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The Truth About Christmas And Asara B’Teveth

January 11, 2016

The Problem

The four fasts of Asara B’Teveth, Shiv’a Asar B’Thammuz, Tish’a B’Av, and Tzom Gedalia were first observed after the destruction of the First Temple, and are mentioned in the Bible. All originally commemorated the stages of the final Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, the date of the actual destruction, and the subsequent destruction of the skeletal Jewish commonwealth that survived. Centuries later, our sages added further observances to Shiv’a Asar B’Thammuz and Tish’a B’Av, including events that transpired after the destruction of the Second Temple. Maimonides and other Rishonim, therefore, mention them in their works. School children are taught to remember these lists of tragedies pertaining to Shiva’ Asar B’Thammuz and Tish’a B’av.

However, Ashkenazic tradition says that there is also more to commemorate on Asara B’Teveth. The S’lihoth prayers mention that:

With three blows did He strike me this month/… A Grecian king forced me to write the Law in Greek/… The giver of goodly words, Ezra the scribe, was surely torn to pieces/… as the fugitive came to me and said the city has been smitten (besieged)…

That is, on the tenth of Teveth we also bewail the writing of the Septuagint, the classic Greek translation of the Pentateuch, which happened on  the eighth of Teveth, and the death of Ezra, which happened on the ninth. This is not so problematic, because as we have already seen, Tish’a B’av actually commemorates events that happened on the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth of Av, but the sages chose to concentrate the memorial on the worst of those days, and Shiv’a Asar B’Thammuz also commemorates a number of events that happened between the tenth and seventeenth of that month. According to the Tur, Orah Hayim 580 (ca 1300 c.e.), these additional traditions concerning the month of Teveth were first recorded in the Halachoth G’doloth (ca. 8th century).

However, the additional observances of Asara B’Teveth are problematic.

1. The Septuagint was not seen by our sages as a bad thing. The Talmud (Megilla 8-9) records the story about its composition in an eventually positive light. Yes, it does mention that Ptolemy II did force the sages to write it, but afterwards the Talmud concludes that Greek is the most beautiful of the Japhetic (i.e. Indo-European) languages, and that therefore, Greek characters are the only ones besides for Ashuri characters (our Hebrew block letters) that may be used for the writing of Torah scrolls. The Septuagint was once upon a time the Torah for those Jews in the ancient world west of Israel whose native language was Greek, much like the Artscrolls are for those unfortunate enough to live in America, or like the Tzenna Renna was for Jewish women in Eastern Europe. The account of the Septuagint’s creation in the first chapter of Tractate Sof’rim mentions that prior to the writing of the Septuagint, Ptolemy had five sages attempt a translation of the Torah, and that the day “was as hard on the Jews as the making of the Golden Calf,” but that was because, as the story continues, the sages had not made a satisfying translation. Later, Rishonim like Maimonides would become students of all things Greek, and studied the language extensively. (Note for next year: In the Maimonidean tradition, Hanukka certainly did not commemorate a victory over or even a battle against Greek culture, and that’s why he makes no mention of such a conflict.) It is strange that although the Septuagint was around for centuries before the redaction of the Mishna, it would only come to be seen in such a negative light a millenium later, and only in certain parts of the world.

2. Ezra’s (and according to some, also Nehemiah’s) death is nothing we should we mourn on an annual basis. Yes, the sages have much praise for the Jewish leader who breathed new life into the fledgling Jewish commonwealth of the early Second Temple era, and in his day there was no one greater, but every great Jewish leader, whether prophet, priest, king, or sage, or any combination thereof has passed from this world or has to pass from this world. More importantly, from what we know about Ezra we can surely say that he did not meet his end at the hands of our enemies (“torn to pieces”), unlike Kings Saul and Josiah, or Samson, Gedaliah, Judas Maccabeus, or Rabbi Akiva. Ezra apparently died at a ripe old age in a time of peace and after doing much for the Jewish people and the Torah, and it is unlikely that his death should merit such an observance. And, like the writing of the Septuagint, one would figure that the tragedy of Ezra’s death would have been recorded, even in passing, by someone or some work in the intervening 1,500 years, especially if it was a national tragedy of historic proportions.

