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The History of Tisha B’Av

This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 2. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.

The end of self-rule and the destruction of the sacrificial system centered in the Second Temple in Jerusalem came when a Roman army invaded Judea and destroyed the Temple in the second half of the first century (customarily dated to 70 CE—the 70th year of the Common Era, which Christians call anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”). As long as the Temple had stood, the kohanim (priests) had played the primary role of religious leadership. With the Temple gone and the Temple sacrifices eliminated, a period of chaos ensued. The rabbis then gradually emerged as the dominant Jewish leaders. It was they who established Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, as an annual day of mourning marking the destruction of the Second Temple. Because Av comes in midsummer, many Jews overlook this observance. Tisha B’Av is widely observed in Jewish summer camps because it is the only holy day besides Shabbat that falls during the North American camp season.1

To understand Tisha B’Av, it is important to keep in mind the centrality of the Temple during the First and Second Temple periods. From the perspective of the people at that time, sacrifices and rituals in the Temple could achieve atonement, bring ritual purity and help secure God’s blessing for a good harvest.2 3 The Temple was the locus for the key observance of such holidays as Pesach — the sacrifice of the paschal lamb that was a precursor to the Pesach meal. Shavuot meant the offering of the first fruits of the farming season, and Sukkot, celebrating the fall bounty. Yom Kippur without the scapegoat and the high priest entering the inner sanctum of the Temple was unimaginable at the time of the Temple’s destruction.4

The sense of loss when each Temple was destroyed must have been nearly unbearable.5 6 The sacrificial system at the core of biblical religious observance was never restored thereafter, despite a careful recording of all the Temple procedures by the rabbis of the Talmud in the hope that the Temple would be rebuilt in messianic days.7 Prayers for rebuilding the Temple and restoring its rituals have been part of traditional rabbinic prayer from that day to this. However, Reform, Reconstructionist and some Conservative prayer books omit these prayers because the possible reinstitution of sacrifices is seen as a past stage in the evolution of Jewish worship.

The loss marked on Tisha B’Av involved more than ritual. Many people lost their lives in the conflict with the Romans, which lasted several years and ended in 73 CE with the mass suicide at Masada, the last fortress to fall.8 Jewish self-government was destroyed, only partially and gradually to be reorganized through the rabbis, who established an academy and court system at Yavneh with the consent of the Roman rulers. Indeed, the term “rabbi” (in Hebrew, rav or rabi) came into regular use only after the Temple’s destruction because it marked the emergence of the rabbis as sages, teachers and judges who became the key Jewish leaders of that period.9 10 11 Eventually the Romans recognized rabbinic authority, allowing a degree of self-rule and thereby easing conflict and aiding tax collection. This kind of accommodation between the Jewish people and ruling authorities gave rise to the rabbinic dictum, “Dina d’malkhuta dina,” “The law of the kingdom must be obeyed.” This rabbinic concession paved the way for Jewish self-rule within Diaspora kingdoms throughout the rabbinic and medieval periods. Without the principle of dina d’malkhuta dina, Judaism as we know it could not have emerged. The ability of the Jewish people to adapt and sometimes to thrive under foreign rule has been a key to Jewish survival.12 13

Over time, Tisha B’Av became the central day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. Later generations layered their tragedies onto it.14 Associations grew to include not only the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, but also the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the final crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Roman rule in the Land of Israel in 135 CE, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648 in the Ukraine. Each of these events was of historical importance, and each involved enormous suffering and death for Jews. The Mishna, seemingly without any historical basis, associates the ninth day of Av with a tragic event described in the Torah—the day when Moses declared that the people would not enter the Land of Israel for 40 years. (Ta’anit 4.6) When Yom Hashoah V’hag’vura, a day to remember the Holocaust, was instituted, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) debated whether to mark this tragedy, too, on Tisha B’Av, but ultimately decided to select a date in spring prior to Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) instead. 

It is certain that fasting took place on Tisha B’Av after the destruction of the Second Temple, and there is some evidence that Tisha B’Av became a fast day after the destruction of the First Temple. Tisha B’Av has been the main day of mourning on the Jewish calendar since that time.15

