The fasts and repentance of Babylon

With Tisha Be’av now behind us, we can see that nearly all our fasts are based on our desperate history in relation to the unsparing power of Babylon.

Damascus Gate 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Damascus Gate 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
With Tisha Be’av now behind us, we can see that nearly all our fasts are based on our desperate history in relation to the unsparing power of Babylon.
Tisha Be’av is the date of the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple of Solomon by the Babylonian army under Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar’s general, and the two fasts of 10 Tevet and 17 Tammuz commemorate the beginning of the siege and later the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the tragic events that led up to the destruction.
The fast of Esther is in a different category but is also connected with Babylon, as it was the Persian emperor Cyrus, the Achaemenid ancestor of Ahasuerus, husband of Esther, who conquered Babylon. Thus the tragedies for which we “afflict our souls” go back to Mesopotamia.
Except of course for the most major fast of all, the most major of the five, the solemn fast of Yom Kippur. That is different, and simply and purely ours, but what about the days before Yom Kippur, what about the 10 days of repentance, which are not mentioned in the Torah? The Day of Atonement, our fast par excellence, comes on the tenth day after Rosh Hashana, our New Year, that starts on the first of Tishrei. In Babylon the New Year started on the first of Nisannu, the Hebrew month of Nisan (the names of Hebrew months are taken from Babylon), the month of spring, when our New Year was originally ordered to start, according to the Book of Exodus (12:2).
In Babylon it was followed by 10 days of festival and subsequent non-business activity, when the city of Babylon was in repentance mode. This was because the year had to be renewed and, to ensure that it be a good one, the Emperor and the city god Marduk had to be together in the city for 10 days and go through a pre-ordained ritual, as recorded in a set of cuneiform tablets dug up by the German expedition that started on the site in 1899, tablets that are now safely deposited in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
The tablets list the ritual of the 10 days, called “Zagmukku,” the basis of which goes back to 2,500 BCE. It was carried out in the privacy of the temple of Marduk. On the first two days, the high priest, called the Sheshgallu priest, has to arise two hours before dawn and wash in the river Euphrates, and he then offers a formal prayer to Marduk, acknowledging that he is the god, the one who holds the greatest power in the city. On the third day, craftsmen are ordered to make model idols of metal and wood, ready for the final days. On the fourth day the Sheshgallu has to recite the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Epic of Creation, before Marduk.
It relates how the gods came into being, how the younger gods fought the older ones, how Marduk was born, the son of the wise god Ea. Marduk challenges the other gods to become their leader during a drunken party, when he kills the ancient and vast goddess Tiamat, and splits her into two to make heaven and earth. He then creates the plants and animals and finally makes Man from the blood of Tiamat’s lover. After a busy day, he goes on to establish Babylon and surround it with walls.
On the fifth day, a swordsman enters the temple and is ordered to cut off the head of a ram, whose carcass is spread around the temple and then disposed of in the river Euphrates. Later that day the Emperor of Babylon is led into the temple and the Sheshgallu, the high priest, who now represents Marduk, removes the emperor’s regalia and places it on the statue of Marduk. He proceeds to slap the face of the emperor and pull his ears until he cries out in pain and pleads for mercy. The emperor is forced to kneel down and make a prayer of repentance to the god.
It is later, while he is still totally helpless, that the priest restores his regalia to him, but the Sheshgallu again slaps the emperor’s face and pulls his ears, and forces him to shed tears, to show that, although he is allowed to rule further, it is really Marduk who is in charge.
Having recovered from his ordeals and regained his insignia, the emperor can then come out before the people in glory, to show them that he has made repentance to Marduk and now has gained the right to continue to govern them for another year, a year of pride and plenty. This finally takes place on the tenth of Nisannu. The festival of repentance and restoration of the Emperor’s power is over, the agricultural year can commence, and the city reverts to its normal business and activities on the eleventh.
This New Year calendar hiatus of 10 days was taken over from the Babylonians by the Persians, as we can see from the Book of Esther.
The evil Haman is appointed to chief minister by lot at the beginning of the year, on the first of Nisan, the first month. He takes office and decides to afflict the Jews, but the messengers go out to make the announcement only after the thirteenth (Esther 3:12).
Why the delay? There were 10 days of inauguration and repentance, a festival like that of the Babylonians when no business would be conducted, then the meeting between Ahasuerus, the king, and Haman on the eleventh, Haman’s decision on the twelfth, the announcement on the thirteenth and it is only then that the messengers can go out to broadcast the evil news.
The exiled Jews of Jerusalem spent 50 years, some say 70, in Babylonia and many of them must have witnessed the annual 10 days of the New Year festival at the magnificent Ishtar gate and processional way in Babylon. They may well have wondered at these pagan rituals and perhaps even tried to understand them, but it is very possible that they interpreted the repentance of the emperor, the greatest force in the land, and his submission to the Sheshgallu, the high priest, and his god Marduk, as a form of yearly repentance that fitted in well with the 10 days that encompass Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And it could well have remained in their consciousness when they returned to Jerusalem years later, in the Return to Zion under their own High Priest Joshua and their own leader Zerubbabel, and later again under Ezra the Scribe, when he read them the Torah for the first time since the Return, in about 450 BCE.The author is a senior fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.