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Tzvi Novick





Tzom Gedaliah: Why Commemorate His Assassination?





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Tzvi Novick





Tzom Gedaliah: Why Commemorate His Assassination?








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Tzom Gedaliah: Why Commemorate His Assassination?

Gedaliah ben Ahikam, the governor of Judah after the destruction of the Temple, was assassinated by Ishmael ben Nethaniah, a scion of the Davidic family. This event has been commemorated for millennia with a yearly fast—the only fast over the death of an individual. The Talmud points to his righteousness, while Saadia Gaon emphasizes the tragic consequences to the Judahite people he governed.


Tzom Gedaliah: Why Commemorate His Assassination?

Gedalia murdered by Ishmael, Jan Luyken, 1704. Rijksmuseum.

After the Temple was rebuilt, some questioned whether fast days commemorating its destruction should continue to be observed. In response, YHWH informs Zechariah that the fast days will become (or have become) days of joy:

זכריה ח:יט כֹּה־אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת צוֹם הָרְבִיעִי וְצוֹם הַחֲמִישִׁי וְצוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וְצוֹם הָעֲשִׂירִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵית־יְהוּדָה לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחָה וּלְמֹעֲדִים טוֹבִים וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם אֱהָבוּ.
Zech 8:19 Thus said YHWH of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.[1]

The text does not explain what each fast commemorates, but Jewish tradition interprets them as a progression of four fasts all commemorating events that took place as part of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem:

The fast of the 10th month, Tevet, commemorates the beginning of the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem. It is the last of the calendar year, but the first event historically.[2]

The fast of the 4th month, Tammuz, commemorates the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls.[3]

The fast of the 5th month, Av, commemorates the destruction of the Temple.[4]

The fast of the 7th month, Tishrei, commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah, and is thus known as Tzom Gedaliah, “the Fast of Gedaliah.”[5]

The assassination of Gedaliah is recounted briefly in the book of Kings (2 Kgs 25:22–26) and in greater detail in the book of Jeremiah (39:14; 40:1–41:18).

The Biblical Account

After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the king and a substantial portion of the population to Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar installs Gedaliah, the scion of a family close to the Judean monarchy,[6] as leader over the remnant in Judah. His seat of authority was Mizpah, just north of Jerusalem (perhaps because Jerusalem was in ruins).

One of Gedaliah’s allies, Yohanan son of Kareah, warns Gedaliah that Ishmael son of Netaniah, from the family of David, plans to kill him at the behest of the king of Ammon, but Gedaliah refuses to believe him:

ירמיה מ:יג וְיוֹחָנָן בֶּן קָרֵחַ וְכָל שָׂרֵי הַחֲיָלִים אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה בָּאוּ אֶל גְּדַלְיָהוּ הַמִּצְפָּתָה. מ:יד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו הֲיָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי בַּעֲלִיס מֶלֶךְ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן שָׁלַח אֶת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה לְהַכֹּתְךָ נָפֶשׁ וְלֹא הֶאֱמִין לָהֶם גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶּן אֲחִיקָם.
Jer 40:13 Yohanan son of Kareah, and all the officers of the troops in the open country, came to Gedaliah at Mizpah 40:14 and said to him, “Do you know that King Baalis of Ammon has sent Ishmael son of Netaniah to kill you?” But Gedaliah son of Ahikam would not believe them.

Yohanan offers to do away with Ishmael, but Gedaliah again will have none of it:

ירמיה מ:טו וְיוֹחָנָן בֶּן קָרֵחַ אָמַר אֶל גְּדַלְיָהוּ בַסֵּתֶר בַּמִּצְפָּה לֵאמֹר אֵלְכָה נָּא וְאַכֶּה אֶת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּןנְתַנְיָה וְאִישׁ לֹא יֵדָע לָמָּה יַכֶּכָּה נֶּפֶשׁ וְנָפֹצוּ כָּל יְהוּדָה הַנִּקְבָּצִים אֵלֶיךָ וְאָבְדָה שְׁאֵרִית יְהוּדָה. מ:טז וַיֹּאמֶר גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן אֲחִיקָם אֶל יוֹחָנָן בֶּן קָרֵחַ אַל תַּעֲשֵׂ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה כִּי־שֶׁקֶר אַתָּה דֹבֵר אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵאל.
Jer 40:15 Yohanan son of Kareah also said secretly to Gedaliah at Mizpah, “Let me go and strike down Ishmael son of Netaniah before anyone knows about it; otherwise he will kill you, and all the Judeans who have gathered about you will be dispersed, and the remnant of Judah will perish!” 40:16 But Gedaliah son of Ahikam answered Yohanan son of Kareah, “Do not do such a thing: what you are saying about Ishmael is not true!”

