Author Archives: Daniel Kirsch

About Daniel Kirsch

Daniel Kirsch received his doctoral degree in Near Eastern Studies with an emphasis in Hebrew Bible from Johns Hopkins University.

Who Was Gedaliah?

In the late seventh century B.C.E., the Babylonians became the major power in the Near East, imposing heavy tribute payments upon all conquered peoples including the states of the Levant. Within Judah, there were dissenting opinions as to whether or not to accept Babylonian hegemony. Generally speaking, whenever an opportunity arose (such as inner turmoil in Babylonia or external threats to the empire), Judah and her neighbors revolted.

After one such effort at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, responded with a punitive campaign against Judah. When Jerusalem surrendered, Nebuchadnezzar seized the palace and Temple treasures and exiled members of the upper classes, including young King Jehoiachin, who had ascended to the throne during the siege. Jerusalem, however, was spared, and Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, as king of Judah (2 Kings 24:8-17).

seal of gedaliah

Seal of Gedaliah

It was not long, however, before Zedekiah also rebelled. In 586 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar returned to the region. This time, neither Jerusalem nor the Temple was spared. Zedekiah attempted to flee but was captured. He was brought before Nebuchadnezzar and forced to witness his children’s execution, before his eyes were poked out. Again, booty and prisoners were carried off to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21; Jeremiah 39:1-7).

The physical losses suffered by the Jews at this time were indeed great. Psychologically, however, the losses were greater. The Davidic dynasty, which God promised would be eternal, now sat in exile in Babylon. Moreover, the Temple itself had been a symbol of God’s presence among God’s people. Its destruction thus suggested that God had abandoned the chosen people, thereby making them all the more vulnerable (see, for example, 2 Kings 24:20). It is in this setting that we encounter Gedaliah.

Historical References to Gedaliah

The earliest attestation of Gedaliah appears to come from an extra-biblical source. A seal impression found at Lachish (southwest of Jerusalem), dating to roughly 600 B.C.E., bears the inscription, “Gedalyahu, who is over the house.” The title refers to a chief cabinet position within the king’s court. The name, a variant of the name Gedaliah, has been taken by some as a reference to the subject of the Fast of Gedaliah. Thus Gedaliah, in his early career, appears to have held a high position in the Judahite royal court.

Tzom Gedaliah

The Fast of Gedaliah is a day set aside to commemorate the assassination of Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed official charged with administering the Jewish population remaining in Judah following the destruction of the Temple and exile in 586 B.C.E. It is observed on the third of Tishrei (the day after Rosh Hashanah) with a fast from sunrise to sundown, and like on other fast days, the recital of special prayers (“Anenu”) and the reading of selected biblical readings (Exodus 32:14; 34:1-10). In years when Rosh Hashanah begins on Thursday, the fast is postponed until Sunday, as fasts other than Yom Kippur are not permitted on Shabbat.

seal of gedaliah

Seal of Gedaliah

Remembering Gedaliah

The earliest commemoration of Gedaliah’s death might be said to have occurred immediately after his assassination, with the pilgrimage of those who had come to mourn him only to be stricken down by Ishmael.

We next hear of this as a day of mourning connected with three other fast days in the Book of Zechariah. In an oracle dating to the end of the sixth century B.C.E. in Zechariah 7-8, we find a group coming to the prophet to ask whether it is still necessary to solemnly commemorate the destruction of the Temple now that the people have been permitted to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. In an extended response that never directly answers the question, but does assure them that God has plans for their future prosperity, Zechariah informs them that these four holidays will one day be celebrated with joy and gladness. Perhaps Zechariah’s response was intended to mean that these solemn commemorations were still necessary, but would not be so forever.

minor fasts quizIt should also be noted that Zechariah makes reference to four fast days associated with the demise of Judah (Zechariah 8:19), but he is only asked about one fast, the one commemorating the destruction of the Temple (Zechariah 7:3). In his response, Zechariah refers to all four fast days. This may suggest that not all Jews observed the other three fast days.

The next reference to the Fast of Gedaliah comes in the Babylonian Talmud. In tractate Rosh Hashanah 18b, the rabbis assign the third day of Tishrei as the date the Fast of Gedaliah is to be observed; the biblical text (Zechariah 7:5; 8:19) simply refers to the month of its observance but not the date. The rabbis add that the fact that a fast day is designated to commemorate Gedaliah’s death suggests that the death of a righteous man was just as tragic as the burning of the Temple.