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Remembering the Destruction of the Temple – Good or Bad?*

Responsa in a Moment: Volume 6, Issue No. 8, July 2012

I had the privilege of spending July 12-17, 2012 in Kiev as part of a joint mission of the Schechter Institute and Masorti Olami to install Rabbi Reuven Stamov as the first Masorti rabbi in the FSU. I taught this topic to the members of the mission at Kehillat Masoret, the new Masorti synagogue in Kiev, on Shabbat, July 14th. DG

* This article is an expanded version of my articles which appeared in The Jerusalem Post, July 29, 2001, p. 6; ibid., July 27, 2004, p. 13: Insight Israel: The View From Schechter, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 65-67; and Women’s League Outlook 74/4 (Summer 2004), pp. 8,10.

I) “The Curse of the Past”?

A number of years ago, Peter McGrath published an article in Newsweek entitled “The Curse of the Past: An indifference to history can be a blessing” (Newsweek, April 19, 1993, p. 15). His thesis was that Americans display a remarkable indifference to their own history and that this is a good thing. He cited a study in which post high-school students had difficulty distinguishing Ulysses S. Grant from Robert E. Lee. McGrath also mentioned the Battle of Antietam, which took place during the Civil War. Five thousand men died and another 18,500 were wounded, yet most Americans have never heard of it, let alone can they locate Antietam on a map.

McGrath maintains that this is America’s great cultural strength: its ability to plow the past under and to start history over again at the next growing season. He contrasts this approach with the collective memory of the Serbs who kill Bosnian Muslims as revenge for their defeat at the battle of Kosovo 600 years ago. So too, for Arabs, the Crusades might have happened yesterday, while for Israelis the Inquisition and subsequent pogroms are all living memories, which lead to ethnic and religious warfare. So says McGrath.

I beg to differ. Historical memory is not good or bad by definition; it depends on what we do with it. Following McGrath’s rather strange logic, we should not use the internet because it is possible to download pornography and neo-Nazi propaganda.

II) The Importance of Personal Memory

Memory is an essential part of being human which we take for granted. We remember our names, our phone numbers, and our addresses. We remember birthdays and business appointments. We all have fond memories of our childhoods and recall with love the stories we heard from our parents.

But have you ever imagined what it would be like if we could not remember? What would it feel like if our memories did not function? Spanish film-maker Luis Bunuel wrote the following in his memoirs when he was 85 years old:

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing (Quoted by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, New York, 1985, p. 22).

This point was driven home to me in a haunting article by Dr. Oliver Sacks entitled “The Lost Mariner” which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books and was reprinted in a collection of his articles (Ibid., pp. 22-41). Dr. Sacks is a neurologist practicing in New York who has written moving accounts of the cases he has treated. In this particular article, he describes the case of Jimmy R. who suffers from a rare disease called Korsakov’s Syndrome which was brought on by excessive drinking. In the year 1975 when Dr. Sacks interviewed Jimmy R. for the first time, the latter was 49 years old yet he thought that it was 1945 and that he was still 19. He remembered nothing past the year 1945. Furthermore, he was incapable of acquiring any new information or skills. When Dr. Sacks laid three objects on the table and covered them up for a minute, not only was Jimmy unable to name the three objects, but he no longer remembered being asked to remember them! When Dr. Sacks left the room for two minutes and returned, Jimmy no longer had the faintest recollection of having met him before. Dr. Sacks wrote in his notes:

He is, as it were… isolated in a single moment of being, with a moat… of forgetting all around him… He is a man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment… I kept wondering… unscientifically, about “a lost soul” and how one might establish some continuity, some roots, for he was a man without roots.. (Ibid., p. 28).

III) The Importance of Collective Historical Memory for a People

Just as personal memory is important to the individual, historical memory is crucial to a people. We are repeatedly told in the Torah to remember the Exodus from Egypt: “And you shall remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt” (Deut. 5:15 and more). Why? What’s so important about remembering such a negative experience? The Torah provides the answer in the book of Deuteronomy (24:17-18, 20-22):

“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there, therefore I enjoin you to observe this commandment”. Likewise, we are instructed to leave the gleanings of the olive trees and the vineyard. “They shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment”.

