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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Ninth of Av

Tisha B’Av

The Temple, Our Link With Eternity

Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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Mourning on Tishah B’Av
Tishah B’Av is the saddest day of the year. Some may think that this description should be reserved for Yom Kippur, but this is not the case. Yom Kippur is not a sad day. It is a day of awe, of fear due to the imminent decision of our fate for the coming year. However, it is not a sad day. Indeed, it even has a certain positive side, as we are convinced that on this day God will hear our prayers and seal us for a good year.

Tishah B’Av is not the same. Tishah B’Av is a day to cry and weep, to mourn for things lost and calamities of the past. The day is totally given over to grief and all of one’s behavior on the day should be in keeping with this theme.

There are several prohibitions of the day. It is forbidden to eat, to drink, to bathe, to wear leather shoes, and to engage in sexual activity. These prohibitions are also applicable to Yom Kippur and are not necessarily associated only with mourning. However, they are certainly inappropriate activities for one who is mourning. As we are supposed to be sad on this day, it is not fitting that we should indulge ourselves in eating or drinking. Nor should we have any concern for physical pleasures or comforts connected with the other prohibited activities.

On Tishah B’Av there is another restriction that is definitely a function of our state of mourning. It is the ban against studying Torah. The reason for this is that Torah study makes one happy, as in the verse, "The laws of God are fair, they make the heart happy" (Tehillim 19:9). As we are mourning, even studying Torah, itself a mitzvah, is forbidden.

We are allowed to study those parts of the Torah and rabbinic literature that are connected with the destruction of the Temples as well as other sad passages (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 554:1-4). It is traditional to study the Book of Eichah, and the Midrash associated with that book, Eichah Rabbati. The tractate of Gittin contains some aggadic portions that deal with the causes of the destruction and describe the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the murder and exile of the Jews.1 One can also study the laws of mourning and other relevant topics.

There are other customs of mourning observed on Tishah B’Av. We are instructed to sit on low stools, not to greet others, and generally to act as mourners. Mourners do not sit on chairs, nor do they greet others. And that is how we behave on the 9th of Av.

The Reason for the Mourning
The rabbis already noted in the Mishnah a number of reasons for the customs of mourning. They recorded a list of tragic events that all occurred on the 9th of Av. "Five events occurred to our fathers on the 9th of Av. On the 9th of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the Land of Israel, the First and Second Temples were destroyed, the city of Beitar was captured, and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed over. [Therefore] from the beginning of Av we reduce pleasure and enjoyment" (Ta’anit 4:6).

Each of these events is a tragedy. As our forefathers stood at the entrance to the Land of Israel after leaving Egypt, instead of entering immediately they sent spies into the Land. The spies came back with a bad report and advised the people that it was not worth entering the Land and it was preferable to stay in the desert. On that night the people cried and God decreed that they would not enter the Land, but would die in the desert.

The rabbis said of the verse, "The people cried on that night" (BeMidbar 14:1), that this refers to the night of Tishah B’Av. "God said to them that since you cried unnecessarily I will establish a night of crying for the generations" (Ta’anit 29a).
This Gemara explains that the fact that the Jews rejected entering the Land of Israel and preferred to stay in the desert was a calamity. It deserved a punishment. In fact, the Jews were punished many times over for this sin. They were barred entry to the Land, and this date also became synonymous with further tragedies throughout Jewish history.

The great city of Beitar fell to the Romans during the revolt of Bar Kochba. This also represented the end of the stand against the Romans and the final effort to prevent the exile of the Jews from Israel. (See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:3.)

The final part of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem was that it was plowed over. This was a common tactic of the Romans; they would plow over defeated cities with salt. The rationale was that nothing could grow following this treatment. This was both a symbol of total defeat and a way of subjugating the defeated inhabitants of the city.

In the case of Jerusalem, the prophet Yirmeyahu had already prophesized that such a thing would happen, "Zion will be plowed over like a field" (Yirmeyahu 26:18).

These events were all very sad and tragic. They were not only sad in and of themselves, but each signified the end of an era, or the promise of more pain on the horizon. But the ultimate tragedy of the 9th of Av was the destruction of the two Temples. This is the major theme of the day. We read the Book of Eichah that deals with the destruction of the First Temple and the subsequent exile of the people. Most of the sad prayers that we recite on Tishah B’Av, called kinot, have a connection with the destruction of the two Temples.