Yohanan’s warning proves correct. Ishmael leads a party that assassinates Gedaliah, along with some Judeans and Babylonians stationed with him at Mizpah:[7]

ירמיה מא:א וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בָּא יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה בֶן אֱלִישָׁמָע מִזֶּרַע הַמְּלוּכָה וְרַבֵּי הַמֶּלֶךְ וַעֲשָׂרָה אֲנָשִׁים אִתּוֹ אֶל גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן אֲחִיקָם הַמִּצְפָּתָה וַיֹּאכְלוּ שָׁם לֶחֶם יַחְדָּו בַּמִּצְפָּה. מא:ב וַיָּקָם יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה וַעֲשֶׂרֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ אִתּוֹ וַיַּכּוּ אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן אֲחִיקָם בֶּן שָׁפָן בַּחֶרֶב וַיָּמֶת אֹתוֹ אֲשֶׁר הִפְקִיד מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בָּאָרֶץ. מא:ג וְאֵת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ אִתּוֹ אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ בַּמִּצְפָּה וְאֶת הַכַּשְׂדִּים אֲשֶׁר נִמְצְאוּ שָׁם אֵת אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה הִכָּה יִשְׁמָעֵאל.
Jer 41:1 In the seventh month, Ishmael son of Netaniah son of Elishama, who was of royal descent and one of the king’s commanders, came with ten men to Gedaliah son of Ahikam at Mizpah; and they ate together there at Mizpah. 41:2 Then Ishmael son of Netaniah and the ten men who were with him arose and struck down Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shafan with the sword and killed him, because the king of Babylon had put him in charge of the land. 41:3 Ishmael also killed all the Judeans who were with him—with Gedaliah in Mizpah—and the Chaldean soldiers who were stationed there.

Ishmael takes captive “the remnant of the people” (Jer 41:10) at Mizpah, and leads them toward Ammon. Yohanan confronts him with an armed band, and takes control of this remnant (vv. 11–14), which he leads to Egypt, along with Jeremiah himself (Jer 43:5–7), out of fear of Babylonian retaliation against Judeans for assassinating the governor appointed by Babylonia.[8]

Why Are We Fasting?

The book of Jeremiah does not include an exact date for the assassination of Gedaliah. Rabbinic tradition observes the fast on the 3rd of the month; Karaites observe it on the 24th.[9] Whatever the date, it is surprising that we should be fasting for millennia over the death of one person. This is in notable contrast to the other three fasts, which commemorate national incidents: the beginning of the siege, the breaking of the walls, and the destruction of the Temple. Why should a national fast be for the death of one person?

The End of an Era

The straightforward answer is that the fast isn’t really about Gedaliah himself. As Tova Ganzel of Bar-Ilan University argues, the significance of Gedaliah’s assassination lay in the fact that it brought about the end of a coherent, self-governed Judean community.[10]

מלכים ב כה:כו וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל הָעָם מִקָּטֹן וְעַד גָּדוֹל וְשָׂרֵי הַחֲיָלִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִצְרָיִם כִּי יָרְאוּ מִפְּנֵי כַשְׂדִּים.
2 Kgs 25:26 And all the people, young and old, and the officers of the troops set out and went to Egypt because they were afraid of the Chaldeans.

Thus the fast does not mark the death of Gedaliah per se, but rather its theologically charged national consequences.

A Righteous Man

The Tosefta takes a different approach, locating the distinctive meaning of the fast precisely in its unusual association with a single individual:

צום השביעי זה שלשה בתשרי יום שנהרג בו גדליה בן אחיקם שהרגו ישמעאל בן נתנ[יה] ללמדך שקשה מיתתן של צדיקי[ם] לפני המקו[ם] כחורבן בית המקדש
“The fast of the seventh month” (Zech 8:19): This is the third of Tishrei, the day on which Gedaliah son of Ahikam was killed, whom Ishmael son of Netaniah killed. This teaches you that the death of righteous people is as hard for God as the destruction of the Temple.[11]

This interpretation also appears Sifrei Deuteronomy (§31) and the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a).

Saadia Gaon Adopts the Peshat Approach

Despite this rabbinic interpretation, a piyyut written by Saadia Gaon (882–942 C.E.), a watershed figure in Jewish history, adopts a version of the community-centered approach. Saadia’s enormous legacy, spanning anti-Karaite polemic, Bible translation and commentary, halakhic codification, and more, includes signal contributions in the fields of prayer and liturgical poetry.[12]

His first work, the Egron, is a thesaurus of sorts designed to facilitate the composition of acrostic, rhymed poetry. He produced an early prayer book that achieved wide circulation throughout the Genizah period.[13] And he was a prolific author of piyyutim, some of which he included in his siddur. Saadia wrote at least three selichot (penitential poems) for the fast of Gedaliah, two of which appear in his siddur.[14] I will focus on אבלה נפשי וחשך תארי “My soul mourned and my countenance darkened.”[15] For the full text and my translation of this poem, see the Appendix.

“My Soul Mourned and My Countenance Darkened”

The poem, notable for its thematic unity, is an alphabetical acrostic, divided by rhyme into six quatrains. The first four strophes all make the same claim: that the fast of the third of Tishrei (performatively indicated by deictics: “this day” in l. 4; “now” in l. 8), marks the destruction of the remnant that survived the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem.[16] Here is the first strophe.