The Christian Connection

From Wikipedia:

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the deity Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival.

and:

The calends (Latin: kalendae, “the called”) were the first days of each month of the Roman calendar. The Romans assigned these calends to the first day of the month, signifying the start of the new moon cycle.

But the sages had their own view on the matter (Avoda Zara 8a-b):

These are the holidays of the heathens: Kalendae, Saturnalia, and Kratesis…  R’ Hanan ben Raba said: Kalendae is kept on the eight days following the [winter] equinox, Saturnalia on the eight days preceding the equinox… Our Rabbis taught: When Adam [who had been created in the autumn] saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me! Perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion! This then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight-day fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he set forth to keep an eight-day festival. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.

The corresponding passage in the Yerushalmi even mentions what Adam said at the eureka moment: “Kalendus kalon Deio!” According to the P’nei Moshe, “kalon means freedom, and deio means from God,”  and it was Adam’s way of praising Him for creating the change of seasons. It is clear that the first and third words are Latin, while freedom in Latin is actually liberatatem. The Aruch claims that kalon means good in Greek (In modern Greek kalos means good), and deio should be the Latin deis, day, and that Adam was declaring a Yom Tov. In either event, it is strange that the sages would, first of all, seek to attribute these ancient Roman holidays to the progenitor of all mankind, and it is even stranger that they would claim that he was familiar with the Greek and/or Latin languages. Jewish tradition usually has Adam speaking Hebrew.

The Yerushalmi continues by claiming that the first Roman month, January, is named not for the ancient god Janus, but rather the ancient warlord Janubris, who sacrificed himself in a war against the Egyptians, while Janus is the name of one the Exodus Pharaoh’s magicians, the other being Jambrus.

Even more interesting, and more telling, is Maimonides’s take on the whole matter. In the uncensored version of his commentary to (the mishnayoth of) tractate Avoda Zara, he says that in his opinion, the tractate itself is generally discussing Christianity, and although it makes mention of other ancient cults and gods, such as P’or, Mercury, and Aphrodite, most of the halachoth recorded therein apply to Christianity, which he defines “as any of the various sects that believe in Christ.” All are equally idolatrous, and therefore forbidden to Jew and gentile alike. Furthermore, the holidays of Kalendae and Saturnalia and the rest were recorded for posterity because they are still Christian holidays, and are still just as forbidden as they were in ancient times. Saturnalia is now what we call Christmas, and Kalendae is now (the January 1) New Year. But it gets better. While most classic commentators interpret the prohibition mentioned in the next mishna (11b) about not entering a city in which an idolatrous festival is being held, Maimonides says the mishna is referring to an idolatrous place of worship, and then declares that it is forbidden to enter a town that has a church, let alone live in such a town, and as for the obscure mishna that prohibits selling istrubalin, the one which the commentators take to mean “pine wood” or “pine cones” and then struggle to explain why idolaters used pine cones in their worship, Rabbi Kappah claims that Maimonides meant the actual species of the tree, the picea excelsa, or spruce, the one that Christians still use for Christmas trees. This stands to reason, because in Hebrew the name of a tree is also the name of the fruit, e.g., zayith means both olive and olive tree and tamar means both date and date tree. The latter two chapters of the tractate, the ones that discuss gentile wine, are also eminently applicable to our interactions with Christians. Suffice it to say that these issues make it even harder for me to accept Rabbi Rabinovitch‘s position that even according to Maimonides, Christianity has changed so much that it is no longer to be considered idolatry.

The question before us is therefore, why did the sages conceal the Christian nature of “Saturnalia” and “Kalendae”,  and instead declare that they were the first holidays known to man?