Many other sad events are claimed to have a connection with this date. Events during the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, and the Holocaust, are linked to the ninth of Av. But none of these events eclipses the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. What is it about the destruction of the Temple that still keeps us mourning almost 2000 years later? Why do we still sit on low stools and cry even though we never saw the Beit HaMikdash in its glory?

The Center of the World
There are many, many answers to the question of why the Beit HaMikdash was special. The Temple contained the high courts, the center of political and economic life. The word of Torah went out to the nation and to the whole world. "From Zion shall go out the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem" (Yeshayahu 2:3).

The Gemara states that the center of the Beit HaMikdash was the Even haShtiyah, the Stone of Foundation. This name was appropriate as the "entire world was founded from this stone" (Yoma 54b).

The Gemara also says that the Temple was the most beautiful building ever constructed. "Whoever did not see Herod’s Temple standing never saw a beautiful building his whole life" (Succah 51b).

These present a picture of a building that was more than just a building. It was the center of the Jewish world and it held the Jewish world together. When the Temple was destroyed the Jewish world clearly changed. The rabbis give many expressions of the detrimental effect that the destruction had on the nature of the Jewish people. "Since the Temple was destroyed God only dwells in the four cubits of halachah" (Berachot 8a). "Since the day that the Temple was destroyed God has no laughter" (Avodah Zarah 3b). "Since the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been sealed" (Berachot 32b).

The rabbis wanted to convey that the world has not been the same since the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed. We get up, pray, eat, work, but in a way we are just going through the motions. This is not the way life should be; we should have a national center. We do not, and we suffer as a result, whether we feel it or not.

The Ruin in Jerusalem and the Divine Message
There is an interesting passage in the Gemara that deals with the pain of exile. Not our pain as Jews missing our Temple, but the pain of God missing His children.

Rabbi Yosi said "Once I was on the road and I entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray, and Eliyahu came and guarded the entrance until I completed my prayers.

After I finished he said to me, "Shalom to you, my rabbi." I replied to him, "Shalom to you, my rabbi and teacher." "Why did you go into the ruin?" he asked. "To pray." "You should have prayed on the road." "I was worried that I would be interrupted by passersby," I said. "You should have prayed a short form of the prayers," he said. I understood three laws; one should not enter a ruin, one should pray on the road, and one who prays on the road should recite a short form of the prayers. "My son," he said, "what did you hear in the ruin?" "I heard a voice crying like a dove and saying, ‘Woe to Me that I destroyed My house,2 and burnt My sanctuary, and exiled My sons.’"

He said to me, "On your life, that voice does not only cry now, but every single day, three times it cries. When Israel enters the synagogues and study houses and answers, Amen, may His great Name be blessed, God nods His head, and says, ‘Happy is the King that is thus praised in His house, and what will be of the Father who exiled His sons amongst the gentiles? And woe to the sons who were exiled from their Father’s table’" (Berachot 3a).

The beginning of this piece of Talmud relates to certain laws of prayer. Rabbi Yosi learned two laws regarding where, when, and how one can pray. He also learned a general prohibition of entering a ruin. The Gemara later discusses what the problem is with entering a ruin; due to danger and other factors, but we are not concerned with these issues here.

What does interest us is the story of God’s words and pain regarding the exile. There are a number of unusual elements of this story. How is it that God is sad, in pain? Why does God moan when the Jews pray? Surely He should be happy that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. What is the allusion to God nodding His "head"? And what is the meaning of the final statement, that the King is happy, but woe to the children?

God’s Sadness
When the Gemara describes God as being sad, it is obviously not to be taken literally. The rabbis did not ascribe such human characteristics to God in a literal sense, nor use such terms anthropomorphically.

Rather, as in many of the aggadic portions of the Gemara, the rabbis wanted to convey a message. What does the image of God’s sadness represent? Sadness is an expression of an unnatural state. When things are not as they should be, or as one thinks they should have been, the result is that one is sad. The opposite, happiness, comes from finding everything as it should be, in its own place. Therefore, when the rabbis describe God’s sadness, what they are conveying is a sense that all is not right. When Am Yisrael are in exile this is an unnatural state. This causes sadness and pain in the world.

