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Who is Gedalia and why do Jews fast for him?

Sep 9, 2021

Seal of Gedaliah

וַיָּ֩קׇם֩ יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־נְתַנְיָ֜ה וַעֲשֶׂ֥רֶת הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֣ים ׀ אֲשֶׁר־הָי֣וּ אִתּ֗וֹ וַ֠יַּכּ֠וּ אֶת־גְּדַלְיָ֨הוּ בֶן־אֲחִיקָ֧ם בֶּן־שָׁפָ֛ן בַּחֶ֖רֶב וַיָּ֣מֶת אֹת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר־הִפְקִ֥יד מֶלֶךְ־בָּבֶ֖ל בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

Then Ishmael son of Nethaniah and the ten men who were with him arose and struck down Gedalya son of Achikam son of Shafan with the sword and killed him, because the king of Babylon had put him in charge of the land.

va-YA-kom yish-ma-AYL ben n'-tan-YAH va-a-SE-ret ha-a-na-SHEEM a-sher ha-YU i-TO va-ya-KU et g'-dal-YA-hu ven a-khee-KAM ben sha-FAN ba-KHE-rev va-YA-met o-TO a-sher hif-KEED me-lekh ba-VEL ba-A-retz

Jeremiah 41:2

Archaeologists in Israel uncovered evidence from nearly three thousand years ago, proving the existence of Gedaliah, a relatively minor character mentioned in the Bible, whose life is still commemorated till this very day by Jews every year through an annual fast day.

The Fast of Gedaliah, Tzom Gedalya (צוֹם גְּדַלְיָה) in Hebrew, is a minor Jewish fast day from dawn until dusk to lament the assassination of Gedaliah, the righteous governor of Judah. His death ended Jewish autonomy following the destruction of the First Temple.

Gedaliah son of Ahikam was appointed by the Babylonians as governor of Judah after the destruction of Jerusalem. A small band of Jewish fanatics, led by Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, took advantage of Gedaliah’s hospitality and assassinate him on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. As a result, the few Jews remaining in Israel fled to Egypt to avoid the vengeance of the Babylonian army, ridding the Holy Land of a Jewish presence for the remainder of the Babylonian exile. The death of the last Jewish leader in Israel marked the end of the First Israelite Commonwealth. Since then, for over two thousand years, Jews have fasted in commemoration of Gedaliah’s death on the day after Rosh Hashana, to remind them how hatred and zealousness cost them their sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught that since Jerusalem was destroyed on account of hatred and factionalism (Yoma 9b), it is through love and kindness that the Jews will return to the land and the Temple will be rebuilt.

The events are recounted briefly in II Kings 25:25–26:

But it came to pass in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, of the seed royal, came, and ten men with him, and smote Gedaliah, that he died, and the Jews and the Chaldeans that were with him at Mitzpah. And all the people, both small and great, and the captains of the forces, arose, and came to Egypt; for they were afraid of the Chaldeans.

A fuller account is in Jeremiah 41 where the murder of a group of envoys and the kidnapping of the gubernatorial staff and family are also related:

In the seventh month, Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama, of the royal family, one of the chief officers of the king, came with ten men to Gedaliah son of Ahikam, at Mizpah. As they ate bread together there at Mizpah, Ishmael son of Nethaniah and ten men with him got up and struck down Gedaliah son of Ahikam son Shaphan with the sword and killed him, because the king of Babylon had appointed him governor in the land. Ishmael also killed all the Judeans who were with Gedaliah at Mizpah, and the Chaldean soldiers who happened to be there.

In remembrance of these tribulations, the Jewish sages instituted the Fast of the Seventh (see Zechariah 8:19) on the day of Gedaliah’s assassination in the seventh month.

According to the Talmud, the aim of the fast day is “to establish that the death of the righteous is likened to the burning of the House of our God.” Just as fasts were ordained to commemorate the destruction of the Temple (Beit Hamikdash), likewise a fast was ordained to commemorate the death of Gedaliah.

Related Names and Places: Destruction of the First Temple

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