The Riddle of the  Martyred Apostles

Most editions of Tractate Sanhedrin are missing the following passage that would fit on page 43a. Due to its content, the censors had it, in Soncino’s language, expunged from most printings. After describing how Jesus was given an unprecedented 40 days for anyone to come forward with new arguments against his death sentence, the Gemara continues by describing the deaths of his apostles. Each found himself alluded to in a positive light in scripture, and the judges brought to each a rejoinder from scripture:

Our Rabbis taught: Jesus had five disciples, Mathai, Nakkai, Netzer, Buni and Toda. When Mathai was brought [before the court] he said to the judges, “Shall Mathai be executed? Is it not written, ‘When (Heb. mathai) shall I come and appear before God?'” Thereupon they retorted, “Yes, Mathai shall be executed, since it is written, ‘When shall he die and his name perish?'” When Nakkai was brought in he said to them, “Shall Nakkai be executed? Is it not written, ‘The innocent (Heb. naki) and the righteous shall you not slay?'” “Yes,” was the answer, “Nakkai shall be executed, since it is written, ‘in secret places does the innocent slay.'” When Netzer was brought in, he said, “Shall Netzer be executed? Is it not written, ‘And a shoot (Heb. netzer) shall grow forth out of his roots?'” “Yes,” they said, “Netzer shall be executed, since it is written, ‘But you are cast forth away from your grave like an abhorred offshoot.'” When Buni was brought in, he said: ‘”Shall Buni be executed? Is it not written, ‘My son (Heb. b’ni), My first born?'” “Yes,” they said, “Buni shall be executed, since it is written, ‘Behold I will slay your son, your firstborn.'” And when Toda was brought in, he said to them, “Shall Toda be executed? Is it not written, ‘A psalm for thanksgiving (Heb. toda)? “Yes,” they answered, “Toda shall be executed, since it is written, ‘Whoever offers the sacrifice of  thanksgiving honored me.'”

Aside from the fact that no other historical record, whether Jewish, Christian or other, mentions these five apostles – Jesus is said to have had twelve apostles, with names like Mark, Luke, John, and Judas, names that people actually had, and they were not executed like their master – this is certainly not the way a Jewish court of law operates. Do we convict or acquit based on scriptural references? This midrash is obviously not historical, but rather possessed of a deeper meaning, and is eerily reminiscent of the the Jewish-Christian debates that would later scar history. What were the sages alluding to here?

My Attempted Answers

If you actually look in printed versions of the Tur and the Shulhan Aruch, mark 580, you will find that the authors recommend fasting for an unknown event that occurred on the ninth of Teveth. Newer editions of both works may come with footnotes that mention the tradition that Ezra (and Nehemiah) died thereon, but that just strengthens our original question: why were the Tur and Shulhan Aruch unaware of such an important part of history, yet aware that the date was tragic?

However, better editions provide the missing piece of the puzzle: Jesus of Nazareth was born on the ninth of Teveth! Now we can suddenly understand why this would have been censored from many of our classic s’farim, and why such an event came to be regarded as a national tragedy. But first, open up a simple Hebrew calendar calculator like Hebcal and check it for yourself, just like some of our ancestors did. The Christians claim that their savior was born the night of December 25, 1 b.c.e. Because December 25 in the year -1 (there was no year 0; year 1 immediately followed year -1) was the eighth of Teveth that year, the following night was the ninth. You may object by saying that at the time, the Sanhedrin still decided the calendar on a month by month basis, so perhaps that month, which began on December 18, was really Kislew, or perhaps Sh’vat, but neither could be, because Kislew generally can not start that late in the solar year, nor does Sh’vat start that early. Calculate when the subsequent Passover would have fallen in either of those possibilities, and you will see that it would be too early or too late. Further, the actual start of the month could have been off by a day or two, because it was declared based upon verified sightings of the new moon. In the modern era, it is fairly common that Christmas and Asara B’Teveth are within two days of each other, like it was this year.