  • 1. The commemoration of Tisha B’Av at Orthodox summer camps in the early 1960s left a lasting impression on me. I mourned deeply the destruction of the Temples and was acculturated to associate all Jewish historical misfortunes, including the Holocaust, with the chant of Eykha (Book of Lamentations). Prior to 1967, viewing Jewish history as a vale of tears felt satisfying and identity forming to me. —J.J.S.
  • 2. The ultimate purpose of sacrifices in Temple times is reflected in the root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, which means “to bring close.” The role of the priests in the Temple was to facilitate the process of bringing the people close to God through the rituals of the sacrifices and offerings. The great trauma of the destruction of the Temple was due in part to the sudden and profound sense of loss and desperation that the people must have felt at having their mechanism for drawing close to God suddenly torn away and destroyed. – S.C.R.
  • 3. Writing in the twelfth century, Maimonides understood the loss of sacrificial worship through the destruction of the Temple as having led to spiritual progress. Moses understood that the Israelites would not have followed him if he had asked them to give up animal sacrifice. Instead, he instructed them to devote their offerings to God instead of to idols. Without the Temple, the rabbis replaced sacrifice with prayer, a purer form of worship. – J.J.S.
  • 4. Are there institutions in contemporary Jewish life today whose loss is unimaginable? The rabbinate? Synagogues? The State of Israel? If Judaism survived the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, perhaps no one thing is indispensable. – J.J.S.
  • 5. Historians tell us that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans because of relentless provocations by Jewish zealots who refused to settle for anything less than independence from Rome and full Jewish control of the Land of Israel. An unwillingness to compromise and accept less than our ideal can lead to undesired and even catastrophic consequences. – J.J.S.
  • 6. Mourning the death of a loved one can feel like an earthquake in the soul. It takes time for healing and settling to take place. The destruction of the Temple was an earthquake in the soul of the Jewish people. Delving into the ways in which the rabbis made meaning following this tragedy is uplifting, even as we mourn. Tisha B’Av offers healing and demonstrates the resiliency and creativity of the soul of the Jewish people. – L.T.P.
  • 7. Even for those who would willingly re-establish the sacrificial system, rebuilding the Temple would have catastrophic political implications because it would require the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, an important Muslim shrine built on that site. – J.J.S.
  • 8. The Jewish general Josephus, writing for his Roman masters, included the dramatic narrative of the death of 960 Zealots at Masada, but that narrative has no parallels in Jewish texts. Archaeological evidence confirms the presence of the Zealots on Masada and of the Roman besiegers at the mountain’s base, but not the dramatic ending described by Josephus. The ancient rabbis, who included many stories in what became the Talmud, either did not know of the mass suicide or suppressed stories about it because they did not want to encourage political resistance. They shifted focus from political to spiritual redemption, deferring it to a vaguely defined olam haba, the world to come. The high cost of political rebellion was a lesson the rabbis learned all too well through the failure not only of the Great Revolt, but also of the Bar Kochba revolt (132–135 CE), which ultimately proved even more devastating for Jewish fortunes in Judea than the destruction of the Second Temple. In the early 20th century, Josephus’s tale became a powerful shaping narrative within Zionist and Israeli circles. -D.W.
  • 9. The rabbinic reconstruction of communal religious practice following the destruction of the Temple is an extraordinary example of the vitality and evolution of Jewish civilization. The rabbis understood themselves to be acting in continuity with Jewish tradition. They were conscious of the calamity that had befallen the Jews and the need to recreate a world of meaning that would sustain the Jewish people, but they did not share our modern sensibility that humans are empowered agents who can act in history and alter structures by means of our own rationales and reasoning. In our day, making major structural changes honestly requires us to acknowledge what we are doing and why. Our time calls for bold and self-aware action in the face of radically changing circumstances—action that acknowledges both continuities and breaks with the past. -D.W.
  • 10. Recent scholarship increasingly questions the historicity of the Yavneh story, understanding it as a myth of origin for the later rabbinic movement. – E.R.S.
  • 11. The rabbis at Yavneh are often portrayed as the sole survivors of the Roman onslaught—survivors who reconstructed Judaism from memory as Jerusalem burned. While their importance cannot be underestimated, the reality was likely more complex. Diaspora communities in Egypt and Babylonia were already in existence from the time of the first exile in the sixth century BCE, and Jews remained in the Jerusalem area even after the destruction in the first century. – N.H.M.
  • 12. The dictate dina d’malkhuta dina emerged following the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt and a rabbinic orientation away from political activism. Such political quietism persisted until the modern era, when Jews created the Zionist movement and also became active in such universally oriented social movements as socialism and Communism. -D.W.
  • 13. Allowing Jewish law to be subservient to the secular law of the land in which Jews found themselves was key to the flourishing of Jewish creativity. – S.C.R.
  • 14. The ninth day of Av has become a holy vessel strong enough to contain the sorrows of many of the tragedies that have befallen our people throughout our history. Just as the time frames placed on mourning practices such as shiva and sh’loshim help us to mourn and move on, this annual container invites us to remember and grow from these historical tragedies without becoming stuck in ongoing grief or mourning. A vessel for grief becomes a vessel for healing and for transformation. – L.T.P.
  • 15. The Talmud identifies the midsummer weeks surrounding Tisha B’Av as a time of cosmic danger, when evil spirits roam and demonic forces incite people to violence and hostility. It is possible that the rabbinic understanding of the ninth day of Av as the date of tragedy after tragedy was layered onto earlier beliefs regarding the dangerous nature of midsummer. The penitential rituals of Tisha B’Av would have been understood as effective means for expressing contrition and regaining divine favor and for staving off supernatural and cosmic dangers. —E.R.S.

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