The meaning of the fast of Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av (the 5th month of the Jewish calendar), is a day of national mourning in the Jewish tradition – and, is marked by a full fast (from evening until the following evening). In the main, we are mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and Romans, and the destruction of the first and second Temples of Jerusalem. The Biblical Book of Lamentations, mourning the destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, is read in the evening of Tisha B’Av – and, kinnot (liturgical poems) that mourn both the destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem (by the Babylonians during the Biblical period) and the second Temple of Jerusalem (by the Romans during the early Talmudic period) are read in the evening and morning of Tisha B’Av.

There are two central questions that arise in connection with Tisha B’Av. The first question is in relation to the mourning of the destruction of the Temples of ancient Jerusalem, which were religious centers of ritual and sacrificial worship, and included animal sacrifices as well as offerings of grain, meal, wine and incense performed by a hereditary priesthood – and, the question is whether in mourning the destructions of the Temples we would want in our day the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem including the ritual performance of animal sacrifices. The second question is in relation to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, including the ancient Biblical city, as a part of the modern state of Israel – and, the question is whether it makes sense to mourn the destruction of the ancient Temples of Jerusalem symbolizing the Jewish nation-states of the ancient period when today the land of Israel and Jerusalem have been rebuilt, and the modern state of Israel established.

Regarding the question of whether we would want in our day the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem including the ritual performance of animal sacrifices – I want to point to sparks of opposition in the Jewish tradition to the performance of animal sacrifices as a ritual form of worship.

Rashi, the great commentator of the Jewish tradition who lived in the 11th century, following Talmudic midrash (commentary), argues (Exodus 31, 18) that the commandment to build the Tabernacle (which was the center of ritual and sacrificial worship among the Israelites in the wanderings in the wilderness and upon entering the land of Israel until superseded by the first Temple of Jerusalem built by King Solomon) actually took place after the making of the golden calf. Rashi quotes a rabbinic principle meaning that there is no chronological order to the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) – “there is no earlier and no later in the Torah” (אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה). This is clearly not the plain meaning of Scripture, as it is written explicitly in the Torah that the commandment to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 25, 8) is given prior to the story of the making of the golden calf (Exodus 32). I want to suggest that from a philosophic point of view what stands behind, and is implied in, Rashi’s approach (as well as that of the Talmudic commentaries that Rashi follows) is an opposition to animal sacrifice as the ideal form of ritual worship of God. By rearranging the order of events so that the command to build the Tabernacle follows the story of the making of the golden calf, the Tabernacle and the performance of animal sacrifices are now seen to be a concession to human weakness after the sin of the golden calf – the sin of the golden calf indicating that the Israelites were unable to worship God in an entirely spiritual way as demanded in the transcendent revelation of the ten statements (and, the Biblical term is ten statements and not commandments).

Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher who lived in the 12th century) clearly viewed animal sacrifices as a very primitive form of ritual worship. In the Guide of the Perplexed (3, 32), Maimonides argues that animal sacrifice, as the primary form of ritual worship in the Biblical period, was commanded only to wean the Israelites away from idolatry. He argues that the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) could not command the complete abolition of sacrifices because such an idea would have been completely foreign to the Israelites in the Biblical world, in which animal sacrifice was the accustomed form of ritual worship:

It would have in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble – that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action.

Two things are reflected here. First, Maimonides gives an almost modern, anthropological-sociological and historical account of animal sacrifices as the accepted form of worship in the ancient, Biblical world. Parenthetically, Maimonides gives such anthropological-sociological and historical accounts in the Guide of the Perplexed in a consistent way regarding those revelatory or ritual commandments (such as dietary laws) that are on the face of it not rational (in distinction to rational or ethical commandments, such as the prohibition of murder) in order to explain all commandments of the Torah as ultimately rational. Second, implicit in this passage is not only that prayer is a higher form of worship than animal sacrifice, but also that pure intellectual contemplation or meditation (serving God only in thought) is a higher form of worship than prayer. The implication is that just as the abolishment of animal sacrifice in favor of prayer as a higher form of worship than animal sacrifice would not have been understood in the Biblical period; so, too, the abolishment of prayer in favor of the higher form of worship of pure contemplation would not be understood in Maimonides’ time in the medieval period – “we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action” (and, action here includes speech and the use of words as in prayer).

Whereas animal sacrifice was the primary form of ritual worship in the Biblical period, formal prayer becomes the central form of ritual worship in the rabbinic period, replacing animal sacrifice following the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans. Maimonides clearly views this transition in the ancient Jewish tradition from animal sacrifice to prayer as the central form of ritual worship as progress – and, he clearly viewed the performance of animal sacrifices as a primitive form of ritual worship.

Regarding the question of whether it makes sense to mourn the destruction of the ancient Temples of Jerusalem symbolizing the Jewish nation-states of the ancient period when today the land of Israel and Jerusalem have been rebuilt, and the modern state of Israel established – I want to suggest that Tisha B’Av has importance as a national day of mourning even with the rebuilding of the land of Israel and Jerusalem.

There is a verse in the Biblical Book of Zechariah (8, 19) according to which four Biblical fasts are to be turned into days of joy in the future (and, it is not clear in the verse whether this is to be the immediate future or some distant future), and included among them is Tisha B’Av – “thus says the Lord of hosts, the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons”. In the verse from the Book of Zechariah (8, 19) the fast of the fifth month is Tisha B’Av, which is a major fast from the evening until the following evening, while the other fasts are minor fasts from the morning until the evening (the fast of the fourth month is the seventeenth of Tammuz, the fast of the seventh month Tishrei is the fast of Gedaliah and the fast of the tenth month is the tenth of Tevet).

