Nine days from now Jewish communities around the world will sit in collective mourning on Tisha b’Av, the day of Jewish tears. So many tears. For the destruction of the First and Second Temples. For the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion. For the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492. For the day on which Himmler was given the go- ahead for Die Endlösung ,“The Final Solution,” that is, the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
Yet as one of the generation born after the Holocaust, whose identity was shaped in the wake of the Six Day War, I believed that Tisha b’Av and its sensibility belonged to the world of my parents and theirs. It was not ours. They were ha-zorim be-dim’a and we werebe-rinah yiktzoru. They had sown in tears so that we could reap in joy.
This has made the past three weeks very difficult indeed for Jews around the world but above all for Am Yisrael be-Medinat Yisrael. After the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers and a Palestinian teenager, rocket attacks from Hamas intensified. The result was a sustained assault of a kind no country in the world has had to face: worse than the Blitz in World War II. (At the height of the Blitz, on average 100 German missiles were launched against Britain every day. On average during the present conflict Hamas has been firing 130 missiles a day against Israel.) We felt the tears of the injured and bereaved. We felt for the Palestinians too, held hostage by Hamas, a ruthless terrorist organisation.
“When bad things happen to a group, its members can ask one of two questions: “What did we do wrong?” or “Who did this to us?” The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses.”(Lord Jonathan Sacks)
It was the great Roman empire and Titus Vespasian who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash almost two thousand years ago, except it wasn’t and it would help us a great deal to understand that they were not the ones to destroy the Beit Hamikdash.
Yes, this does refer in part to the rabbinic teaching (Talmud Bavli, Yuma 9a) that says:” why was the first Temple destroyed? Because of three things it had: idle worship, idolatry, and bloodshed. Why was the second Temple destroyed? Because of baseless hate(“sinat chinam”) that they had among them.” These words bringing Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the great founder of the first modern day Yeshiva system, to write that it is only after the Jews had destroyed the Temple’s spiritual infrastructure that God allowed Titus to come along and destroy the remaining physical representation of what the Temple was really all about.
The Gemara in Taanit 12b seems to say that there’s no fast like the fast of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av then is the quintessential fast. Shmuel, or in another version, Rabbi Yirmiya bar Abba said, “There is no Public Fast in Babylonia except for Tisha B’Av alone.” How so? In what way is Tisha B’av unique, superior to other fasts? Rashi on the spot mentions two notions of stringency, not wearing shoes and starting the fast at night.
However, the Gemara in Pesachim 54b presents a debate as to whether Tisha B’Av is the only true fast (Shmuel) or that it is not a Public Fast (Rabbi Yochanan). The Gemara suggests several other possible unique features of Tisha B’Av. a. That one must fast even during its twilight time. b. That pregnant and nursing mothers must fast as they do on Yom Kippur (speak to your local MOR and doctors) whereas they needn’t do so on other fasts. c. They considered the notion that people shouldn’t work on Tisha B’Av though that is more of a local custom. The Gemara then entertains the option (d.) that Tisha B’av is unique in that one may not even dip a finger in water (unless one is very dirty). All of this is codified into common practice today.
Rabbi Yochanan, however, said that Tisha B’Av is not a Public Fast day. The Gemara suggests two ways to understand what he meant by this. Did he mean it is not a Public Fast day in respect to not saying the prayer of Neilah as we do on Yom Kippur, or in respect to not adding the 24 blessing version of Shmoneh Esreh which was said on true Public Fast days of old? It is left unresolved. The Ramban in Toras Haadam seems to think both ideas are true.
The haftarah for Tisha B’Av is taken from Jeremiah 8:13-9:23. It begins with a description of chaos and the enemy’s advent. We hear the voice of the people seeking refuge in fortified city and the voice of God ordaining their affliction. From verse 18 the text shifts to the first person singular. According to most commentators, it is the prophet himself speaking: “Would that my head were water and my eye a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night for the dead of my people (8:23).”