Thus we are repeatedly instructed to remember the Exodus from Egypt so that we will have compassion on the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. God is saying: have compassion on the downtrodden for remember, you were once in their shoes.

Another command to remember is found in Deuteronomy Chapter 25 (v.17):

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

According to some rabbis, Amalek does not only refer to the people that attacked our ancestors when they left Egypt. It represents all our enemies throughout Jewish history who have sought to destroy us: Nebuchadnezzar, Titus, Hadrian, Ferdinand and Isabella, Chmielnicki, and the Nazis (For a survey of the different attitudes to Amalek, see David Golinkin, Insight Israel: The View From Schechter, second series, Jerusalem, 2006, Chapter 8). Why dwell on these negative events? Why do we remember the Destruction of both Temples, the defeat of Bar Kokhba, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Holocaust? Most peoples make a concerted effort toforget their defeats and their tragedies. Why do we remember our defeats as well as our victories?

It is my firm conviction that we are sitting today in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, primarily because we remembered the Destruction. We fasted on Tisha B’av [the Ninth of Av], The Fast of Gedaliah, the Tenth of Tevet and the Seventeenth of Tammuz in order to commemorate specific events related to the Destruction. We remembered Jerusalem at weddings by placing ashes on the groom’s head, by reciting the verse “If I forget thee Jerusalem” (Psalms 137:5-6), and by breaking a glass.

We remembered Jerusalem at funerals by burying Jews with their feet facing Jerusalem so that when resurrection comes they might be ready to stand up and walk towards the Holy City. So too, since the thirteenth century, Diaspora Jews were buried with a small sack of dirt from Jerusalem. And for hundreds of years, Jews have comforted mourners by saying: “May God comfort you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem” (For the laws and customs commemorating the Destruction of the Temple, see Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 560; Gerson Cohen, “Zion In Rabbinic Literature”, Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures, Philadelphia and New York, 1991, pp. 31-33; Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, New York, 1969, pp. 62-66; David Golinkin, “Jerusalem in Jewish Law and Custom: A Preliminary Typology” in:  Lee Levine, ed., Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, New York, 1999, pp. 410-413 and in abbreviated form in Judaism 46/2 (Spring 1997), pp. 170-173).

IV) Five Rabbinic Reactions to the Destruction of the Second Temple

Now let us examine how the Tannaim, the rabbis of the Mishnah, reacted to the Destruction of the Second Temple. As we shall see, the reaction was not uniform; different rabbis reacted in different ways:

  1. Some rabbis reacted by depression. This is evident from Mishnah Sotah 9:15:
  2. Pinhass ben Yair says: When the Temple was destroyed, the Haverim [those who are scrupulous about the laws of purity] and the freemen were put to shame and walked with covered heads, and the men of good works have become sparse; and men of violence and men of smooth tongues prevailed. “And there is none that expounds and none that seeks and none that inquires” [cf. Ezekiel 34:6]. On whom can we rely? On our Father in Heaven.
  3. Eliezer the Great says: Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Sages began to be like Bible-teachers, and the Bible-teachers like sextants, and the sextants like Amma D’ar’a [the people of the land who are ignorant and not scrupulous about the laws of purity]; and the Amma D’ar’a have become sparse and there are none that seek. On whom can we rely? On our Father in Heaven.
  4. Other rabbis reacted by developing mourning rituals which commemorate the Destruction, as alluded to above:

Our Sages taught: When the Temple was destroyed for the second time, large numbers in Israel became ascetics [who decided] neither to eat meat nor to drink wine. R. Joshua got into conversation with them and said to them: My sons, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine? They said to him: Shall we eat meat which used to be brought as an offering on the altar which is now abolished? Shall we drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, which is now abolished? He said to them: If so, we should not eat bread, because the meal offerings have ceased! [They said:] we can manage with fruit. [He said:] We should not eat fruit because there is no longer an offering of first fruits! [They said:] we can manage with other fruits. [He said:] we should not drink water, because there is no longer any ceremony of the pouring of water! They were silent.

He said to them: My sons, come and I will tell you. Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the decree has been decreed. To mourn too much is also impossible, because we do not impose a decree on the community which the majority cannot endure… Rather, thus said the Sages: A man may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare… A man can prepare the needs of a banquet, but he should leave out an item or two… A woman can prepare all her ornaments, but leave out a small item… As it is said: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget its cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember thee not, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Psalms 137:5-6).