אבלה נפשי וחשך תארי
1 My soul mourned and my countenance darkened
בית תפארתי כנשרף ביד הארי
2 When my glorious house was burned by the lion (=Nebuchadnezzar).[17]
גם פליטתי אשר עזבו ושארי
3 Even my fugitive remnant whom he left
דועכו כהיום בשלשה בתשרי
4 Was extinguished on this day, the third of Tishrei.[18]

The defining mode of commemoration is, then, irony: A remnant survived, only to meet, in short order, its own end. The fast of Gedaliah becomes, in Saadia’s hands, something like a stand-in for all tragedies subsequent to the destruction of the temple, insofar as they represent further assaults on the remnant.[19]

Gedaliah: Victim or Victimizer?

Saadia’s focus lies resolutely with the remnant. Gedaliah himself is mentioned only once, in l. 8. Saadia says that the “elders of the remnant” died “through (ביד) Gedaliah son of Ahikam.” These latter words are taken from Jeremiah 41:9, which refers to the corpses of the men whom Ishmael killed “through (ביד) Gedaliah son of Ahikam.” The intended meaning of the preposition in its biblical context is uncertain; the question is complicated by the fact that the entire prepositional phrase is missing in the Septuagint. Most likely, the plain sense is something like “in connection with,” or “alongside.”

But the Babylonian Talmud (b. Niddah 61a), appreciating that ביד ordinarily indicates agency, reads the verse differently:

וכי גדליה הרגן והלא ישמעאל הרגן אלא מתוך שהיה לו לחוש לעצת יוחנן בן קרח ולא חש מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו הרגן אמר רבא האי לישנא בישא אף על פי דלקבולי לא מבעי מיחש ליה מבעי
And did Gedaliah kill them? Did not Ishmael kill them? But because he should have shown concern in light of the counsel of Yohanan son of Kareah, yet he did not show concern, the verse treats him as though he killed them. Said Rava: “When it comes to slander, one shouldn’t accept it, but one should show concern for it.”

This passage is cited twice in a geonic work from the 8th century, the Sheʾiltot.[20] We cannot be certain whether Saadia meant to allude to Bavli passage, but it is telling that he borrows the words from Jeremiah 41:9, and otherwise makes no reference to Gedaliah. More strikingly, Saadia employs the same preposition, ביד, in l. 2, to attribute the destruction of the Temple to Nebuchadnezzar, “the lion.”

Saadia may thus mean to imply that, as Nebuchadnezzar was responsible for the initial destruction, Gedaliah, through his refusal to heed Yohanan, was (partially) responsible for the annihilation of the remnant. This approach to the fast is very different from the Tosefta, which makes Gedaliah’s death the tragedy that the fast commemorates.


A Full Translation of Saadia’s Poem


אבלה נפשי וחשך תארי
1 My soul mourned and my countenance darkened
בית תפארתי כנשרף ביד הארי
2 When my glorious house was burned by the lion.
גם פליטתי אשר עזבו ושארי
3 Even my fugitive remnant whom he left
דועכו כהיום בשלשה בתשרי
4 Was extinguished on this day, the third of Tishrei.

המים הזידונים שטפונו בדלקם
5 The seething waters overwhelmed us in their pursuit,[21]
ובוססו מקדש ובזזו חלקם
6 Trampling temple and plundering their portion.[22]
זקני שארית אשר פלטו מיום נקם
7 The elders of the remnant who fled from vengeance day
חבלו עתה ביד גדליה בן אחיקם
8 Were destroyed now through Gedaliah son of Ahikam.

טרפו דלת עם הארץ
9 The lowly of the people of the land were torn.
יתר הגזם אכל הארבה בחרץ
10 What the cutters left, the locust ate utterly.
כורמים ויוגבים פקדת מרגיז הארץ
11 Pickers and shore men, commissioned by the land disturber,[23]
להטו ולא היה בהם גודר גדר ועומד בפרץ
12 Were burned, with none to fence or mend the breach.

מה אספר ואנחותי עצומות
13 What can I say? My sighs are forceful.
נקטה נפשי ומקהלותי עגומות
14 My soul contends and my crowds are distraught.
שרידי אשר נשארו מיקוד אש בתעצומות
15 My survivors who remained, persisting from the pyre,
עוד הם לא נתקימו ונתשו בחמות
16 They no longer endure, having been cast out in anger.

פניך עד מתי ממנו תסתיר
17 How long will you conceal your face from us?
צוחתינו שמע ואסורינו תתיר
18 Hear our cry and release our captives.
קדוש הבט כי אין בעדנו מעתיר
19 Holy one, note that there is none to entreat for us.
ראה בדלותנו ושבח לך נכתיר
20 See our lowliness, and we will crown you with praise.

שודדנו מדור לדור ומקץ לקץ
21 We have been plundered, in every generation and era.
שורש צפע בפתע אותנו עוקץ
22 A viperous root of a sudden bites us.
תקיף למשפטנו העירה והקץ
23 Strong one, awake and arise for our cause.
תכפר חטאינו ותאמר קרב קץ
24 Cover our sins and say: The end has arrived.


September 3, 2021


Last Updated

March 30, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has an M.A. from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. from Yale. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic Judaism.  He has also written on topics in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism, and on Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) from late antiquity.