacy of translation of individual words was the Hebrew word baheret, usually understood as a kind of bright spot in the flesh. (According to both traditional Eastern European pronunciation and the unique transliteration system adopted by Artscroll, this word is transliterated baheres). Readers of the translation in the Artscroll Bible will find the transliteration rather than a translation of this Hebrew word.

Baheret is part of a passage on tzara‘at (Standard Eastern European Hebrew: tzoro’as, Artscroll  system: tzara’as), usually translated leprosy. Here, too, Artscroll finds it better to transliterate than to translate, with a lengthy comment explaining why they did so. Of course, many of the predecessors of Artscroll, including the Targum and Rashi printed in the Artscroll edition, were able to translate this word. One could therefore say that Artscroll also “did not translate the adequately,” to paraphrase the failure of the five translators, as they did not translate it at all. In other words, one might even argue, contra Goldberg, that the position adopted by Artscroll is open to the same criticism as that which is leveled at the Faulty Translation of 8th Tevet. To be sure, the account of the two translations does not tell us more about how the five translators failed. But it does tell us how the 72 succeeded. To be sure, it required the miraculous intervention of heaven, but they rendered potentially confusing passages in ways that made the Bible palatable and understandable to Greek readers. (One might still, however, argue that Artscroll is correct to prefer not to translate, not merely because the Torah cannot be translated but because in our days ein somkhin al ha-nes “one doesn’t rely on the miracle” that their editorial board would come up with exactly the right translation, as was reported regarding the translation of the 72.)

ArtScroll came to the conclusion that we cannot translate tzara’at at all. Once having made this conclusion, it is easy to understand why they found it difficult to translate some of the markers of leprosy. While it may be that those who understand Hebrew will immediately connect baheret with bahir “clear,” as is typical of most translations, the purpose of transliterating the term is paradoxically to tell us that we cannot make this connection—for   otherwise presumably Artscroll would have translated it!

ArtScroll comes to similar conclusions about the Tetragrammaton (ArtScroll generally renders Hashem; the Hebrew means “the Name”),[10] and many other Hebrew words.

This type of question comes up, perhaps, most frequently with names of holidays or unique practices or items for which there are either no equivalents in English, or the English equivalents are considered cumbersome, archaic or “non-Jewish.” In works produced a generation ago, one may have encountered Tabernacles or Pentecost to refer to Sukkot or Shavuot; these would probably be considered more typical of Christian usage today, as would the use of “Festival of Lights” and “dietary observance” for Chanukah or Kashrut in most contexts directed at a Jewish, synagogue audience.

Dr. Goldberg’s other example is a midrash about the wagons (‘agalot) sent by Joseph to Jacob, which were said to have reminded him of the portion of the Torah they had been studying together 22 years before (about ‘eglot, “calves” or more specifically about the eglah arufa Deut. 21:1ff.). Midrash almost always addresses specific issues raised by the language of a Biblical text. As many who follow recent trends in modern literary criticism can attest, all too often the midrashic endeavor is misunderstood and misappropriated (especially by those with limited Hebrew ability). Some midrashim-like the one cited here-would not occur to anyone who studies only in translation, indeed cannot be understood by those who cannot read or visualize the Hebrew alphabet. Yet this interpretation still would likely occur only to those familiar with the midrash, and frankly, the midrash is not necessary to understand the simple meaning this of the passage.

Every page of almost any Jewish commentary on the Bible is likely to have remarks, midrash, grammatical points or other statements for which Hebrew knowledge is indispensable. Goldberg explained the midrash well, and argues that the lesson it teaches about the power of parents and children studying Torah together is an important part of the Bible text itself. I am not sure that when he suggests that such meanings are “encoded” into the Hebrew text, he means they represent the literal sense of Scripture. But all translations interpret. Indeed, even not translating, for example, by using a transliteration or by using Hashem “the [Divine] Name” to refer to the Deity (as discussed elsewhere briefly in this essay) is a kind of interpretation. And it is important to draw the line somewhere between what is in the text, and what is derivable from the text or even “encoded” in it. From a traditional point of view, perhaps we should say that anything less negates the sanctity of the interpretive process—for the interpretations, no less than the Sacred Text itself, were, according to tradition, handed down at Sinai. If it is all in the text, then why bother with noting the sanctity of the commentary?

