What is the fast of Gedalyah and what does it have to do with the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Is it some type of practice fast in preparation for Yom Kippur? Is it mandatory? Why is it called “Gedalyah”? Please pardon my ignorance.
Thanks for your valuable question. It is in the spirit of our Sages who taught (Avot 2:6), “One who is embarrassed to ask won’t learn”.
The Fast of Gedalyah does not seem to have any direct thematic relation to the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, nor is it viewed as a practice run for the coming full day fast of Yom Kippur. Rather, it is observed on the day after Rosh Hashana, the third of Tishrei, to commemorate an event that took place on that particular date. The historical background is a follows:
When Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed the First Temple and exiled the Jews from Israel, he permitted a remnant of Jews to stay in the land and appointed the Jew Gedalyah ben Achikam as his governor. Many Jews who had fled to neighboring countries returned and renewed settlement in the Land of Israel.
This nascent renaissance aroused the jealousy of the king of Ammon who dispatched a Jew named Ishmael to assassinate Gedalyah. Although Gedalyah had been forewarned of Ishmael’s evil intentions, he refused to believe the reports and considered them slander. He received Ishmael with honor, and while in his palace, Ishmael murdered him and others present, including the Babylonian guard posted by Nebuchadnezzar.
Fearing retribution from Babylon against what seemed to be an internally inspired Jewish rebellion, the Jews fled the country and this put an end to the nascent Jewish renaissance in Israel. Any Jews that stayed in Israel were either murdered or exiled. To commemorate these events, the Sages established a fast on the day Gedalyah was assassinated. Scripture refers to this as “the fast of the seventh month” (Zecharia 7:5) which is Tishrei. Some maintain that the assassination took place on the third of Tishrei. Others maintain that it actually occurred on Rosh Hashana, resulting in the fast being postponed until immediately after the holiday.
This is a day-time fast from dawn until night. Only eating is forbidden. But bathing, wearing leather shoes and relations are permitted. It is one of the more lenient fasts regarding pregnant or nursing women, the elderly or one who is ill. In such cases a rabbi should be consulted about what circumstances would permit eating. Regarding the prayers, the day is similar to the other fast days where “aneinu” is recited in the morning prayer only by the chazzan. The customary fast-day Torah passages are read. One recites “aneinu” during mincha during his silent prayer.
If there is a thematic connection between this fast and the period of repentance, it might be to consider how horrible Jewish infighting can be and what destruction it can cause. One might contemplate how in those times at this season, the Jews were given an opportunity for rebirth and renewal but they lost it. We should be very careful, then, not to waste the opportunity afforded to us during these days to return to G‑d and rebuild our relationship with Him.
Our Sages also noted (Rosh Hashana 18b): “This teaches us that the death of the righteous is equal to the destruction of the Temple. For just as a fast was ordained for the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, so too was a fast ordained to commemorate the death of the righteous Gedalyah”.