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Remembering Jerusalem

The holy city's destruction was the ruin of all existence, casting a curtain of sadness over reality ever since

Universal loss

On the night of Tisha B’Av, when the Jewish People devotes itself again to mourning for all that it has lost during its long exile; after everyone is seated on the ground and before the Kinot (lamentations) are recited, there is a custom that the prayer leader rises and proclaims to the congregation, “Today marks such-and-such many years since the destruction of our Sanctuary.” The essence of the mourning over the great catastrophe, over the years of exile and all that they have entailed, returns to the focal point of this mourning — to the destruction of the Temple and city of Jerusalem.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is more than the destruction of our historical capital and our most sacred site. It is not merely a memory of a tragic event that occurred long ago. Rather, it is a blow to the vital center of the Jewish People.

Moreover, the whole world is stricken and cannot return to its normal and rectified state until the city of Jerusalem and the Temple are rebuilt; for Jerusalem is the center point of the world’s existence.

The Midrash (Derekh Eretz Zuta 9, end) describes Jerusalem’s essential place in the world:

Abba Hanan said in the name of Samuel the Small, “This world is like a person’s eyeball. The white of the eye is the ocean surrounding the world; the iris is the inhabited world; the pupil of the eye is Jerusalem; and the face [the reflection of the observer] in the pupil is the Holy Temple. May it be rebuilt speedily in our days.”

Harm done to Jerusalem is therefore harm done to the apple of the world’s eye; the light of existence is diminished and obscured when the pupil of the eye is damaged.

The whole world consciously or unconsciously feels Jerusalem’s destruction. As our Sages say, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, there has been no day without its curse…and the curse of each day is greater than that of the one before it” (Sotah 48a, 49a). “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed,” we are taught, “the sky has not appeared in its full purity, as it says: ‘I clothe the skies in darkness and make their raiment sackcloth'” (Berakhot 59a citing Isaiah 50:3) The mourning over Jerusalem is universal; it is a tragedy from which the whole universe suffers.

Even God Himself participates in the mourning of Jerusalem. One of the Sages relates what he heard in a ruin in Jerusalem: “I heard a heavenly voice cooing like a dove and saying, ‘Woe to the sons because of whose sins I destroyed My House, burned My Sanctuary, and exiled them among the nations’” (Berakhot 3a). The Sage was then told that God says, “What is there for the father who has exiled his sons, and woe to the sons who have been exiled from their father’s table” (ibid.) Thus, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, God has had no laughter” (Avodah Zarah 3b.).

The destruction of Jerusalem is for us the ruin of all of existence, and ever since, a curtain of sadness and darkness has covered the face of reality. The mourning over Jerusalem is more than a one-time memorial of a once-a-year day of mourning. All of Jewish life is continually suffused with mourning — in remembrance of the hurban — destruction).

For us, the sharply worded verses “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill; let my tongue adhere to my palate if I fail to remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Psalms 137:5-6) are not mere oratory; they are a living reality, practical and actual guidance on the path of life, in remembering Jerusalem at all times.

The memory of Jerusalem casts a shadow of eternal gloom on the Jewish people. “One may not fill his mouth with laughter in this world” until the coming of the redemption, when “our mouths will be filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy” (Psalms 126:2.). Until then, everything is enveloped in sadness. Ever since the destruction of the Temple, all profane music and singing have been prohibited.

This sorrow and loss should be recalled at all times, even in joyous moments. When the table is set to host guests for a meal, something should be left incomplete, in remembrance of the hurban. When a house is built, it must not be completed entirely; part is left unplastered, in remembrance of the hurban. The memory of Jerusalem should be raised at the forefront of every joyous occasion. Even amidst the joy of a wedding, ashes are placed on the groom’s head; even under the huppah (marriage canopy), before all the celebrants, a glass is broken. For it is impossible for us to rejoice fully, as long as Jerusalem lies in ruins.

Thus, the mourning over Jerusalem has continued for nearly 2,000 years, like a thread of tears running through our lives.

This is an excerpt from:Change and Renewal: The Essence of Jewish Holidays, Festivals and Days of Remembrance, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd. (2011)

About the Author
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of Shefa and The Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications. In 2012 he completed his monumental, 45 volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. The Steinsaltz Talmud has been translated into 29 volumes in French and 5 volumes in Russian. In 2012, the first volume of the “Koren Talmud Bavli” in English with Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary was published. Adin Steinsaltz was awared the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his educational achievements in opening the Talmud and was was among the first recipients of the Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, for his contribution to Israeli society and its standing in the world. In 2012, Rabbi Steinsaltz received a National Jewish Book Award for the English Koren Talmud Bavli from the Jewish Book Council (USA). He was also the recipient of the French Order of Arts and Literature.
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