• Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi

Fast of Tevet – Unquantifiable

Researchers have long been conducting studies to understand what love is. Psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered that there are physiological changes that occur when one feels love. Brain scans reveal that a complex system in the brain is activated upon the start of a romantic relationship – very similar to the effects of cocaine. During MRI scans subjects of a study, including men and women who had recently started romantic relationships, were shown images of beloved partners, and their brains were flooded with dopamine, a hormone released when one engages in a pleasurable activity. Research suggests that after the initial surge of dopamine two further hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, are released, stimulating the formation of emotional attachment, long-term bonds. Oxytocin is known to promote long-term bonding, and it is instrumental in creating the intimate bond between mother and infant. Vasopressin, at least in some animals, seems to be correlated to commitment and fidelity.

These and other studies have been broken love down to its chemical components, explaining the physiological mechanisms that generate the sensations and feelings we call “love.” But when all is said and done love cannot be reduced to chemical reactions. Describing something as profound and sublime as love by such terms leaves us unsatisfied. Can you quantify love? Can you create it in a petri dish?

We recently observed the fast of 10 Tevet, commemorating the siege laid by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon upon Jerusalem. This was the beginning of the end of the first commonwealth in the land of Israel, the event that set into motion the eventual destruction of the city and the exile of the people of Judah, most of whom never returned, even when the Temple was rebuilt through the efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah. This is the primary reason the fast was instituted, but there are other reasons as well. It was near this date, on 9 Tevet, that Ezra the Scribe – the great leader of Israel, about whom it is said that if the Torah had not been given through Moses it would have been given through Ezra – died. The loss of such a personality is worthy of a public fast. A third reason is that around this date 70 scholars of Israel, forced by King Ptolemy of the Southern Greek Empire, released their translation of the Torah in Greek. The Greeks celebrated this translation, which gave them access to the greatest literary work in the history of the world. But for the Jews this was a tragedy, and it contributes to the mournful theme of 10 Tevet. The Midrash (Seder Olam Rabba) notes that the translation on 8 Tevet “brought darkness to the world for three days.”

Why was it so tragic that the Torah was translated into Greek? What symbolism is there in the translation that made the world appear “dark,” that caused the sages of Israel to institute a fast day to mark this event? (Originally the 8th and 9th of Tevet were also fast days, but they were all combined into the one fast day on 10 Tevet.)

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine explains that the tragedy was not the translation per se, but the motive behind it. Ptolemy had a great appreciation for literature and he had a vast library containing all the important writings of the philosophers, both contemporary and past. It came to Ptolemy’s attention that his great library was missing the sacred texts of the Jews and he immediately set out to acquire them, forcing 72 Torah scholars to create a Greek rendition of the Torah. Fearing they would not provide an accurate translation Ptolemy placed the scholars in separate chambers with no communication with each other, and he later compared the translations for accuracy. The Greeks were conquerors. The Greek ideal was conquest of all things, knowledge as well as nations. Everything had to be defined, quantified, made accessible to them. Ptolemy could not bear that the sacred texts of the Jews was off limits to him and he set out to conquer that as well. He wanted the Torah to occupy a shelf in his library, to be defined in physical dimensions. Ptolemy wanted to reduce the Torah to a simple, quantifiable volume.

For Jews the Torah has always been much more than a library book. It is our communication with the Almighty, a message from Him in written form, the code in which all the secrets of the world are contained. We study it, review it, find new layers of meaning all the time. Every day Torah scholars continue to find new meaning in the sacred words of the Torah, relevant messages even thousands of years after the Torah was made available to us. The Torah is a living book, not a library book. It is not a text that can be reduced to a translation, quantified and measured, stamped with a bar-code and an ISBN number. This was the tragedy of the translation. This is why this particular translation was viewed as a desecration of the Torah rather than an enhancement of Torah.

The Torah cannot be quantified, any more than love can be reduced to a chemical reaction. In Shalom Aleichem’s famous story Tevye the Dairyman (better known as the film Fiddler on the Roof) Tevye, confronted with his daughter’s romantic but nontraditional courtship, is driven to ask his wife of 25 years, “Do you love me?” In a culture where love was never defined, in a harsh and impoverished lifestyle where pragmatism overruled romanticism, Golde had never given love a thought. She first dismisses the question but due to Tevye’s persistence is forced to think it through. Her final assessment is that “I suppose I do,” to which Tevye responds, “And I suppose I love you too.”

Love is deep and complex. It is an experience, it is a relationship, it is a dynamic between two people. Love is so much more than the chemical reaction that occurs in the brain during loving interactions. Love is not something anyone can quantify, it is not something we can clone or create in the lab. Torah likewise, while composed of letters and words, manifest in black ink on off-white parchment or copy paper, is far more than the sum of its parts. It is the lifeblood of the Jew.

#FastofTevet

©2020 by Wellington Jewish Community Centre.