When the armies of Nebuchadnezzar,
the king of Babylon, destroyed the first Bait Hamikdash and the
city of Yerushalayim, the majority of the Jews who lived in the
land of Judah were exiled to Babylon. A small left over population of
poor impoverished Jews were permitted to remain in Judah.
To govern the remaining
Jews, Nebuchadnezzar appointed a prominent Jewish leader, a tzadik
(a good and righteous man), by the name of Gedalia ben Achikam.
Many Jews who fled the country during the Babylonian conquest of Judah,
settled on the east side of the Jordan, in Moav, Edom and Ammon. Now,
they, and others further away, returned to their homes in Eretz Yisroel
to enjoy the relative peace under Babylonian rule.
Gedalia, together with
other righteous leaders of the Jews, like the Prophet Jeremiah, advised
the Jews to accept the yoke of Babylonian rule. Realistic about the
limitations of Jewish sovereignty, he wanted to work towards reestablishing
normal life in the country. Maintaining peace with the Babylonians would
preserve Yerushalayim from further destruction.
Gedalia made a sincere
effort to save the Jewish nation. However, his rule lasted only two
Unfortunately, there were
traitors amongst the Jews, jealous of Gedalia's power, and to whom this
political subservience was intolerable. Belis, King of Ammon, was also
very unhappy. He was envious of the Jewish loyalty to Babylonia, especially
since Ammon had sheltered many of these Jews throughout the years of
turmoil in Eretz Yisroel. Determined to effect the complete ruin
of Judah, the king of Ammon provoked one of these traitors, Yishmael
ben Netaniah, a descendant of the former royal family of Judah,
into a plot to assassinate Gedalia.
One night during the month
of Tishrei, Yishmael showed up at a party in the town of Mitzpah,
hosted by Gedalia. Other guests had warned Gedalia of Yishmael's evil
intentions. But Gedalia wouldn't listen to their "Lashon Hora."
Well, it turns out they
were right. Yishmael ben Netaniah treacherously murdered Gedalia,
all the Jews who were at the party, as well as the Babylonian soldiers
who were stationed there.
Fearing retaliation by
Nebuchadnezzar, the surviving Jews thought to flee to Egypt to save
themselves. They turned to the Prophet Jeremiah, who was secluded in
mourning, to ask for advice. Should they go to Egypt, a morally corrupt
society, or remain in Eretz Yisroel and face the music.
After a week of prayer
to Hashem, the Prophet Jeremiah received an answer on Yom
Kippur. Jeremiah told the Jews that Hashem wants them to
stay in Eretz Yisroel and everything would be all right. The
Babylonians would act mercifully toward the Jews, and before long, all
the exiled Jews would be permitted to return to their homes in Eretz
Yisroel. But if the Jews decided to go to Egypt, the sword from
which they were running would kill them there.
Despite these warnings
from the Prophet Jeremiah, the people refused to believe, and all of
the surviving Jews fled to Egypt. They even kidnapped Jeremiah and took
him with them!
Of course you know what
happened next. A few years later, Babylon conquered Egypt and tens of
thousands of Jewish exiles were completely wiped out. The lone survivor
of this massacre was Jeremiah. His prophecy had become painfully true.
The land of Eretz Yisroel would remain desolate until Ezra and
Nechemia would return to build the second Bait Hamikdash.
The Talmud, (Tractate
Rosh Hashana 18b) states that the fast of the seventh month referred
to in Zechariah refers to the 3rd of Tishrei when we fast for
the murder of Gedalia ben Achikam. (There
is an opinion that Gedalia was slain on the first day of Tishrei,
but the fast was postponed till after Rosh Hashana, since fasting
is prohibited during a festival).
Our Sages declared that
the anniversary of the tragedy should be a day of fasting in "order
to demonstrate that the death of the righteous is equivalent to the
destruction of the Bait Hamikdash, which is also commemorated
by a fast." (Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 18b). Just as they
established a fast upon the destruction of the Bait Hamikdash,
likewise did they establish a fast upon the death of Gedalia, during
the Aseret Y'mei Tshuva (ten days of repentance) to remind us
of what happens when Jews fight with one another.