According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b), the verse from the Book of Zechariah (8, 19) is understood to mean – if there is peace, then we do not fast (and, the fast days are turned to days of joy); if there is persecution, then we do fast; and, if there is neither peace nor persecution, then we may choose whether to fast or not. Today, we clearly do not live in a time of peace – and, there is widespread anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews, and also persecution of the state of Israel (and, the state of Israel is in existential danger from enemies who have initiated not only brutal acts of terrorism but also three wars against the state of Israel in which the declared aim was extermination of the state of Israel). Thus, it appears that on the basis of the Talmud we should be fasting on Tisha B’Av a full fast from the evening until the following evening even with the rebuilding of the land of Israel and Jerusalem, and even with the establishment of the state of Israel, given that we today live in a time of persecution of Jews and of the state of Israel. What stands out in this Talmudic source, though, is that the fast of Tisha B’Av is clearly connected to persecution of the Jewish people – and, strikingly, not connected by the Talmud to mourning the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem as religious centers of ritual and sacrificial worship.  

It is clear that through the ages various calamities and tragedies were connected to the date of Tisha B’Av in order to mark them – even though not necessarily beginning or occurring on the date of Tisha B’Av. Indeed, regarding the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem by the Babylonians there are two contradictory dates given for the destruction in the Bible, and strikingly according to neither source is the date the ninth of Av – according to the Book of Kings (25, 8-9) the Temple was destroyed on the seventh day of Av, and according to the Book of Jeremiah (52, 12-13) the Temple was destroyed on the tenth day of Av. Through the ages such calamities and tragedies as the crusades and various expulsions of Jews in the medieval period were connected to the date of Tisha B’Av in order to mark them – and, in our day the Nazi Holocaust is marked on the day of Tisha B’Av as well. In my mind, the connecting of various calamities and tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people through the ages to Tisha B’Av is in the spirit of the Talmudic source (Rosh Hashanah 18b) according to which the fast of Tisha B’Av is connected to the persecution of the Jewish people.

I want to emphasize that Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in the orthodox (correct belief) and theological sense of a faith commitment not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah – and, in principle, there can be no such thing as a secular non-believing Christian (who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah). By contrast, Judaism is a religion in the orthoprax (right deeds) and pragmatic sense of a culture or heritage of the Jewish people, as reflected in the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 33, 4) – “Moses commanded us Torah, a heritage of the community of Jacob” (תורה ציווה לנו משה מורשה קהילת יעקב). There are Jews who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. What defines one as a Jew is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but (according to traditional Jewish law) being born of a Jewish mother or having converted. What unites Jews is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but belonging to a people with a shared history, common language of the Jewish people (Hebrew), a national homeland (Israel) and a shared culture.

Not only do we as Jews, whether we define ourselves as religious or secular, have a common history – our history as a people is one of suffering in which we, as Jews, have suffered far more than any other people. Our history as a people begins with suffering, as our ancestors the Hebrews were enslaved, oppressed and persecuted in ancient Egypt; and, since the exodus (the first mass slave escape in recorded history) we have a history of suffering thousands of years of oppression, persecution and anti-Semitism. It is this history of persecution, which perhaps more than any other aspect of our history, unites as Jews whether we define ourselves as religious or secular.

The tendency, especially widespread in the orthodox world (modern and ultra-orthodox), to connect the fast of Tisha B’Av to mourning the destruction of the ancient Temples of Jerusalem as religious centers of ritual and sacrificial worship leads to division among the Jewish people in our contemporary Jewish world in which so many Jews do not identify with the performance of animal sacrifices as a form of ritual worship – and, thus, so many Jews do not relate to Tisha B’Av. I want to suggest that a return to the Talmudic conception in which the fast of Tisha B’Av is connected to the persecution of the Jewish people allows for the bridging of gaps among all Jews (from secular to ultra-orthodox) – as all of us as Jews can identify with our history of suffering and persecution especially as symbolized by the destruction of our ancient Temples of Jerusalem that were not only religious centers of ritual and sacrificial worship but national and cultural centers of the Jewish people.

I want to add two parenthetical points. First, there is a debate in the modern state of Israel whether to mark the Holocaust on the 27th of the month of Nissan (the month of Passover) or on the 10th of Tevet, which is a minor fast (from morning to evening). The 27th of Nissan was established by the Israeli Knesset, and the 10th of Tevet was established by the Israeli Rabbinate. Both of these dates are problematic. The date established by the Knesset of the 27th of Nissan is problematic because we have a custom among the Jewish people that we do not mourn in the month of Nissan, which is considered to be a month of redemption (and the month of Passover) – and, the date established by the Rabbinate of the 10th of Tevet is problematic because it is only a minor fast, which clearly does not do justice to marking such suffering as the Holocaust. I want to suggest that the natural day for us as Jews to mark the Holocaust is Tisha B’Av, which is a full fast and has always been the day throughout our history when we have marked our national calamities and tragedies.

Second, in relation to the question of how we can mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and the ancient Temples of Jerusalem when today the land of Israel and Jerusalem have been rebuilt, and the modern state of Israel established – I want to suggest that we have Israeli Independence Day and Jerusalem Day in which we celebrate the founding of the state of Israel and the unification of Jerusalem. In the Talmudic conception, we are fasting on Tisha B’Av and marking the destruction of Jerusalem and the ancient Temples of Jerusalem as symbolic of the suffering and persecution of the Jewish people through the ages – and, such mourning for the terrible persecution that we have suffered through the ages (and, including a full fast) is appropriate even with the establishment of the modern state of Israel and the unification of Jerusalem.

I am the author of the internet site Orthoprax Judaism (www.orthopraxjudaism.com) and the author of a book Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology, Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham. There is information on the book on my home page of my internet site.

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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