Tisha B'Av: Shall We Continue Mourning for Zion?

Tisha B'Av: Shall We Continue Mourning for Zion?

Noam E. Marans, Associate Director, Contemporary Jewish Life Department

From the time of its earliest observance, Tisha B'Av (the ninth of Av, corresponding this year to August 7), a twenty-five-hour fast day commemorating the destruction of the First (586 B.C.E.) and Second (70 C.E.) Temples, has generated discussion regarding its permanence on the Jewish calendar. Within a few generations of the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians, the prophet Zechariah was asked whether Jews should continue to observe Tisha B'Av and other fast days that involve mourning its destruction.

Zechariah prophesied in the Land of Israel to the community of Jews who had accepted the Persian king Cyrus's invitation in 538 B.C.E. to return to Zion to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Those proto-Zionists were probably delayed in their completion of the Second Temple by hostile neighbors. Nearly two decades later, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah exhorted these Jews to finish the project, and the Second Temple was completed in 516 B.C.E., seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple.

Two years prior, in 518 B.C.E., as the work of Temple reconstruction had been rejuvenated, a delegation, presumably from Babylon, asked Zechariah whether Tisha B'Av should continue to be observed during this new age characterized by restoration of Jewish life in the Land of Israel and the reconstruction of the Temple. The Bible (Zechariah 7: 1-3) records the interchange:

In the fourth year of King Darius, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Kislev, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah when Bethel-sharezer and Regem-melech and his men sent to entreat the favor of the Lord and to address this inquiry to the priests of the House of the Lord and to the prophets: "Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?"

Who exactly is asking the question and where they came from is less clear than the question itself: In light of the new circumstances, should we continue to mourn and practice self-denial on Tisha B'Av (the fast of the fifth month) in recognition of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem? The delegation was asking, in essence, whether the observance of Tisha B'Av had become passé in fewer than seventy years. Did the return to Zion permanently obviate the mourning for Zion?

Zechariah initially begs the question and offers a classic prophetic response: Fasts (and other rituals) are worthless without a concurrent commitment to social action, justice and fairness. But eventually Zechariah (8:18-19) answers, albeit as a prophetic hope:

 

And the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.

Zechariah doesn't abrogate the immediate observance of Tisha B'Av or the other fasts (Tammuz 17, Tishrei 3, Tevet 10) associated with the sixth-century B.C.E. devastation, but rather predicts a future when they will be transformed into festive holidays. In a hope for the future eerily resonant today Zechariah (8:4-5) looks forward to a new Jerusalem:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares.

In fact, Tisha B'Av not only survived the early challenge to its permanent observance, but over time was strengthened as the focal point for commemorating many tragic events in Jewish history. By 200 C.E. the Mishna included five events associated with the date of Tisha B'Av: the Divine decree prohibiting the adult population liberated from Egypt from entering the Land of Israel; the destruction of the First and Second Temples; the plowing over of Jerusalem after the First Temple destruction; and the squelching of the Bar Kokhba rebellion at Betar. Later generations noted that Tisha B'Av also coincided with the expulsion of the last Jews from Spain in 1492 and the outbreak of World War I, among other tragedies.

The Tisha B'Av debate forcefully reemerged nearly 2,500 years later with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a seeming fulfillment of the prophecies of Zechariah and others. Religious Zionists in the nascent Jewish state characterized its birth as "reishit tzemichat geulateinu," the harbinger of our redemption. As in the generation of Zechariah there were those who wondered whether the return to Zion had undermined the mourning for Zion. Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg articulated their question:

 

What happens to Tisha B'Av in an age of fundamental reorientation, when the tide of Jewish history turns from exile to rootedness, from sorrow to increased rejoicing? Is there still meaning to days of remembered grief and defeat? (The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, pg. 301)

While the birth of the State of Israel prompted questions about the observance of a lachrymose Tisha B'Av, the Six-Day War in 1967 sharpened the dilemma even more dramatically. From 1948 until 1967 the Jewish people were denied access to their holiest site, the Western Wall, the base of the Temple mount, where the initial tragedies of Tisha B'Av had occurred. In the toughest and costliest battle of that miraculous 1967 war, Jerusalem was made whole once again. Jerusalem old and new, east and west, was unified. Jewish hegemony over the land in general and the city in particular took hold. In a stunning response to nearly two millennia of longing, thousands of Jews flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate. Not since the days of Zechariah had the question of Tisha B'Av's relevance been so starkly raised.

There have been attempts to answer the question by expanding the meaning and modernity of Tisha B'Av beyond its Jerusalem focus. The Holocaust has been cited by some as a natural tie-in, having been experienced by the same generation that established the State of Israel, by the parents of those who in 1967 liberated Jerusalem. But the marketing of Tisha B'Av as Holocaust commemoration hasn't taken hold. The Holocaust is apparently too large and too unique an event to be sustained by Tisha B'Av, and Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day was conceived.

Perhaps Tisha B'Av has not lost its original resonance. Maybe those of us who unconsciously imitated Zechariah's proto-Zionists, increasingly doubting Tisha B'Av's significance in the post-1967 age of the modern State of Israel, were wrong. Maybe we, who don't believe we can fully relate to Tisha B'Av's gloom as we bask in the glorious shadow of a sovereign State of Israel, are misguided in the same way as those who put the question to Zechariah, by a naïve idealism untempered by the lessons of history.

There is no question that the gift of the State of Israel has changed the course of Jewish history. But it is also clear that the State of Israel has not solved every challenge facing the Jewish people and that Israel's decisive victory in 1967 has not been without painful side effects. We have learned, for example, through the experience of the past three bloody post-Oslo years that a state's superior military power does not guarantee peace and security for its citizens. We have also learned that false Messiahs appear in many forms, that our overwhelming desire for peace can be so strong that it can potentially lull the Jewish people into a false sense of security and a denial of reality.

Maybe this year we should give Tisha B'Av our renewed attention. In many ways, it is as relevant today as it was in the past. While we remain hopeful that the course of Jewish history has been irrevocably altered by the past fifty-five years, we must remain mindful that the generation of Zechariah had also prematurely assumed their troubles had ceased. Jerusalem today is indeed crowded with boys and girls playing in its squares, but the days of our mourning have not yet come to an end.

For further reading:

Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (New York: Summit Books, 1988), pp. 283-303.
Judah Rosenthal, "The Four Commemorative Fast Days," The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Volume of the Jewish Quarterly Review (Philadelphia, 1967), pp. 446-459.
Ismar Schorsch, "Tisha b'Av (I),"
http://learn.jtsa.edu/topics/luminaries/monograph/schorsch_tishab1.shtml.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why is the Tisha B'Av fast day not observed by the majority of Jews?
  2. What is the process by which Jewish holidays achieve permanence on the Jewish calendar?
  3. In what ways has the course of Jewish history been altered in the last fifty-five years? Are these changes irrevocable?