The tenth of Tevet is a day of fasting in mourning of the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia. The siege, which began on that date, ultimately culminated in the destruction of Solomon's Temple (the First Temple), the downfall of the Kingdom of Judah, and the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. It is the first of the fast days on which we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. Specifically, the Tenth of Tevet commemorates the beginning of the end of the First Temple, over 2400 years ago.
Why do we have to commemorate the beginning of the siege? A siege is a horrific situation, but it is still less horrific than total destruction. It can even end well. What is the inner meaning of the siege of the Tenth of Tevet?
Jerusalem Under Siege
Let us enter besieged Jerusalem and see what was happening inside, while the siege was beginning outside. Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers had surrounded Jerusalem. No one could leave the city nor enter it. In the first stage, all still seemed well inside the city. There was water and food and Jewish soldiers ready and willing to fight. Inside the hearts of the besieged Jews, however, fear had already taken hold. What did the future hold? During the day, everything seemed fine. But we can imagine how the nights quickly filled with terrifying nightmares.
Dreams reflect and express our subconscious. On the external, revealed level, Jerusalem stood in all its glory, with the Holy Temple solidly in its midst. But on the concealed level, in the nation’s subconscious, the disaster was already present. It could be suppressed, but under the surface, the ground was already trembling. This observation provides us with focus for the Tenth of Tevet.
Fasting After a Disturbing Dream
A disturbing dream should not be ignored. In extreme cases, when frightening dreams, nightmares, could not be shrugged off, it was customary for the person who had them to conduct a day of fasting, as prescribed in the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law). Fasting is not a miracle cure for alleviating the distress caused by a nightmare. However, it does promote internal rectification, a return to God with repentance and prayer and a request for God to heal the worried heart.
Just as the individual is prompted to fast after a disturbing dream, so the Tenth of Tevet is the collective fast for our entire people, which is meant to alleviate the angst and pain that came with the nightmare of the impending disaster that began with the siege of Jerusalem. It is as if the entire Jewish Nation has dreamt a terrifying dream of destruction and exile. We must stop everything and declare a day of fasting, repentance, and prayer. According to Jewish law, one fasts following a disturbing dream even on Shabbat. Likewise, there is an opinion that if the Tenth of Tevet was to fall on Shabbat, we would fast then, as well. The fast of the Tenth of Tevet is an emergency siren, it represents a danger to life that overrides Shabbat.
Sweetening the Dream
In the first stage, we elevated the dream from the subconscious into consciousness, ridding ourselves of the illusion that all is well, while in reality, we are on the brink of disaster. If we wake up on time, perhaps we can prevent the disaster.
In the next stage, we can transform the dream, sweetening the bitterness. Practically speaking, a person who is disturbed by a bad dream can do what is called a “dream sublimation” or hatavat chalom by reciting a specific text found in the prayer books, especially while the kohanim recite the Priestly Blessing. The hatavat chalom is connected to the month of Tevet, as both stem from the word “good” (tov). Indeed, Tevet is the month for transforming bad dreams into good dreams.
Beyond reciting a specific text, how do we really transform a bad dream into a good dream? We do so by recognizing that it is actually nothing more than a dream! This is a wondrous secret: The Tenth of Tevet, when we fast over the dreams of destruction and exile, teaches us that the entire saga of destruction and the long exile we have been in for 2400 years is really just one long dream. We find that in Psalms (c. 126), “When God returned the returnees to Zion, we were like dreamers.” When the complete redemption comes, we will look back and see that the entire exile was one long, bad dream.
Exile and destruction do not exist only in history books. Every person experiences the reality of exile. Our Divine souls are in exile inside each of us. In this exile, like in a dream, impossible events take place. For example, intellectually we understand that we should be doing good deeds, but in practice, we may be behaving differently. The world is upside down. The Tenth of Tevet presents us with a unique opportunity to emerge from the bad dream, to shake ourselves out of our slumber, and to wake up. Instead of dreaming bad dreams of exile, we need to start dreaming golden dreams of redemption, and the time to do so is the month of Tevet!