The Tenth of Tevet was established to be a fast day by our sages. This was because Nebuchadnezzar with his soldiers came and laid siege on Jerusalem. This siege was the start of the Divine punishment that led to the destruction of our First Temple and the exile of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
The siege that was laid on the Second Temple was a different date but we use this date to commemorate it along with a few other tragedies that befell our nation on dates close to the tenth of Tevet. Ezra the scribe died on the ninth of Tevet and our Holy Torah was translated to Greek on the eighth of Tevet.
The death of Ezra the Scribe who died on the ninth of Tevet was a cause for national mourning. Our sages said of Ezra the Scribe that “he was worthy of giving the Torah to the Nation of Israel but was preceded by Moses.” (Sanhedrin 21a) so we see he is second in greatness only to Moses. He also came back from Babylon to rebuild the Second Temple. He is the Prophet Malachi. This means he was the both the last prophet belonging to the written Torah, and the sage that made ten rabbinical decrees starting the tradition of the sages of the oral Torah. He was the bridge between the written law and oral law. Like Moses, he too worried for his nation and shared the burden of leading them as a leader of the return to Israel from Babylon and the rebuilding of the Second Temple.
Later, in the time of the Greeks a harsh decree befell the Jews, to translate the Torah into Greek. This was considered as bad as the day of the golden calf because the Torah belongs uniquely to Israel and through translating it the uniqueness became blurred and it started to be considered something that anyone could access. This was on the eighth of Tevet and the world darkened for three days. So the tenth of Tevet also commemorates that unfortunate event.
Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook said that we should repair the harm of these three events. Firstly, corresponding to the siege in Jerusalem we should strengthen the walls and the building in Israel both spiritually and physically. Secondly, corresponding to the death of Ezra the Scribe we should magnify and glorify the Torah and encourage Jews from the diaspora to come live in Israel as Ezra did. Thirdly, corresponding to the translation of the Torah to Greek we need to revive the authentic original Jewish culture and uproot the evil winds that have clung to it during out exile and living under the rule of the nations.
“Over these I weep” (Lamentations 1 16) “And it was in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylonia came, he and his entire army, against Jerusalem and encamped against it, and they built works of siege around it. And the city came under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.” (Kings 2, 25 1-2) Zedekiah was Matania ben Yoshia who Nebuchadnezzar made king of Judaea instead of Yehoyachin his nephew. (In Chronicles he is a brother of Yehoyachin.)
The king of Babylon trusted the Judean king who was loyal to him and brought him taxes. This alliance lasted four years and the Zedekiah decided to rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and G-d breaking an oath in the name of G-d to be subservient to Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah commanded to throw the prophet Jeremiah into the prison yard. He also turned to the king of Egypt to assist him with the rebellion agaist Babylon to no avail.
Jeremiah cried out that the only way to spare the kingdom of Judaea was total subservience to the kingdom of Babylon but Zedekiah refused to listen and stubbornly stuck to his rebellion. “Because the wrath of the Lord was against Jerusalem and against Judah until He cast them away from before His presence, Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylonia.” (Kings 2 24, 20) “And neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land hearkened to the words of the Lord which He had spoken through Jeremiah the prophet.” (Jeremiah 37, 2)
This rebellion angered Nebuchadnezzar and he commanded his platoons to lay siege on Judaea and Jerusalem. “And the army of the king of Babylon was waging war against Jerusalem and against all the remaining cities of Judah, against Lachish and against Azekah, because they were the fortified cities left among the cities of Judah.” (Jeremiah 34, 7)
In the eleventh year of Zedekiah in the month of Av the Temple was destroyed. The siege lasted a year and a half. It should be noted that the siege on Shomron, the capital of the Israel kingdom in Samaria lasted three years and only then was it destroyed and the ten tribes exiled. This took place in the time of Hoshea ben Elah. “And the king of Assyria went up through the entire land, and he went up to Samaria and besieged it three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and exiled the Israelites to Assyria, and he repatriated them in Halah, and in Habor, the Gozan River, and the cities of Media.” (Kings 2 17, 5-6)
Nebuchadnezzar encamped by Jerusalem and put in under siege and erected a structure of towers around it with which to look into the city and know how the city dwellers fare so they would know when the people inside the city were weakening. In the 9th day of the fourth month famine overcame the city. There was no more bread for the warriors and inhabitants of Jerusalem. As it says in Lamentations 1 11,” All her people are sighing [as] they search for bread; they gave away their treasures for food to revive the soul”. In 2, 12 it says “They say to their mothers, “Where are corn and wine?” as they faint like one slain, in the streets of the city, while their soul ebbs away..” and in 4, 10 it says “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they have become their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people.”
Midieval painting of Nebuchadnezzar encamped by Jerusalem and women eating their children
The starvation made all the protectors of Jerusalem weak and enabled Nebuchadnezzar to penetrate the city walls. The verses talk of two walls where the troops celebrated even penetrating the outside one by sitting between the two walls. “And all the officers of the king of Babylon came and sat in the middle gates, and all the rest of the officers of the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 39 3)
“And it came to pass when Zedekiah the king of Judah and all the men of war saw them, that they fled and went out at night from the city by way of the king's garden by the gate between the two walls, and he went out by way of the Arabah. And the army of the Chaldees pursued them, and they overtook Zedekiah on the plains of Jericho, and they took him and brought him up to Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon … and he called him to account”. (Jeremiah 39 4-5)
Zedekiah tried to escape. The Midrash says he had a tunnel leading out of Jerusalem through which he escaped. But it wasn’t meant to be. G-d sent a deer running along the tunnel. Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers chased the deer to catch it and they caught the deer at the mouth of the tunnel with Zedekiah coming out of it. Zedekiah was taken captive and the king commanded to kill Zedekiah’s sons and then blind Zedekiah. Zedekiah wanted to die first not to see his sons’ death, they wanted to die first not to see their father’s death. Nebuchadnezzar listened to the sons and killed them first then blinded Zedekiah and brought him to Babylon.
Zedekiah shouted and said : “Jeremiah prophesized saying I would be taken to Babylon and die there and my eyes would not see Babylon and I refused to listen to his words.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Kings 2 25)
“And the king's palace and the houses of the people the Chaldeans burnt with fire, and they demolished the walls of Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who remained in the city, and the defectors who had defected to him, and the rest of the remaining people, Nebuzaradan, the chief executioner, exiled to Babylon.” (Jeremiah 39, 8-9)
It comes out that the fateful day when the siege leading to this ultimate destruction was the tenth of Tevet. This date is clearly mentioned in Ezekiel – Chapter 24 1-2 “Then the word of the Lord came to me in the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth of the month, saying: Son of man, write for yourself the name of the day, this very day; the king of Babylon has besieged Jerusalem on this very day.”
This day, counted amongst our fasts and days of national mourning will in the future become a day to rejoice as it says in the Prophet Zachariah 8 19 “So said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth [month], the fast of the seventh [month], and the fast of the tenth [month] shall be for the house of Judah for joy and happiness and for happy holidays-but love truth and peace.”
May it happen speedily in our days.