Days of Grief — Years of Mourning

Next week on the ninth of the month of Av religious Jews fast and sit in mourning for the destruction of the first holy temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

Long years before that, following the death of King Solomon and the son who succeeded him in a period known as the Iron Age, the united kingdom of Israel, in protests and rebellions against the heavy tax burdens imposed by Solomon’s heir, split into two separate kingdoms.

In the north was the new Kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria while the Kingdom of Judea in the south remained stable with its capital in Jerusalem.

In 740 BCE the northern Kingdom of Israel was attacked by the Assyrian king Put and Tiglath-pileser.

Some years later in 722 BCE Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria, made war against the captured Israelites and it was Sennacherib who sent them into captivity in Assyria in the area south of the Caucasus mountains near the border of today’s Turkey.

In Assyria a new temple was not built. There was no longer a place for Jews to worship. Thus, the history of the original Jewish kingdom was destroyed and the captives became known as the ten lost tribes of Israel.

Regrettably we do not know the exact date of the expulsion of the Jews in the northern kingdom and for that reason only there is no specific day of mourning on the Jewish calendar.

The situation was quite different in the south under the Babylonian conquest. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar destroyed King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem on the 9th day of Av and the Jews of Judea were driven into Babylonian captivity.

They were not forced into hard labor as were the Hebrews in Egypt at the time of the birth of Moses.

In Babylonia a great miracle happened, one which we treasure each day. The Jewish religion was born.

We were no longer called Hebrews or Israelites. In Babylonia we became Jews. Judaism was born.

Without the holy temple in which to pray, synagogues were built for the first time. The Greek word simply means “assembly” or “gathering together”.

The synagogues in Babylonian captivity were the creation of the great scribe, Ezra, often called “the father of Judaism”. He, together with the prophet Nehemiah, are credited as being the first builders of the Jewish religious practices.

The synagogue now replaced the temple in Jerusalem. The temple priests were now replaced by religious teachers called rabbis. And temple sacrifices of burnt offerings were replaced by oral prayers.

It was in Babylon that the greatest laws of Judaism were gathered in the Talmud over a period of hundreds of years.

Fifty years into their captivity, the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Medes and Persians and under their benevolent reign the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland in Israel-Judea and were given gifts of money from the Persian rulers for the purpose of rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.

Upon the return to Israel, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, synagogues were built in every town and village.

Without priests to administer sacrifices, rabbis taught in synagogues and schools. Education of young children was mandatory and for long centuries the Jewish religion grew and flourished.

The greatest rabbis and teachers were the new leaders of all Jewish communities. Their words and their decisions became Jewish law for all time.

Eventually other great powers appeared on the pages of history. First it was the Greeks, a Hellenistic people whose scholars brought a new culture, religion and philosophy into the world.

Greece, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, ruled in Palestine until being overthrown by the legions of the Roman empire. Once more, established Jewish life was in a tumult.

The second temple which was built by Herod was destroyed by the Romans on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av in the year 70 of the Common Era… a day of grief and mourning known by its date on the Jewish calendar as Tisha B’Av. The same day that the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

It is for both destructions and exile that Jews grieve and mourn. The Book of Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah is read aloud in a solemn tune, often accompanied by the flowing tears of the reader.

“If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember thee; if I do not raise Jerusalem up above my chiefest joy”

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept when we remembered Jerusalem.

In “Megillat Aicha”, Jeremiah’s lamentations, he blames the disasters which fell upon the Jewish nation as the direct result of careless leadership, of leaders who forsook the people and who reveled in their own personal glory.

Next week is Tisha B’Av. We mourn and we weep when we recall the destructions in our holy land of Israel.

And today, as in the years of prophet Jeremiah, the faults for our suffering, unnecessary illness and death, our hunger and our poverty, can all be laid at the door-steps of a corrupt leadership which glories in its past and is desperate to be glorified into the future.

Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, was for Jeremiah a day of woe and calamity. A time when the leaders of the people, failures in the mind of Jeremiah, needed to repent their sins and strive and struggle to save the suffering brought by them upon those whom they served.

Are there no voices like Jeremiah’s in our Knesset?

Are there no courageous men and women who sit there who could demand and enforce by law the resignation of a disgraced and failed leader?

The Hebrew name Jeremiah (Yirmiyahu) means “God will raise up”.

The big question is: Whom will He raise ?

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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