In Europe, where the Jews lived in constant fear of their loving Christian neighbors, Christian holidays became times of trepidation for the Jews, who could anticipate pogroms and the like every time. So much so, that years after censorship had removed from Jewish tradition the idea that Asara B’Teveth should also mark the rise of Christianity, the Jews created a new observance of Christmas, Nittel Nacht. In such an environment, we can also understand why the writing of the Septuagint came to be seen as part of that tragedy. The Christian scriptures, written in Greek, were touted as the successors of the true Bible, and the Greek translation of the original was used as the basis for all sorts of “proofs” as to veracity of Christianity’s claims. As Rabbi Avigdor Miller wrote, the Torah, once it was “in the cruel hands of Esau,” was to be used to torture the Jews.

This also sheds light on why later scholars, who knew of the true nature of the ninth of Teveth, hid these facts by saying the day was the yahrtzeit of Ezra. Ezra, who passed away at the beginning of the Second Temple period, dedicated his life to sealing the Torah and the scriptures. Jesus, despite his claims to the contrary, did the most in history to harm the integrity of the Torah and the commandments. Ezra’s death at the beginning of the Second Temple era is the exact opposite of Jesus’s birth at the end of that era.

Two weeks ago, I thanked God, as I do every year since my Aliyah, for allowing me to live in the land of our fathers and to raise my children free of that annual Christmas nonsense that plagues America for more than a month at a time. Maimonides wrote (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 11):

Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together as Zephaniah states: ‘I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.’ How will this come about? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of the Messiah, Torah, and the commandments. These matters have been spread to the furthermost islands and to many stubborn-hearted nations. They discuss these matters and the commandments of the Torah, saying: ‘These commandments were true, but were already negated in the present age and are not applicable for all time.’ Others say: ‘Implied in the commandments are hidden concepts that can not be understood simply. The Messiah has already come and revealed those hidden truths.’ When the true Messianic king will arise and prove successful, his position becoming exalted and uplifted, they will all return and realize that their ancestors endowed them with a false heritage and their prophets and ancestors caused them to err.

The modern Saturnalia and Kalendae might very well be the most widely observed holidays throughout the world, and we can hope that one day they will become a time for mankind to look back and contemplate the folly that was their former beliefs, and then, when Asara B’Teveth and the rest of the Jewish fast days become “days of joy for the house of Israel,” Saturnalia and Kalendae will themselves become times for all humanity to praise the true God for creating the seasons, just as Adam did. The sages recognized the timeless and eternal potential for good the season and its lessons held for humanity, and that is why they connected the decadent holidays of the Romans and Christians to Adam’s first realization that the darkest point of the winter also marks the beginning of the rebirth of the earth. That is also why Rabbi Hanan mentioned that “he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.” The sages viewed Christmas the same way they viewed Christ and Christianity. Saturnalia and Kalendae were established with pure motives, yet had their potential wasted when they became pagan observances, Jesus was obviously born with the potential to change the world, but as the sages said concerning him, “hiqdiah tavshilo barabbim,  he burned his stew in public,” and Christianity, if it had remained true, could have been a great form of Noahidism for the masses, but it strayed from the path and became the driving force behind millennia of antisemitism and international bloodshed. The same can be said about how they viewed Latin, the language of the church. Even Adam, as it were, utilized it just like Hebrew, and it was also corrupted by those who then dedicated to idolatry.

With this principle in mind, I would also like to suggest what the sages were alluding to when they described the arguments of the “apostles.” The early Christians touted their corrupted religion as a pure form of Moses’s and the prophets’ teachings, and sought to garner proofs from our scriptures and the Septuagint. They made claims about how the time had come (Mathai) for a new covenant, how Christ had cleansed mankind of its sins, (Nakkai), how the Christians were God’s new children and replaced the Jews (Buni and Netzer allude to the Christian doctrine of Jesus’s paternity and his hometown), and how the nature of worship (Toda) had changed. The sages, however, did not accept Christianity as it was, and made the decisive move to declare it beyond the pale of traditional Judaism. The Torah was eternal, sin can only be cleansed by one’s personal repentance, the Jews were God’s eternal children, and organized worship was to stay the way it was. These “apostles” were the early arguments for Christian theology.

May God have mercy on us, and may we merit to see the hearts of all mankind turned back to His true worship.

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