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This commentary is based on an article that appeared in Women’s League Outlook, Summer 2004, and is a slightly expanded version of an article which appeared in my book Insight Israel – The View From Schechter, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 65-67. That book can be ordered from www.schechter.edu.
Aside from Yom Kippur, Tishah B’av is the most important fast day of the Jewish calendar. It commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It also commemorates the fall of Betar, the last stronghold of Bar Kokhba in 135 C.E. Finally, it happens to be the day on which hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.
According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to eat or drink on Tishah B’av . Bathing, sexual relations and the wearing of leather shoes are also forbidden. The book of Eikhah (Lamentations) is chanted in a mournful tune while sitting on the ground and special Kinot or elegies are recited. It is customary to abstain from work, and even Torah study is limited to mournful sections of the Bible, Talmud and Midrash.
After the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem in June, 1967, there were rabbis who suggested that we should abolish Tishah B’av, since the damage inflicted by the Destruction 1900 years ago has now been undone. What follows is a reply to that suggestion.
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 progroms 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 logic, we should not use the internet because it is possible to download pornography and neo-Nazi propaganda.
The Jewish people has always prided itself on its constructive use of historical memory. God could have said: “hate the Egyptians for you were slaves in their land”. Instead the Torah instructs us: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:8). Furthermore, the Torah tells us not to abuse the stranger, the widow and the orphan “for you were slaves in the land of Egypt”. In other words, the Torah turned one of our worst historical memories into an impetus for social justice.
Similarly, it is my firm conviction that we are sitting today in Jerusalem, the capitol of Israel, primarily because we remembered the Destruction. We fasted on Tishah B’av, The Fast of Gedalia, 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 various customs which helped Jews remember Jerusalem, see my articles in Lee Levine, ed., Jerusalem: Its Centrality to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, New York, 1999, pp. 410-413; Judaism 46/2 (Spring 1997), pp. 170-173; Sidra 16 (5760), pp. 9-11 (Hebrew)).
And what of today? Should we mourn the Destruction by fasting on Tishah B’av thirty-four years after the city was reunited in the Six Day War? I believe that in addition to the halakhic requirement, there are four good reasons for all Jews to fast on Tishah B’av: (This section is based on my Hebrew responsum about fasting on Tishah B’av in: Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel 1 (5746), pp. 29-34).
The Talmud and Josephus tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed due to causeless hatred (sinat hinam) between Jews. Tishah B’av serves as a constant warning lest we repeat the mistakes of the past.
During the current Intifada the Mufti of the Palestinian Authority 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. Tishah B’av thus serves as living proof of our historic love for the Temple and Jerusalem.
In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b), Rav Papa says that Tishah 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 this year we seem farther from peace than ever.
Some argue that Tishah 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 Tishah B’av for the Destruction, but we also pray for redemption, as we learn in a midrash: the Messiah was born on the day the Temple was destroyed.
We were fortunate to witness the beginning of our redemption in 1948 and therefore we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). But the redemption is not yet complete and therefore we must fast on Tishah 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.