Tisha B'Av 101 Why is this the Saddest Day of the Year?

Destruction of Temple Postcard, 1903, National Library of Israel

Why is Tisha B'Av the Saddest Day of the Year?

Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is the communal day of mourning in the Jewish calendar. While it’s most commonly remembered as the day of destruction for the Temples in Jerusalem, the Mishnah in Taanit tells us there were actually a total of five tragic events that occurred on the ninth of Av.

חֲמִשָּׁה דְבָרִים אֵרְעוּ אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּשִׁבְעָה עָשָׂר בְּתַמּוּז וַחֲמִשָּׁה בְּתִשְׁעָה בְאָב... בְּתִשְׁעָה בְאָב נִגְזַר עַל אֲבוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁלֹּא יִכָּנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ, וְחָרַב הַבַּיִת בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה וּבַשְּׁנִיָּה, וְנִלְכְּדָה בֵיתָר, וְנֶחְרְשָׁה הָעִיר. מִשֶּׁנִּכְנַס אָב, מְמַעֲטִין בְּשִׂמְחָה:

There were five events that happened to our ancestors on the seventeenth of Tammuz and five on the ninth of Av...On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our ancestors should not enter the land, The Temple was destroyed the first and the second time, Betar was captured, And the city was plowed up. When Av enters, they limit their rejoicing.

Dr. Joshua Kulp, in Mishnah Yomit, explains the events referred to in the Mishnah.

There were five events that occurred on the ninth of Av, which besides Yom Kippur is the only major fast in the Jewish calendar. 1) After the people of Israel believed the bad report of the ten spies over that of Joshua and Caleb, God decreed that no one over the age of twenty would make it into the land of Canaan (see Numbers 14:29). 2 +3) Both Temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. The first Temple was set aflame on the ninth and burnt on the Tenth see Jeremiah 52:12-13. 4) Betar, an important Jewish stronghold during the Bar-Kochba revolt fell to the Romans. 5) After the Bar Kochba rebellion was defeated, the Romans plowed over the city, destroying any remaining buildings and quashing any hopes that the Temple would be rebuilt.

How Do We Mourn?

The Rabbis of the Talmud discuss Tisha B'Av mourning practices. Most of the customs are the same as those for someone mourning for a relative. The source below presents the prohibitions, which include not studying any Torah. The discussion of this restriction is especially interesting; the rabbis assume that Torah brings joy, and so it's too much fun to be a Tisha B'Av activity.

Tisha B'Av Postcard, 1903, National Library of Israel

ת"ר כל מצות הנוהגות באבל נוהגות בט' באב אסור באכילה ובשתיה ובסיכה ובנעילת הסנדל ובתשמיש המטה ואסור לקרות בתורה בנביאים ובכתובים ולשנות במשנה בתלמוד ובמדרש ובהלכות ובאגדות אבל קורא הוא במקום שאינו רגיל לקרות ושונה במקום שאינו רגיל לשנות וקורא בקינות באיוב ובדברים הרעים שבירמיה ותינוקות של בית רבן בטלין משום שנאמר (תהלים יט, ט) פקודי ה' ישרים משמחי לב ר' יהודה אומר אף אינו קורא במקום שאינו רגיל לקרות ואינו שונה במקום שאינו רגיל לשנות אבל קורא הוא באיוב ובקינות ובדברים הרעים שבירמיהו ותינוקות של בית רבן בטלים בו משום שנאמר פקודי ה' ישרים משמחי לב:
The Sages taught: All mitzvot practiced by a mourner are likewise practiced on the Ninth of Av: It is prohibited to engage in eating, and in drinking, and in smearing oil on one’s body, and in wearing shoes, and in conjugal relations. It is prohibited to read from the Torah, from the Prophets, and from the Writings, or to study from the Mishna, from the Gemara, and from midrash, and from collections of halakhot, and from collections of aggadot. However, one may read from a place in the Bible that he is unaccustomed to reading, as it will be difficult for him and he will not derive pleasure from it, and he may likewise study from a place of the Talmud that he is unaccustomed to studying. And one may read from the book of Lamentations; from the book of Job; and from the evil matters in Jeremiah, i.e., his prophecies of doom. And schoolchildren interrupt their studies for the day because it is stated: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalms 19:9). Rabbi Yehuda says: One may not even read from a place in the Bible that he is unaccustomed to reading, nor may one study from a place of the Talmud that he is unaccustomed to studying. However, one may read from Job, and from Lamentations, and from the evil matters of Jeremiah. And schoolchildren interrupt their studies on that day because it is stated: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalms 19:9).

Eicha

One of the ways to commemorate Tisha B'Av is to read the book of Lamentations (Eicha). Eicha describes the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. You can read the book of Eicha, along with seven commentaries, on Sefaria.

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃ (ס)
Alas! Lonely sits the city Once great with people! She that was great among nations Is become like a widow; The princess among states Is become a thrall.

Why were the First and Second Temples destroyed?

A tremendous national tragedy leads us to ask the question: Why did this happen to us?

The discussion in Yoma seeks to find reasons for the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple, at the hands of the Romans, in 70 CE.

מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב מפני ג' דברים שהיו בו ע"ז וגלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים ע"ז דכתיב (ישעיהו כח, כ) כי קצר המצע מהשתרע
אבל מקדש שני שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות ע"ז גלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

Due to what reason was the First Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there were three matters that existed in the First Temple: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. Idol worship, as it is written: “The bed is too short for stretching [mehistare’a], and the cover is too narrow for gathering” (Isaiah 28:20).
However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.

Replica of the frieze on the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the exile of the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple. The menorah and other sacred objects are being taken from the Temple. The frieze became a symbol of the diaspora.

The photograph was taken at the opening of the Beit Hatfutzot muesum in Ramat Aviv.

Photograph: National Library of Israel, Dan Hadani Archive

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza - A story of baseless hatred

The classic story explaining the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple continues to be relevant today. How do we treat each other? How do we talk to each other? How can we promote unity among the entire Jewish community?

The story, which took place over 2,000 years ago among men whose identity is only speculated about but not certain, is relatable to modern readers. An awkward social situation which leads to embarrassment and stubbornness is timeless.

אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעל דבביה בר קמצא עבד סעודתא אמר ליה לשמעיה זיל אייתי לי קמצא אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי פלגא דסעודתיך אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי כולה סעודתיך א"ל לא נקטיה בידיה ואוקמיה ואפקיה אמר הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה ש"מ קא ניחא להו איזיל איכול בהו קורצא בי מלכא אזל אמר ליה לקיסר מרדו בך יהודאי א"ל מי יימר א"ל שדר להו קורבנא חזית אי מקרבין ליה אזל שדר בידיה עגלא תלתא בהדי דקאתי שדא ביה מומא בניב שפתים ואמרי לה בדוקין שבעין דוכתא דלדידן הוה מומא ולדידהו לאו מומא הוא סבור רבנן לקרוביה משום שלום מלכות אמר להו רבי זכריה בן אבקולס יאמרו בעלי מומין קריבין לגבי מזבח סבור למיקטליה דלא ליזיל ולימא אמר להו רבי זכריה יאמרו מטיל מום בקדשים יהרג אמר רבי יוחנן ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו

The Gemara explains: Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. This is as there was a certain man whose friend was named Kamtza and whose enemy was named bar Kamtza. He once made a large feast and said to his servant: Go bring me my friend Kamtza. The servant went and mistakenly brought him his enemy bar Kamtza. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: I will give you money for half of the feast; just do not send me away. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza then said to him: I will give you money for the entire feast; just let me stay. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Finally, the host took bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out. After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform [eikhul kurtza] against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you. The emperor said to him: Who says that this is the case? Bar Kamtza said to him: Go and test them; send them an offering to be brought in honor of the government, and see whether they will sacrifice it. The emperor went and sent with him a choice three-year-old calf. While bar Kamtza was coming with the calf to the Temple, he made a blemish on the calf’s upper lip. And some say he made the blemish on its eyelids, a place where according to us, i.e., halakha, it is a blemish, but according to them, gentile rules for their offerings, it is not a blemish. Therefore, when bar Kamtza brought the animal to the Temple, the priests would not sacrifice it on the altar since it was blemished, but they also could not explain this satisfactorily to the gentile authorities, who did not consider it to be blemished. The blemish notwithstanding, the Sages thought to sacrifice the animal as an offering due to the imperative to maintain peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: If the priests do that, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed as offerings on the altar. The Sages said: If we do not sacrifice it, then we must prevent bar Kamtza from reporting this to the emperor. The Sages thought to kill him so that he would not go and speak against them. Rabbi Zekharya said to them: If you kill him, people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. As a result, they did nothing, bar Kamtza’s slander was accepted by the authorities, and consequently the war between the Jews and the Romans began. Rabbi Yoḥanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.

What began as a misunderstanding, grew into terrible hatred. On an individual level, the host didn’t consider Bar Kamtza’s embarrassment above his own personal hatred. This was followed by the Sages, who publicly sanctioned the hatred by watching the incident without rebuke. Bar Kamtza’s humiliation, which could have been prevented, led him to betray the Jewish community to the Romans.

The second half of the story illustrates another type of decision which led to the destruction. The priest’s choice to be stringent regarding the rules of sacrifice came at the expense of the community. The story teaches that treating all people with respect and focusing on the needs of the community must be hallmarks of Judaism.

Beyond the destruction of the Temple

How do we express our grief while moving forward with our lives? This Talmudic text presents a balance that allowed the Jewish people to continue after the Temple was destroyed and provides a model that can also be emulated when we are faced with personal loss.

בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף ס עמוד ב

ת"ר: כשחרב הבית בשניה, רבו פרושין בישראל שלא לאכול בשר ושלא לשתות יין. נטפל להן ר' יהושע, אמר להן: בני, מפני מה אי אתם אוכלין בשר ואין אתם שותין יין? אמרו לו: נאכל בשר שממנו מקריבין על גבי מזבח, ועכשיו בטל? נשתה יין שמנסכין על גבי המזבח, ועכשיו בטל? אמר להם: א"כ, לחם לא נאכל, שכבר בטלו מנחות! אפשר בפירות. פירות לא נאכל, שכבר בטלו בכורים! אפשר בפירות אחרים. מים לא נשתה, שכבר בטל ניסוך המים! שתקו. אמר להן: בני, בואו ואומר לכם: שלא להתאבל כל עיקר אי אפשר - שכבר נגזרה גזרה, ולהתאבל יותר מדאי אי אפשר - שאין גוזרין גזירה על הצבור אא"כ רוב צבור יכולין לעמוד בה...אלא כך אמרו חכמים: סד אדם את ביתו בסיד, ומשייר בו דבר מועט. וכמה? אמר רב יוסף: אמה על אמה... עושה אדם כל צרכי סעודה, ומשייר דבר מועט... עושה אשה כל תכשיטיה, ומשיירת דבר מועט... שנאמר: +תהלים קלז+ אם אשכחך ירושלים תשכח ימיני תדבק לשוני לחכי וגו'. מאי על ראש שמחתי? אמר רב יצחק: זה אפר מקלה שבראש חתנים. א"ל רב פפא לאביי: היכא מנח לה? במקום תפילין, שנאמר: +ישעיהו ס"א+ לשום לאבלי ציון לתת להם פאר תחת אפר. וכל המתאבל על ירושלים - זוכה ורואה בשמחתה, שנאמר: +ישעיהו סו+ שמחו את ירושלים וגו'. תניא, אמר ר' ישמעאל בן אלישע: ...ומיום שפשטה מלכות הרשעה, שגוזרת עלינו גזירות רעות וקשות, ומבטלת ממנו תורה ומצות, ואין מנחת אותנו ליכנס לשבוע הבן, ואמרי לה: לישוע הבן, דין הוא שנגזור על עצמנו שלא לישא אשה ולהוליד בנים, ונמצא זרעו של אברהם אבינו כלה מאליו, אלא הנח להם לישראל, מוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין.

Bava Batra 60b

Our rabbis taught: When the Temple was destroyed, there multiplied in Israel those who separated themselves from eating meat and drinking wine. R. Joshua addressed them. He said to them: My children, why are you not eating meat, and why are you not drinking wine? They said to him: How can we eat meat, which we would offer sacrifices on the altar, and now is desolate? How can we drink wine, which was poured out on altar, and now is desolate? He said to them: If so, we shouldn't eat bread, for grain offerings have ceased. [They responded] we can eat produce. [R. Joshua said]: We should not eat produce, for the first fruits offering has ceased. [They responded]: We can eat other fruits. [He said]: We should not drink water, for the water libations have ceased. They were silent. He said to them: My children, come hear and I will say to you: It is not possible to not mourn at all, for the decree has already been decreed. But it is also impossible to mourn too much, for we do not decree a law on the community that most of the community cannot live with...Rather this is what the sages said: A person plasters his house with plaster, but he leaves a little bit unfinished...A person makes all the needs of his meal, but he leaves a little bit out.... A woman makes all of her jewelry, but she leaves a little bit off...As it says, "If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten, If I don't remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth. If I do not set Jerusalem at the head of my celebration." What is meant by the "head of my celebration"? R. Yitzchak said: This is the ashes on the heads of bridegrooms.

And all who mourn for Jerusalem, will merit seeing its celebration, as it says, "Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,all you who love her;rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her."

R. Yishmael ben Elisha said:...From the day that the evil empire, which makes evil and harsh decrees against us, took over, and forces us to stop learning Torah and observing commandments, and does not allow us to celebrate the week of the son, it would make sense for use to decree that we should not marry women and have children, and the descendants of Abraham would desist on their own. [But since we cannot do this] leave Israel alone, better they act without intention than with intention.

This poignant Talmudic story illustrates how difficult it was for the Jews at this time to end their mourning of the destruction of the Temple, and, actually, Judaism as they knew it. How could they eat meat or drink wine as if nothing had happened? Rabbi Joshua, who treats them with compassion and love as he calls them “my children”, says that while it’s impossible to stop mourning altogether, it’s also dangerous to mourn too much. He presents a new paradigm. Continue living your life, but keep little reminders of the loss. This, in fact, is what we do - even today.

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