Every nation has a high point and then sinks and disappears. This is usual, it is a law of anthropology. When we discuss the Jewish people, these fluctuations in status are an unnatural state of affairs. Galut, exile, is a result of our misdeeds and not due to the powers of history that affect all nations. Therefore, when we are exiled it is our fault, and it is also abnormal. The rabbis called this God’s sadness.

Prayer Outside of the Temple
When the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, we were affected as a nation socially by not having our national center. In addition, our relationship with God changed. No longer were we able to bring sacrifices, no longer were we able to have a place to serve God in the way to which we had become accustomed.

When the sacrifices stopped as a result of the Temple’s destruction, the rabbis substituted prayer in place of the sacrifices (see Berachot 26b). However, in certain ways prayer is a poor alternative for the sacrifices. The sacrifices opened an avenue of communication with God that was a two-way street. The sacrifices went up to God and, consequently, plenty and sustenance came down to the world. That was the recognized order of the world.

Prayer, however, is a one-way communication. Our prayers ascend to Heaven, but we do not always merit any opening of channels from God back to us. It is as though the pipes that bring sustenance to the world are blocked. Our prayers go up, but do not have the same effect that the sacrifices had. As the rabbis said, "The gates of prayer have been sealed." "Since the day that the Temple was destroyed there is an iron barrier between Israel and their Heavenly Father" (Berachot 32b).

However, the Gemara here is saying even more than that. When Rabbi Yosi prayed in the ruin, he heard a voice that cried over the destruction of the Temple and the lack of a natural line of contact. When he left the ruin, Eliyahu told him that God cries not only during the prayers. Even when the Jews go to study and declare that God’s great name should be blessed and exalted, God cries.

Not only did the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash affect the sacrifices and prayer, but it also affected every single mitzvah. As every mitzvah is an advance towards God, each mitzvah should draw after it a Divine opening of the sources of goodness. After the destruction of the Temple, every single mitzvah is in some sense ineffective. Each mitzvah ascends to God but does not initiate a change in the relationship of God to the world.

Therefore, when God hears the prayers and sees the deeds of Am Yisrael He is "sad." He cries, "Happy is the King that is thus praised in His house, and what will be of the Father who exiled His sons amongst the gentiles? And woe to the sons who were exiled from their Father’s table." The King is "happy," as His children are actually doing what they are supposed to do. But woe to the children, as their best efforts and actions are thwarted due to the lack of the Temple.

This is also conveyed in the image of God nodding His head. The head is the highest part of the body. The prayers and good deeds ascend, they even reach "God’s head," that is, they ascend to the highest possible place. However, all that they affect is the nodding of God’s head. They go up and are noted, but they do not open the avenues of sustenance.

This does not mean that we should immediately stop praying and keeping the Torah. No deed is forgotten, and the merits are stored up until such time as they can be utilized. The deeds do reach "God’s head," and they remain there. But this Gemara tries to convey a sense of loss from the lack of the Beit HaMikdash.

We cry and mourn on Tishah B’Av for the lost Temples. These represent the lack of a national center and the utter collapse of the Jewish people. Without the Beit HaMikdash our entire relationship with God is diminished, and there is not one mitzvah that can be performed properly. Even mitzvot that are not directly connected with the Temple are affected by the lack of the Beit HaMikdash.

This is certainly reason to cry. My prayer is that by the time you read this, Tishah B’Av will be history and will have been established as a day of great joy. In the words of the prophet: "Thus says God, the fast of the 4th [month] (the 17th of Tammuz), and the fast of the 5th [month] (the 9th of Av), and the fast of the 7th [month] (the fast of Gedaliah), and the fast of the 10th [month] (the 10th of Tevet) will be for the house of Yehudah for joy and rejoicing and festivals, and they will love truth and peace" (Zechariah 8:19).

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Rabbi Gideon Weitzman is the Head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with the Halacha. He studied for many years in Yeshivat Beit El and teaches in various educational institutions.

This essay is taken from his second book, "In Those Days, At This Time - Essays on the Festivals Based on the Philosophy of Rav Kook." The book is available in bookstores or directly from the author. Contact him at rabbiw@growingjewish.com

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