Indeed, all Jewish values are “encoded” into the study of Torah, and this study is “encoded” into all Jewish history, into all Jewish life. The Hebraic element is more obvious in Israel than in the diaspora; even totally secular discussions by totally secular people will make use of terms taken from Jewish tradition—the use of Hebrew making the reference more obvious. The argument for Hebrew should therefore be far more powerful: “there can be no escaping the study of the Hebrew language”-not merely for penetrating the Hebrew Bible but for gaining meaning and understanding of the practices and beliefs, ethical teachings, history and community imperatives of Judaism. Hebrew language is essential for a Jewish reading the Hebrew Bible-but also for understanding the enduring cultural and ethical achievements of our tradition.

  1. Hebrew and Diaspora

The Tenth of Tevet is not “a season” but it and the other two fasts are very suggestive for us when taken together, living here in the Diaspora. Perhaps the Megillat Ta’anit edition and Professor Wiesenberg are right and the 9th of Tevet is “The Fast of the Dies Natalis.” In this case it represents a particular view of the religious culture that happens to surround us. (If we accept this, however, we should also note that this interpretation was unknown to medieval chronographers like Ibn Daud, is not preserved in the standard sources, and had to be “discovered” in modern times).

If fast of the 10th is considered to have been instituted by Ezekiel, it is especially meaningful to us as the earliest practice initiated in the Diaspora to express solidarity with Jerusalem. In any case, the Four Fasts retained their prominence, but the other Fasts of Tevet did not: ultimately it was the centrality of Jerusalem that won out over the values enshrined in the other fast days.

The Fast of the Faulty Translation reflects upon something we do every day: explain Bible and Judaism to our neighbors, and to ourselves. It warns us that translation is necessarily incomplete, and if we cannot translate it to meet our needs completely, we run the risk of bringing darkness where we hoped to bring light, indeed, of going the way of those who worshiped the golden calf. To do so, we need Hebrew knowledge.

Prophecy ceased with Malachi, but our Jewish community continues to be strong. We saw with the Fast of Tevet that Ibn Ezra emphasized the role of the community in instituting and accepting the practice. So too, here: in the absence of miracles or prophets, it is the Jewish Community which has to uphold and affirm the value of Hebrew knowledge-here in the diaspora as well as in Israel-in communal events, Jewish  identity, ethical teachings as well as Bible study. We cannot simply derive a lesson from an obscure practices based on non-canonic Rabbinic literature-or simply point out instances of transliteration or midrash. We must actively seek to integrate Hebrew study and to promote Hebrew awareness, in our schools and congregations, in our agencies, in organized courses of study and individual classes run for adults.

Newspapers such as the Intermountain Jewish News are addressed to the Jewish community and can and should also seek ways to increase the visibility and indispensability of Hebrew in our community. Perhaps they can institute a column in Hebrew, or list Jewish educational institutions and available Hebrew courses the same way they list synagogues. Merely stating the importance of Hebrew and tying it to a discontinued observance does not do justice to the transcendent value of Hebrew for which Dr. Goldberg’s essay argued.

Seth Ward

[1] Discussion of the prophetic standing is linked in some sources to the question of whether the fasts associated with the destruction of the Temple were observed while the Temple was standing, and who ruled that this should be so; all this is beyond our scope here.

[2] Although in other contexts (e.g. the date of the Flood, where the start of the flood in the “second month” is said by some to refer to Marheshvan, the beginning of the rainy season) there is a discussion about whether the enumeration of the months starts from Nisan or some other point in the year, I am not aware of any attempt to place the fasts of Zechariah 8:19 in different months.

[3] Megillat Ta’anit, Vilna 5653. Viewed on line http://www.shechem.org/torah/megtan/tsomot.html (last checked July 23, 2003). This edition suggests that the appendix may be post-Talmudic, 21b, an opinion shared by the Encyclopedia Judaica, article “Megillat Ta’anit.”  Authorship is ascribed to a pre-Destruction figure, Shabbat 13b, with the possible exception of two dates, the events in the main part of the work predate the destruction of the Temple.

[4] On the cancellation of Megillat Ta’anit: Rosh Hashana 18b, Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:13, 16a.

