Shabbat/ Tisha B'Av

July 20, 2018

This Shabbat is actually Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, an auspicious and tragic day in Jewish history. According to tradition, on this day, the Romans, after an extended siege, destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. On the exact same day in 586 BCE, more than 600 years earlier, the Babylonians also destroyed Jerusalem, taking thousands of captive Jews into exile to Babylon. The suffering and destruction of these two catastrophes are overwhelming. It is usually a day of intense morning and fasting. The soaring poetry of the Book of Lamentations, which Jewish tradition attributes to the Prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction, is usually read in the synagogue on this day:

                How has the city sat alone

                That was full of people?

                How has she become like a widow –

                She who was great among the nations,

                And princess among the provinces.

                How has she become the spoil of war?

I say “Usually” because this year, the Ninth of Av is on Shabbat! We are forbidden to mourn on the Sabbath or to fast (except in the event that Yom Kippur falls on the Shabbat). Therefore, the observance of Tisha B’Av is delayed until the next day, Saturday night/ Sunday day.

The suffering and tragedy of this day is immense. However, strangely, if it weren’t for the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in Jerusalem, we might not have survived the subsequent two millennia as Jews. The Temple in Jerusalem was the ritual center of the Jewish people. There, animal sacrifices were offered daily with additional sacrifices on holidays. Jews were expected to bring the sacrifices to the Temple to be performed by the priests in their name. There were sacrifices of thanksgiving, of atonement for sins, of petitions to God for health or success, or a blessed future. By the middle ages, probably, such sacrifices would have seemed inappropriate or primitive or outmoded. The destruction of the Temple allowed the practice of personal prayer, learning for the masses, ethnic identity, and the institution of Rabbis rather than Priests to flourish.

The destruction, in reality, forced a huge paradigm shift in the ways Jews approached religion. In the first Temple period – the religion was totally in the hands of the priests. Personal prayer was unheard of among  the masses. People brought their sacrifices of animals or vegetables and expected the priests to make the sacrifices in their name. Priests had to be born to the priesthood – there was no way for Jews who weren’t born to the proper priestly families to become priests. When the Temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians was destroyed, another form of the Jewish religion came into being: that of rabbis and synagogues . . . of prayer and study. Anyone smart enough to study could become a rabbi (well . . . truthfully in the ancient days, it was only any male smart enough to study). However, anyone could pray. Anyone could study. After the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, both forms of the Jewish religion existed simultaneously: the priestly religion, and the rabbinic religion. We no longer have the priestly religion . . . although there are remnants of it such as the practice of calling “Cohanim” (the members of the priestly family) up to the Torah first in the synagogue, and the use of the Priestly blessing. Who knows … if the temple hadn’t been destroyed, perhaps the institution of priests and sacrifices would only have continued for a few centuries and then gone extinct. So . . . in an odd way . . . the destruction of the Temple is weirdly responsible for the continuity of Jewish life.