A fast that became a feast and reverted to being a fast; a religious event that marks a political assassination; a day named for an almost unknown; a link with Rosh HaShanah that has no apparent connection with the spirituality of the New Year.
Surely an enigma that cries out for attention and explanation!
First, who was Gedaliah?
A member of a leading Judean family, the son of Achikam ben Shafan, a political adviser to King Josiah (II Kings 22:12) who had protected the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 26:24).
Gedaliah had probably shown promise as a diplomat and administrator long before the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.
The Babylonians had brought all their force to bear on the Jewish community of Judah, not only destroying the Temple but leaving villages and towns in ruins, murdering thousands of Jews and carrying off thousands more into exile in Babylon.
What was left in and around Jerusalem? A small, insecure, impoverished Jewish community that appeared to have no future.
Yet once Babylon had achieved its military victory it had no reason to destroy every trace of normal life in the conquered territory. A Jewish governor, this same Gedaliah, was appointed in order to restore some semblance of order.
Gedaliah’s appointment, told twice in T’nach – Jer. 40-41 and II Kings 25:22-26 – may have been the suggestion of Jeremiah, whom the Babylonians had released from prison into Gedaliah’s protection (Jer. 39:14) in recognition of his opposition to the Jewish rebellion.
Gedaliah set about his impossible task and began to achieve his program. Urging the people to come to terms with the Babylonian regime, he promised, “It will be well with you” (Jer. 40:9).
The economy began to improve: “they gathered wine and summer fruits in abundance” (Jer. 40:12). Life settled down. Mitzpah, north-west of Jerusalem, became the administrative centre. Many of the Jewish population came out of hiding, and Gedaliah tried to win over the doubters who questioned his policies. He was sure his peace process would work.
But the reality proved otherwise. Ishmael ben Netaniah, of royal origins (Jer. 41:1), resented the governor’s appointment and criticised his policies. He formed an alliance with the nearby kingdom of Ammon and gathered the disaffected Jewish elements around him.
Gedaliah was warned by his advisers to tread carefully, but he did not believe the warnings. On Rosh HaShanah he invited his opponent to a meal in the course of which Ishmael and the ten supporters who were at the table with him rose up, assassinated the governor and his staff, and ran off to Ammon.
Their hopes shattered, the Jewish community fled to Egypt with Jeremiah. Gedaliah was gone; his dreams had evaporated.
The Jews instituted a fast in his memory. Though the assassination probably took place on Rosh HaShanah, a fast was not possible on a festival so, according to the commentator David Kimchi, it was moved to the third of the month (the T’nach itself merely says that the events were “in the seventh month”: Jer. 41:1; some understand this as the 1st of the month, whilst others think it was the 3rd).
Gedaliah was a good and wise man, but we wonder why the fast is named for him when so many other people, even more righteous, lost their lives for the sake of their faith and people but have no day instituted in their memory. The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 18a) praises Gedaliah but also criticises him for ignoring the warnings he was given (Niddah 61a): the sages clearly did not regard him as a saint.
So why have a fast, and why name it for Gedaliah?
The episode marked a major national catastrophe, the apparent end of Jewish communal life in the Holy Land. This was the symbolism behind the fast. Gedaliah’s name was a form of convenient shorthand.
For 70 years this and the other historical fasts reminded the people of what they had lost. Then the Temple was rebuilt, and according to the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 18b) the fasts became feasts.
Indeed the sages found an additional reason to feast on 3 Tishri, as the day when writing the Divine name in documents which might be discarded was abandoned (M’gillat Ta’anit).
Tragically, the Second Temple suffered the same fate as the first, and the sages reinstituted the fast day.
The coincidence that ever since it has been the first agenda item after Rosh HaShanah suggests that every Jewish year ought to begin with thoughts of what is good for the Jews and that violence is no way to handle dissent.