Who Was Gedaliah, and Why Do Jews Fast for Him?

It was a time of upheaval in the Israelite domain, as the Babylonians and Egyptians struggled over the land, during which a little-known Judean official named Gedaliah briefly came to the forefront.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The Yom Kippur fast.
Jews fast on for Gedaliah, even if they don't know who he was.Credit: Ayala Tal
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The third of Tishrei is a Jewish fast day for observant Jews, who abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk. Less well known is why.

Gedaliah was a high-ranking official in the Judean court in Jerusalem, as had been his father before him, Ahikam, and his father, Shaphan.

Shaphan was the man who delivered the book of Deuteronomy to King Josiah after it was mysteriously discovered in the Temple during renovations, which is a good point to start our story.

In about 640 BCE, King Amon of Judah was assassinated, leaving his 8-year old son Josiah to rule the Judean Kingdom. After Josiah received the Book of Deuteronomy from Shaphan, he began a series of profound religious reforms that involved the centralization of the Jewish cult in the Temple of Jerusalem, and around one single god. Most households of the time seem to have been polytheistic.

Meanwhile, the world around tiny Judea was in flux. The Assyrian Empire, which dominated the region and had destroyed the northern Israelite Kingdom just some 70 years earlier, was disintegrating. In the south, Egypt - the other regional superpower - was recovering from the Assyrian rule it had shaken off, and was concentrating on rebuilding its former glory.

This was an opportune moment for the Judeans to do some empire building of their own, or at least that was the vibrant Josiah thought.

Pharaoh to King Josiah: Why are you here?

Taking advantage of the power vacuum, the Judeans began gobbling up the territories to the north of those that used to belong to the Israelite Kingdom. They may have been trying to reconstruct the unified kingdom of David and Solomon, which may or may not have existed, not that Josiah knew that.

Josiah didn't plan to accomplish this alone: he allied with a rising power in the east, the Babylonians, who were starting to eclipse their former overlords, the Assyrians.

Thus when in 609 BCE, Pharaoh Necho II led an army from Egypt up the Judean coast to aid the Assyrians in battle against the upstart Babylonians, Josiah led his army to Megiddo to block Necho’s path.

2 Chronicles quotes Necho’s ambassadors as telling Josiah: “What have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war; and God hath given command to speed me; forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that He destroy thee not.” (35:21) But Josiah did not heed the Pharaoh and was killed in battle in Megiddo.

Josiah was succeeded by his younger son King Jehoahaz, but not for long. Three months later, on his way back from battle, Pharaoh Necho paid Judea a visit. He took Jehoahaz into captivity in Egypt and installed his older brother in his stead as King Jehoiakim. Necho also exacted a huge levy of gold and silver.

Judea was now a client state of Egypt, but that too was not to last long.

A few years later In 605 BCE, the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar II, defeated the Egyptian army in Carchemish (in modern-day Turkey). From there, they made their way to the gates of Jerusalem and laid siege.

Having decided that he wasn’t ready to die yet, Jehoiakim swapped allegiances, paid Nebuchadnezzar a levy and gave some relatives over as hostages. Judea was now a vassal of Babylon, but once again not for long.

The Babylonians lose their cool

Three years later, after the Babylonian invasion into Egypt had failed, Jehoiakim once again felt the Egyptians breathing down his neck. He decided to switch sides once more and ally himself with Egypt.

At this point, the Jerusalem court was split between supporters of alliance with Babylon and supporters of alliance with Egypt. Apparently, Gedaliah was on the Babylonian side, but Jehoiakim didn’t listen, which proved to be a fatal miscalculation.

In 599 BCE Nebuchadnezzar II returned to Judea, and he was sorely vexed. He laid siege to Jerusalem, during which Jehoiakim was killed, and his corpse was flung over the walls.

Jehoiakim was succeeded by his son Jeconiah, who ruled the besieged Jerusalem for all of three months until the city fell. Jeconiah, his family and 3,000 of the city’s upper echelon were taken into captivity in Babylonia.

Two years later, in 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar placed Jeconiah’s uncle (Josiah’s son) Zedekiah on the throne of Jerusalem. But the new monarch decided to switch allegiances and side with the new Egyptian Pharaoh, Hophra, which led to another Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 589 BCE.

When things started to look desperate, Zedekiah made a run for it, heading east down the Judean hills in the direction of the Dead Sea - only to be captured by the Babylonians. They killed his sons before his eyes, then blinded him so that their death would be the last thing he saw. Zedekiah joined his kin in captivity in Babylon, where he died.

The very brief rise of Gedaliah

Needless to say, Nebuchadnezzar had enough of these Judean troublemakers. He destroyed the Temple, sent the Judean urban classes into exile in Babylonia.

Then he placed one of the high-ranking officials of Jerusalem and member of the don’t-side-against-the-Babylonians-what-are-you-crazy?! faction - Gedaliah - as governor of the newly constituted Babylonian province of Yehud.

Gedaliah did not reign for long, though. Probably less than a year after his appointment, Ishmael son of Nethaniah, a Judean military commander and member of the royal family, led a group of captains to the administrative capital of Yehud, Mizpah, and assassinated Gedaliah during a feast, possibly for Rosh Hashanah.

Fearing Babylonian reprisal, the remaining Judeans fled into Egypt, ending Jewish autonomy in Judea.

During the long years of Babylonian Captivity, four fast days were established in memory of the destruction of Judea and the Temple. We first hear of these in the Book of Zechariah, when the Jews ask the prophet upon their return from captivity if they should continue to fast now that they had returned and rebuilt the Temple; or should they continue to mourn.

Zechariah tells them: “Saith the LORD of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.” (8:19).

Rabbinic Judaism interpreted Zechariah's “fast of the seventh month” as a fast commemorating the assassination of Gedaliah. Tosefta Sukkah 6:10 (redacted at the end of the 2nd century) says: “The fast of the seventh [month] is on the third of Tishrei - the day Gedaliah the Son of Ahikam was killed.”

Later rabbis suggested that in fact, Gedaliah was killed on Rosh Hashanah, but since we cannot fast on that day, the fast was postponed to the first available day - the third of Tishrei. Either way, Jews have been fasting in memory of Gedaliah ever since.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: