Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, is not mentioned in the Torah. It is hinted at in Zechariah 8:19 (Source 1 and Qs). The Mishna tells that five disasters occurred on this date, including the destructions (churban) of the First and Second Temples (Source 2 and Qs).
The Rabbis, living in the centuries after churban Bayit Sheni (the destruction of the Second Temple), were preoccupied with the causes of these calamities. In one well-known source they tell us that the First Temple fell, in 586 BCE at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, because of the high rate of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The Jews of the Second Temple time behaved much better, they say, but nonetheless the Romans were still able to capture Jerusalem and destroy the Temple, in 70 CE, because of sinat chinam (causeless hatred) (Source 3 and Qs).
The Rabbis illustrate the sin of sinat chinam in the famous story about Kamza and Bar Kamza, who lived just before the Second Temple was destroyed. An innocent “secretarial” error initiated a series of events (a “scene” at a party, the uninvited guest expelled) which ultimately lead to the destruction of the Temple (Source 4 and Qs). While these explanations sound simplistic, historians confirm that disputes within the Jewish community inside the besieged Jerusalem, including violence and the destruction of property, were major factors in the city’s downfall.
This is not the only explanation the rabbis give for the destruction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Yochanan, an important Amora (Talmudic rabbi) in Eretz Yisrael in the early third century, makes a radical statement: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments there in accordance with the laws of the Torah,” suggesting that the destruction was not rooted in sin or serious behavioral lapses. His colleagues are shocked – what do you want, they ask, “that they should have judged like amateurs?” To which Rabbi Yochanan (or the Talmud itself, on his behalf) responds: “because they based their judgments [strictly] on the Torah law and did not go beyond the strict requirements of the law” (they didn’t take equitable [broader, non-legal] considerations into account) (Source 5 and Qs).
“Lo charva Yerushalayim ela bishvil…Jerusalem was destroyed only on account of…” The Talmud in Shabbat 119b gives a remarkable list of additional causes of the fall of Jerusalem, from eight rabbis spanning several centuries in both Eretz Yisrael and Bavel. The reasons are very diverse, reflecting the social reality and particular crisis that each rabbi felt in his time and place. They include the desecration of Shabbat; neglect of the recitation of Kriat Shma; deterioration of the school system; that people no longer felt shame for sinning; failure to pay respect to those of position or achievement; people failed to rebuke each other; scholars were treated with contempt; and, last but not least, the presence of people of integrity was no longer felt (Source 6 and Qs).
Two things should be noted. Firstly, the rabbis analyze the destruction of Jerusalem not only as a historical episode but as a paradigm, of the Jewish people as a whole and indeed of each subgroup and community, as applicable today as it was in 70 CE. We do not always have control over the circumstances and values in the greater society/world, but we should try to influence those within the Jewish community, as these can play a critical role in its ultimate strength or weakness. Alongside the importance of religious observance and education, these sources emphasize that the society must be based on respect, integrity and a willingness to compromise personal interest for the welfare of the community (Source 7 and Qs).
Secondly, amongst the many causes the rabbis found to explain the churbans, there is one they never mention – that perhaps the Babylonian or Roman armies were simply stronger than our forces. In the rabbinic view even these misfortunes were the work of the one and only God, and the Babylonians and Romans were, unwittingly of course, instruments of His purpose, an idea already expressed in Isaiah (ch 10) and Jeremiah (chs. 50-51). While on the surface it seems cruel, it contains within it the seeds of hope. If our deficiencies are a significant factor in our tsarot (problems), then hopefully their correction can improve our situation.
Thus the fast of Tisha B’Av moves from mourning to hope; the mood by mincha time is less bleak, and the liturgy reflects that. Zechariah’s prophecy (Source 1) that the days of fasting will become days of gladness includes Tisha B’Av as well, and it is commonly stated that the Messiah will be born on this date. The texts underlying this statement are a bit challenging, but they provide a basis for the optimism that has accompanied the Jewish people through many dark moments in its history (Source 8 and Qs). May Tisha B’Av be an inspiration for tikun, improvement, in the lives of all of us and the Jewish People as a whole.
Zechariah lived in the century following the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE). Which two fasts in the Jewish calendar does he not mentioned (see Lev. 16:29 and Esther 4:16)? Why not?
How many of these events are from the Bible?
What were the Rabbis telling us by putting these events together on this date?
Do you note anything special about the sins mentioned in First Temple times? See TB Sanhedrin 74a - Rabbi Yonatan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon son of Yehozadak what they discussed and voted on in Nitza's attic, in Lod: "For all the transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told "transgress or be killed", he should transgress and not be killed, with the exception of idolatry, incest/adultery and bloodshed. Why are these sins considered so serious?
How does the text compare Jewish society in the First and Second Temple periods?
Do you think the punishment fits the crime? Equally in both cases?
How do you think the Talmud is explaining the cause of the Second Temple's destruction?
Read the story carefully.
Who are the parties who contributed to the result?
What was the fault of each?
What was "the straw that broke the camel's back"?
Do the "behaviors" and social tensions in this story arise in modern contexts?
What do you think it means "not to go beyond the strict requirements of the law"?
What is problematic about basing judgments strictly on the letter of the law?
Is this an attribute that can be applied to people as well as courts?
What are the positive and negative contributions of such people to the society (or family or organization)?
What do you think about this list?
Do you think the rabbis intended this literally?
What do you think Raba means, in the last explanation?
To what period of time were they directing their words?
Would you say that your community/Jewish society today has sins/faults which threaten its existence? If so, what are they?
The Midrash in Jerusalem Talmud Brachot 2:4 tells a strange story of an Arab who explains to a Jew that the shrieking of the Jew's ox was a sign that the Temple was destroyed and that its second shrieking is a sign that the Messiah, named Menachem, 4 was born, in the area of Bethlehem. The Jew sold the ox and bought cloths to sell as diapers, in an attempt to find the mother and child. He went from town to town selling his wares till he encountered a mother who would not buy for her baby because "he was born on day the Temple was destroyed," which she takes as a curse. The seller convinces her to buy, even though she has no money, saying that "on the date it was destroyed the Temple will be rebuilt." He offers to come by to collect at a later date. When he returns and asks about the child, she says that the day they spoke previously a "stormy wind" occurred and swept the baby away and she has not seen him since. The Midrash continues, with a Rabbi Bon rejecting that story as proof, "when we have explicit verses," and quotes two adjacent phrases from Isaiah: "and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one" (10:34, referring to the Temple) and "And a shoot shall come forth from the stock of Jesse" (11:1, referring to the Messiah).
How do you like/explain each of the ways the idea is presented that the birth of the Messiah is tied to the Churban?
The sequence of events is the same in each case. What comes first? When does the second event happen in each - past or future? Is it significant?