Many Jewish holidays date to a historical event, which occurred in Biblical times. For instance, the Passover marks the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt during Moses’ time; Shavuoth commemorates the revelation of the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai; Succoth refers to the Children of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness when they dwelt in booths; and lastly, the Fast of Tebeth (the tenth month on the Hebraic calendar) commemorates the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 588-586 B. C. E. (before the common era).
Several biblical passages give details about the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple that occurred in 588-586 B. C. E. Of these, Jeremiah chapter 52 and II Kings chapter 25 give the most detailed description.
According to these accounts, the Kingdom of Judah was invaded by the Babylonians (Chaldeans) under King Nebuchadnezzar. The invasion and ultimate defeat of Judah came in several stages over the course of two years. First, the city of Jerusalem, the capital, was besieged by the Chaldeans who pitched forts around the walls of the city, preventing the entrance and exit of food and supplies. Second, famine afflicted the inhabitants of the city, and they began to suffer. Third, the Chaldeans invaded Jerusalem, burned many buildings, took many people captive, and deported them to Babylon. Fourth, a new governor, Gedaliah, was installed, but eventually he was killed by a band of men led by Ishmael. Finally, the remaining people of Judah fled into exile in Egypt and other neighboring countries.
The Promise of the Restoration of Jerusalem
The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple were sad events in the history of Judaism. Thousands of inhabitants of Jerusalem were deported to Babylon and exiled into neighboring countries. While in exile, Psalms 137 expresses the sobering disposition of the Israelite people as they viewed their lost independence, grieved about their captivity in strange lands, and yearned for freedom and the opportunity to return to their homeland.
Despite the gloom of their situation, they failed to lose hope. During the time of the prophet Zechariah, there was a prophecy that Jerusalem would be restored and the Temple would be rebuilt. In Zechariah chapter 8 verses 1-8, there is a promise that Jerusalem would be restored and inhabited by children, old men, and old women. The promise included the gathering of the remnant of God’s people from the East and the West. In Zechariah chapter 8 verse 9, it is prophesied that the Temple will be rebuilt.
Commemoration of the siege of Jerusalem
As a memorial of the methodical invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the destruction of the Temple, the House of Judah was commanded in ancient times to observe certain fasts: the fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth. This proclamation is found in Zechariah chapter 8 verse 19.
Within our Congregation, we preserve the memory of this solemn event by observing the Fast of Tebeth. The Fast of Tebeth actually correlates with the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, which occurred on the 10th day of the 10th month. We commemorate this event by worshipping, praying, fasting, and feasting.
Before sundown on the third day of Tebeth, the members of our congregation assemble in the Tabernacle to observe the beginning of the Holy Convocation (the Holy Convocation consists of seven “Holy Days” leading to the Fast of Tebeth). The service consists of the blowing of the trumpets by the males of the congregation. The blowing of trumpets is a practice, which goes back to biblical times. It denotes seriousness and a call of attention to a sacred event. The service also consists of singing and the reading of Zechariah chapter 8, which articulates the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the commemoration of the four fasts.
An important characteristic of the seven days of the Holy Convocation is the 4:00 a.m. service. This service consists of praying, thanksgiving, singing, and testifying. Specifically, on each morning, the prayer found in St. Matthew chapter 6 verses 9-14 is recited while in a different praying position. Each day the praying position gets lower until finally, we lay flat on our stomachs with faces in hands which symbolizes the fall of the walls of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. On the Sabbath or 10th day we are to stand erect (one of the meanings for standing on the 10th day symbolizes that the Temple has been rebuilt metaphorically).
Other important features of the Holy Convocation are the observances of fasting and feasting. At sundown, on the eve of the tenth day, all members of the congregation are to engage in a fast, by abstaining from food and water. The only members who are excluded from fasting are children, the elderly, the sick, and expecting mothers. The fast, which lasts approximately 18 hours, ends at high noon (1:00 p.m.) with a feast. The feast, which usually occurs in the Tabernacle, involves the eating of a festive meal while giving thanks to God.
As a commemoration of the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 588-586 B. C. E., the Children of Israel were commanded to observe the fasts recorded in Zechariah chapter 8. These fasts correlate to the systematic invasion of the House of Judah by the Babylonians. They are reminders of this solemn event in the history of the Israelite people.
For our Congregation’s purposes, the Holy Convocation/Fast of Tebeth is also a recollection of the siege of Jerusalem. Yet, it too is a time when we lay siege on our individual walls of sin and shortcomings, and it is a period to become reconciled with God through prayer and thanksgiving.