[5] The Vilna edition indicates it was cited by Halachot Gedolot, Siddur Rav Amram Gaon, Mahzor Vitry p. 271, Kol Bo paragraph 63, Shahal (?) 275, and Tur OH. 580, with the Levush, Bet Yosef, and Ba”h, who cites a commentary on this by Rabbenu Asher. It has not been possible to check these sources comprehensively at this time.

[6] This comment was also found in medieval glosses to Megillat Ta’anit. Gerson Cohen, Sefer Ha-Qabbalah by Abraham Ibn Da’ud JPS 1967, English, p. 76 n., references Neubauer and Zulay for this. On sources of the fast he references Lieberman, Shkiin 10, and refers also to Margoliot Areshet 1943-44 pp. 215ff. and Zimmels Ashkenazim and Sephardim, p, 160. I have not yet been able to examine these sources.

[7] A footnote reconstructs the calendar date for Tekufat Tevet, citing the work of Refael Gordon in Nahal Eden. I have not been able to examine this source. According to my computer program, applying today’s calculated calendar to the date 9 Tevet 3761, the corresponding date is Saturday, December 25, 1 BCE.

[8] Thanks to Jeanne Abrams for originally providing me with this reference many years ago.

[9] I have used the traditional Vilna Talmud edition of Sofrim.

[10] In editing these comments, I note that overall, ArtScroll’s rendering of the Tetragrammaton—the “four letter name” of the Deity—as Hashem, “the Name,” is somewhat dependent upon the way “the Name” is pronounced, and possibly on whether it is considered “holy” or “profane.” Obviously, the Tetragrammaton remains “The Name” regardless of the pronunciation used in synagogue reading of the Torah, or for that matter in the cases where tradition asserts that the Tetragrammaton in fact does not refer to God. For example, in Gen. 15:2, Abraham addresses the Deity in a way that is pronounced the same way, according to tradition, as the Divine reference in Gen 2:5; except the usage in 15:2 is often rendered “Lord GOD,” with the capital letters refer to the fact that the Tetragrammaton is used for the second term, unlike the usage for the first term in Gen. 2:5. ArtScroll renders the Divine reference in Gen. 15:2 as “Lord HASHEM/ELOHIM” (see also Deut. 3:24).

I note with interest that ArtScroll discusses profane and holy references to the Deity (See Talmud tractate Shevuot 35b) in Gen. 18. Interestingly, the first reference to the Tetragrammaton in this chapter is not discussed as “profane” vs. “holy” but is rendered “Hashem” rather than “HASHEM.”

But note that Hashem is used in ArtScroll Bibles designed for the public reading of Torah and in prayer books, even though one does not say “Hashem” in public reading of the Torah or in actual prayer, or pronouncing benedictions. In Hebrew practice (and the everyday English practice among many religious Jews), “Hashem” is an everyday reference to the Deity that may be pronounced without worrying about pronouncing a sacred name in a profane context—but would not be used when actually pronouncing a benediction or reading the Torah in public.

[1] Rosenfeld dates this poem to 1050, and it is found in all the liturgies for the Tenth of Tevet that I looked at.

[2] דברים “things”—although many of the references talk about five “events” or five “calamities” or Mishnah text has the more neutral “things happened.” Although all of them are treated as setbacks potentially worthy of declaring a fast day, I note the neutral-language introduction because I often include a discussion of Bialik and the recitations associated with Ha-Kaddish HaKelali when I have given short talks on the subject.

[3] The Authorized Selihot apparently dates form 1956 although I was able to examine only an edition from 1984. The piyyut is very beautiful. I could not quickly find much about Dr. Shlomo Fundaminsky, who was active for years in the London Board for Jewish Religious Education, and wrote books such as Modern Hebrew Composition Course and New Hebrew Grammar. A grammarian, he was cited by a blogger for publishing a letter-to-the-editor during a commenting that there is a dagesh in the ז אשכנזי that should be respected, and the term transliterated “Ashkenazzi” (with two z’s). I do not think that this necessarily had anything to do with Fundaminsky’s beliefs about whether religious education or synagogue pronunciation should or should not switch to modern Israeli pronunciation, as the blogger seemed to infer. But I am grateful to one of his respondents, who included a brief appreciation of Dr. Fundaminsky. . http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2012/01/on-hebrew-pronunciation-controversy-in.html

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s