What is meant by “my chief joy”? R. Isaac said: This is symbolized by the burnt ashes which we place on the head of a bridegroom… (Bava Batra 60b).

  1. Other rabbis reacted by searching for alternatives to the sacrifices which could no longer be offered:

Rabbi Yohanan said: “Scholars who study the laws of the Temple service, it is considered by Scripture as though the Temple had been rebuilt in their day” (Menahot 110a).
Resh Lakish said… whoever studies Torah, it is as though he had sacrificed [offerings]” (ibid.).
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: the prayers were instituted instead of the Tamid sacrifices [in the morning and afternoon]” (Berakhot 26b).
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakhai and Rabbi Yehoshua once saw the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Yehoshua said: woe unto us that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste. My son, he replied, do not grieve; we have another form of atonement as effective as this. And what is it?Deeds of lovingkindness (Avot d’rabi Natan, Version A, Chapter 4, ed. Schechter, p. 21).

  1. Other rabbis reacted by changing certain laws which could no longer be observed in the Temple (For other examples of this phenomenon, see Golinkin, ibid. pp. 417-418 and ibid. pp. 175-176). As we learn in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:1-3:

If a festival day of Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, they used to blow the shofar in the Temple [i.e. the city of Jerusalem] but not in the country. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai decreed that they should blow it wherever there was a court…
Originally, the lulav was carried seven days in the Temple [Jerusalem], but only one day in the country. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai decreed that it should be carried seven days in the country in memory of the Temple…

  1. Finally, there were a few rabbis who maintained that there wasno need to replace the sacrifices:

Rava said: whoever studies Torah does not need [to sacrifice offerings] (Menahot 110a)
… Said God: in this world a sacrifice effected their atonement, but in the World to Come I will forgive your sins without a sacrifice… (Tanhuma Shemini, paragraph 10).

V) Should Jews Mourn the Destruction Today?

And what of today? Should we mourn the Destruction by fasting on Tisha B’av forty-five years after the city of Jerusalem was reunited in the Six Day War? I believe that in addition to the requirement of Jewish law, (See my Hebrew responsum in the Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel 1 (5746), pp. 29-34 = and the English version in Responsa in a Moment, Volume II, Jerusalem, 2011, No. 13, pp. 123-139 = there are four good reasons for all Jews to fast onTisha B’av:

  1. The Talmud and Josephus tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed due to causeless hatred (sinat hinam) between Jews.Tisha B’av serves as a constant warning lest we repeat the mistakes of the past.
  2. For many decades, the Palestinians have claimed that “There is not [even] the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place in the past” (The Jerusalem Post, January 26, 2001, p. A3).Yet since the year 70 C.E. — 567 years before the Muslims captured Jerusalem — Jews throughout the world have fasted over the destruction of the Second Temple (See early testimony by Christians, in Golinkin, above, note 6, p. 416 and p. 175). Tisha B’av thus serves as living proof of our historic love for the Temple and Jerusalem.
  3. Inthe Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b), Rav Papa says that Tisha B’av and the minor fast days will become days of rejoicing when there is shalom. Many commentators say that shalom means when the Temple is rebuilt. But the simple meaning of shalom is “peace”, and we are still very far from shalom.
  4. Finally, some modern Jews argue that Tisha B’av should be abolished since they are not interested in the rebuilding of the Temple or in the renewal of the sacrificial system. But this is only one aspect of Tisha B’av. We mourn on Tisha B’av for the Destruction, but we also pray for redemption, as we learn in amidrash: the Messiah was born on the day the Temple was destroyed (See Yerushalmi Berakhot, Chapter 2, fol. 5a; Eikhah Rabbah,parashah 1, ed. Vilna, fol. 18c = ed. Buber, pp. 89-90 and parallels cited by Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol. VI, Philadelphia, 1928, p. 406, note 53).

We were fortunate to witness the beginning of our redemption in 1948 and therefore we celebrate Israel Independence Day. But the redemption is not yet complete and therefore we must fast on Tisha B’av. As the Ba’al Shem Tov said: “Forgetfulness prolongs the exile; remembrance is the secret of redemption”.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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