Good Translations. Or, Another Reason Not to Fast on the 10th of Tevet

Thursday was a minor fast day on the Jewish calendar: the 10th of Tevet. Minor in this case means that it is a sunrise to sunset fast, as opposed to the major fast of Yom Kippur, which is a full 25-hour fast. The themes, though, are not minor: it is a fast day because it commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, a siege which resulted in the eventual destruction of the Temple and the Exile of the Israelite people in 586 BCE.

The 10th of Tevet is part of a cycle of fasts which also includes the 17th of Tammuz, in which the walls were breached, and the 9th of Av, another major fast, in which the Temple was destroyed.

This cycle of fasts is meant for us to recall the devastation that was the destruction of the Temple. The central institution of the Jewish community was destroyed, the people separated from their Land, the community put into disarray.

And it is for these reasons that I do not observe these fasts.

Now, I admit, I’m not a hardliner against them. While I do not observe the minor fasts, I do observe Tisha B’Av—the 9th of Av. There is a place for mourning when we remember communal destruction, and Jewish tradition has associated other calamities that befell the Jewish people with that day. Also, the ancient rabbinic commentators, in trying to determine a reason for the Temple’s destruction, point to the ethical failings (both real and imagined) of the community at the time. When we mourn and fast on Tisha B’Av, we acknowledge the loss that comes when our important institutions are undermined, and we uphold the importance of interpersonal ethical behavior.

At the same time, as devastating as it may be, it was this series of events that gave us the Torah and the beginnings of Judaism as we know it. It was during the Babylonian Exile that the Torah reached its final form; a people without a land or central institution instead based their communal identity on text. And separation from the “old way” of doing things necessitated the development of new ideas and practices. Judaism as we know it today is a religion of the Diaspora, and so with loss comes new opportunity and growth.

In reading about the 10th of Tevet specifically this year, I came across another reason for the fast that can then be turned around into a reason not to fast. Tradition holds that it was on the 8th of Tevet that the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Torah, was written.

According to legend, King Ptolemy called together 70 scholars and locked them each in a room individually, without telling them why. He then went to them one by one and told him of his assignment, to translate the sacred text into the vernacular. The miracle of the story is that each one emerged with exact same translations. While the story of its origins is legend, the translation is fact.

So why was this seen as a reason for mourning, that the tradition links it to the fast of Tevet two days later? Because, as we read in the minor Talmudic tractate Soferim 1:7: “the day that the translation was made was as hard for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf, because the Torah could not be translated accurately.”

In other words, a translation is a moving away from the original text, and meanings contained within the original are lost or obscured with a translation. So much so that it could be compared to the Golden Calf, the idol the Israelites created in the desert after fleeing Egypt, a story understood to be the paradigm of sinful behavior. An idol too is an obscuration of what is real, a reflection of the whole. To the authors of the Talmud passage, the Golden Calf was a turning away from God, and the Septuagint was a turning away from God’s word.

We can understand this point. A translation is an interpretation and a moving away from the original, no matter how accurate. But a basis for mourning? A translation is also a gift to those who do not know the original language, and therefore makes the sacred text that much more accessible. It opens up the wisdom and teaching of Jewish text and tradition to more people. This is a reason for celebration, not mourning.

The two reasons for fasting on the 10th of Tevet are thus related. The beginning of the end of the Temple and the first translation of the Torah are both seen as a severing of a direct connection between God and the people. And these two reasons for the fast can also provide their obverse, the reasons not to fast, for they allowed for new connections between God and the people to form.

 

 

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