From the Rabbi’s Desk August, 2019
Rabbi Carla Freedman
This year, Tisha B’Av…the ninth day of Av, falls on a Saturday. But our sages long ago decided that we must not let remembrance of our tragedies deprive us of the joy of Shabbat; all fast days other than Yom Kippur can be deferred by a day if they coincide with Shabbat. After all, both Yom Kippur and Shabbat are attributed to God’s instructions, via the Torah, while other fast days are of human origin.
The 9th day of Av is a day of mourning for the destruction for both the first Temple (built by Solomon, approximately 925 BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and the second Temple (rebuilt by the returning Babylonian exiles, approximately 536 BCE through 450 BCE, and then significantly enhanced by Herod the Great, approximately 10 BCE). But we are not required to avoid work on that day, just as, except for the Shabbat which falls during Chanukah, we are not required to avoid work on that holiday, nor are we to avoid work on Purim. All of these occasions are the creation of humans, and they commemorate the long history of our people’s encounters with those who would have eradicated us.
I am fascinated by the period of time between the actual destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, and the publication of the Mishna, around 200 CE. The Mishna is a compilation of the laws of the Torah grouped by subject; there are 6 “orders” of the Mishna. In this time period, the content of the Hebrew Bible was canonized, though we have very little information about how that was done, and what the principles were that determined what was included and what was not. It is interesting to note that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were hidden away no later than 70 CE, did not, for example, include any fragments of The Book of Esther, so we know that it was not yet considered sacred by that date.
The traditional view of the history of Judaism says that the Rabbinic period arose after the destruction of the Temple, though recent scholarship now suggests that this transition was begun even before the time of the Maccabees, around 165 BCE. And we know from archeology that the synagogue, as a community institution, coexisted with the Temple and did not simply arise to take its place. But we don’t know what was done in those synagogues, just as we don’t know what practices ordinary people did in their homes while the Temple was still functioning. We do know that the Temple routines did not much impact ordinary Jews on a daily basis, though it certainly did for the three Pilgrimage Festivals of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot. Archeological discoveries of ordinary homes, both in Jerusalem and in the countryside, indicate that people may have had little altars in their homes, and they may have had little idols there as well; the activities on the Temple Mount were the “official” practices of Judaism but the evidence of archeology speaks to the “folk” practices of real people.
Still, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, it was a devastating blow not only to the priests and Levites who worked there, but also to the ordinary people who understood it to be God’s home in their world. They expected that God would protect it, even against the Romans. Imagine their shock and grief when that proved to be a mistake. A second rebellion against Rome, 132-135 CE, also failed, and resulted in even harsher punitive responses from the Roman government; Jerusalem ceased to exist under that name, and Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They took with them the Torah, which had become the basis for the myriad rituals created to fulfill its imperatives, and a whole new way of living Jewishly came out of that necessity.
While some people mourn the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av, I think it behooves us to celebrate our liberation from the practice of animal sacrifice, and also to celebrate the opportunity our sages took from the tragedy to focus Jewish life on Torah in our everyday lives.
Though the destruction of the Temple was a brutal experience, the result of many years of bloodshed, the re-forming of Judaism was in fact a bloodless revolution, one that could not have been accomplished if the Temple had still stood.
Tisha B’Av will be observed this year on Sunday, August 11. Will you see that event as a day of mourning, or a day of appreciation for the transition it enabled, to preserve Judaism?
You know my answer. What is yours?