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Tisha B'Av: Destruction and Rebirth

August 19, 2016

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, August 19, 2016.

Tisha B’Av: Destruction and Rebirth

Last Saturday night and Sunday was Tisha B’Av, the fast day of the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av (actually, it was the tenth of Av – the fast was delayed by one day to avoid a fast on the Sabbath). For many of us, this day isn’t even on our radar, except at Jewish summer camps. This day is a cosmic day in Jewish history. Tradition tells us that both the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on this day: the First Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple built the returnees from the Babylonian Exile was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. However, amazingly enough, there were other tragedies as well on that date: The Jews were expelled from England on that date in 1290 CE and from Spain on that date in 1492, and there were numerous massacres and expulsions by the Nazis during WWII.

The holiday is commemorated by a fast of morning. In synagogues the book of Lamentations is recited publicly:

How has the city sat alone

That was full of people?

How has she become like a widow –

She that was great among the nations

And a princess among the provences?

How has she become captive?

There is a certain irony in marking this summer observance, however. While it undoubtedly commemorates one of the major tragedies in Jewish history – one that is responsible for countless deaths and exile and the end of the independence of the Jewish People in antiquity – it also represents a major turning point in the Jewish religion. Before the destruction of the Temple, the major element of the Jewish religion was a hierarchy of priests and the offering of sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction, that avenue of religion was closed. The Rabbis, facing the complete destruction of the old form of Jewish religion, created new forms. The Challah we eat on Shabbat is symbolic of the sacrifices of old, transforming the Sabbath table into a substitute for the altar. Prayer three times a day replaced the thrice daily sacrifices.

Maimonides, the 12century rabbi, physician, and scholar claimed that the sacrifices were a primitive form of religion and were required by God because God realized that the people at the time would not have accepted a religion without animal and vegetable sacrifices. Who knows – were it not for the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the rebirth of Judaism as the form of religion that we know today, Judaism and Jewish life might has disappeared along with the Babylonians  and the ancient Roman cults of the gods.

My favorite place in Jerusalem to hear the reading of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av is on the Haas Promenade in the Southern part of Jerusalem. The promenade is a paved walkway that juts out along the hillside to the south of the old city. Numerous groups meet there to read from Lamentations. And from that location, one can see the old walled city of Jerusalem stretched out to the North, and to the West of the old city, the New City of Jerusalem. There it is in one panorama: the rebuilt cities, both the old and the new. It is a sweeping view of history, incorporating almost 3,000 years of history at once.

Shabbat Shalom