The next verse continues: “Would I were a wayfarer’s inn in the desert, that I might abandon my people and go from them for they are all adulterers, an assembly of traitors etc.” Why does the prophet wish to separate himself from the Jewish people? One reason, offered by commentators, is that he cannot bear to see their suffering. Offhand this reason is supported by the previous verses in which he laments the inexhaustibleness of his grief.
However, if we look at the prophet’s wish in connection with the following verses, it appears that he is disgusted by their sinfulness. His desire to flee is not necessarily a rejection of the people, but it is surely a rejection of their corrupt society. He does not want to dwell in a community of deception.
From a philosophical and psychological perspective, Tisha B’Av became the most significant Jewish observance over the past two millennia. Tisha B’Av revolutionized the status quo of life, and turned our experience of time on its head. In the normal experience of time, each day, week or month is viewed as predominantly a positive experience in which one desires to continue and partake in what life has to offer. On occasion, a tragic event or interlude interrupts this flow of time and the individual pauses to absorb the tragedy, live through it, and then regain his previous life.
This normal dynamic of life has been totally undermined by the experience of Tisha B’Av which in Rabbinic tradition became an unending experience. Jews feel or should feel a sense of loss which is impossible to be fully healed. Thus, normal life could never be retrieved. In a sense, that loss should be greater than a personal tragedy of death, for even in the experience of losing a loved one, there is law which forbids us to grieve too much. One should not presume to love the deceased more than God.
There is, however, no such application of not grieving too much to the experience of Tisha B’Av. The sense of irredeemable loss becomes part of our normal experience. That continues to be so, until the appearance of the Messiah.
Rabbi Barry Kornblau is the rabbi of Young Israel of Hillis Hills-Windsor Park
Taken as a whole, the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach/Chag Hamatzot, Shavuot, and Sukkot share much in common – the mitzvah of aliyah le’regel, ascending to the Temple in Jerusalem to encounter God with special offerings; the laws of Yom Tov; the duty to rejoice, and much more.
Taken in sequence, the three festivals also reflect two primary stories. The first is an agricultural progression, where each holiday reflects a successive stage of the growing and harvesting season in Eretz Yisrael. The second is an historical sequence, moving from the physical redemption of our nation from Egyptian slavery, to the spiritual covenant struck at Sinai on Shavuot, and concluding with the nation’s ongoing dependence upon Hashem for its sustenance in the desert that we commemorate on Sukkot.
The progression of the three pilgrimage festivals also appears in another way: Pesach focuses on the family; Shavuot, on the specific region of Eretz Yisrael where in Bibical times, a Jewish farmer lived; Sukkot, on the totality of the Jewish nation. This thematic movement from family to local community to nation is reflected in laws characteristic of each holiday.
The process of Matan Torah occurred in two stages. Both of these stages were subject to unintended consequences which severely detracted from their impact. The issue of time was a significant factor in the difficult outcome of these stages.
The first stage of Matan Torah was God’s revelation at Sinai and His transmitting the Ten Commandments to Israel. There is a controversy in the Talmud between Rav Yosi and the Rabbis whether this process was of a six or seven day duration.
Rava stated, “everyone agrees that they (Israel) arrived at the wilderness at the first day of the month (Sivan) . . .and all agree that the Torah (Ten Commandments) was given to Israel on the Sabbath . . .they argue about when the new month began. Rav Yossi believed that the new month began on the first day of the week (Sunday) thus the Ten Commandments were revealed on the seventh day of the month, . . .and the Rabbis believed that it (the beginning of the month)was on the second day of the week (thus the Ten Commandments were given on the sixth day of the month.” Shabbat 86b-87a.
In the intervening days between Israel’s arrival and God’s revelation, Moshe conveyed to them (Israel) both God’s covenant and the restrictions that they were to observe before the revelation could occur. If they were to heed God’s word and observe His covenant, they would be His special treasure, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus, 19: 5-6. The people were thrilled by this pronouncement and immediately answered in unison, “everything which God stated, we will do.” Exodus 19:8.