The Fast of Gedaliah (Tzom Gedaliah) commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, who was the governor of Israel appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, after he had captured Jerusalem and detroyed the (First) Temple. The murder of Gedaliah is often compared with the destruction of the Temple, because it cost so many Jewish lives and brought the end of Jewish settlement in Israel for many years.
The fast is observed on the third day of the Hebrew month of Tishre (the day immediately after Rosh Hashanah)i. It starts at dawn and ends at nightfall. If Rosh HaShanah falls on Thursday and Friday, the Fast of Gedaliah is postponed until Sunday as we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat (except for Yom Kippur).
However, he did not wish to lay waste to the entire land of Judah (Israel), so he allowed the Jewish agrarian class to remain there to work the soil. In time, he allowed some more Jews to return to Israel and even appointed a righteous Jew named Gedaliah as governor of the territory. Gradually, Jews who had fled to Moab, Ammon, Edom, and other neighbouring lands as refugees after the Destruction, began to return to their homes.
Gedaliah was known as a wise, gentle and modest person. He realised the limitations of Jewish sovereignty over Israel under Nebuchadnezzar and believed that the Jews needed to cooperate completely with their Babylonian conquerors in order to survive. He promised them peace and security in exchange for their loyalty to Babylonia. Under the administration of Gedaliah, the Jewish community of Israel began to prosper. Slowly, more and more Jewish refugees began to return from neighbouring lands.
After the Destruction of the Temple, the Jewish prophet Jeremiah had been allowed to choose between remaining in Israel or going to Babylonia as an honoured guest of Nebachudnezzar. He chose to remain in Israel and went to Mizpah, north of Jerusalem. Mizpah was Gedaliah’s seat of government and with Jeremiah there, it also become the Jews’ spiritual centre.
But the Jews’ growing prosperity under Gedaliah and his subservient position regarding the Babylonians engendered both jealousy and anger. The King of Ammon conspired with a Jew, Yishmael Ben Netaniah, to assassinate Gedaliah in Mizpah. Gedaliah had been warned of Yishmael’s murderous intent, but refused to heed the warning.
Yishmael arrived in Mizpah with ten followers and was received cordially at a banquet there. During the banquet, his group murdered not only their host, Gedaliah, but also many of his people. They went on to massacre more Jews and soldiers of the Babylonian garrison and left Mizpah with many captives, heading for Ammon.
The Jews remaining in Israel now feared the wrath of Nebachudnezzar and thought to flee to Egypt, which was not yet under his control. But the Jews had been slaves in Egypt, freed only 900 years earlier. It still held terrible memories for the people. It was also known to be a morally corrupt society and so the Jews faced a dilemma: should they choose physical safety in Egypt at the risk of moral danger?
They turned with this question to their spiritual advisor, the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah pleaded with God for an answer and after ten days, on Yom Kippur, he spoke to the assembled Jews:
“Thus says the God of Israel… if you will still dwell in this land, I will build you, and not destroy you, and I will plant you, and not pluck you up… Fear not the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid … for I am with you to save you… But if you say, ‘We will not dwell in this land,’ disobeying the voice of your God, saying, ‘No, but we will go into the land of Egypt’… then it shall come to pass that the sword which you feared shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine whereof you were afraid shall follow close after you in Egypt; and there you shall die… God hath spoken to you, Oh remnant of Judah, go not to Egypt; know you with certainty, for I have warned you this day!”
Despite these words exhorting the Jewish people to stay in Israel, they fled to Egypt, even kidnapping Jeremiah and forcibly taking him with them. They settled in Egypt where many Jews abandoned their faith in God and took on Egyptian practices. King Nebuchadnezzar eventually invaded Egypt and during this time even more Jews were killed. Jeremiah’s prophesy was fulfilled.
(Many people see parallels between the assassinations of Governor Gedaliah and of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a Jewish extremist, Yigal Amir, in 1995.)
How do we observe the Fast of Gedaliah?
On the Fast of Gedaliah we refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to nightfall. The Fast is observed as a day of mourning because from the day that Gedaliah was assassinated, many Jews lost hope of ever returning to Israel and because Nebuchadnezzar replaced Gedaliah with a Babylonian governor, thereby removing the last vestige of Jewish control over the city of Jerusalem.
Shacharit (Morning Service)
The cantor adds Anenu (Answer us, O Lord) to the Amidah prayer, the ‘Thirteen Attributes of Mercy’ are said, and the passages of Vayechal are read from the Torah (Shmot 32: 14 and 34: 1-10).
Minchah (Afternoon Service)
The Torah is read again, as well as the Haftara (Reading from the Prophets) for the fast (Isiah ch.55). The congregation adds the Anenu passage in the Shema Kolenu (‘hear our voice’) blessing of the Amidah. The Anenu prayer contains various supplications to God on behalf of the community.