Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

The Tishah B’Av conundrum

This week, with the start of Shabbat, the Three Weeks enter the final Nine Days leading to Tishah B’Av, the most difficult, most mournful day on the Jewish calendar.

Sadly, it is also a mostly neglected observance among the overwhelming majority of Jews, certainly here in the United States and likely throughout the Diaspora.

That it is so solemn and sad an observance is as it should be, as I have argued in earlier pre-Tishah B’Av columns and as I will briefly do here, as well. But it may not be the day tradition claims it to be, and we may not be observing these eight days leading up to it the way our Sages of Blessed Memory had in mind.

During the Three Weeks, we must not listen to music, or shave, or get haircuts, and we must avoid celebrations of any kind. This period began with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz (Shivah Asar b’Tammuz), which was observed this year on Sunday, June 27th.

The Nine Days involve even more stringent mourning rituals, such as refraining from eating meat or drinking wine except on Shabbat, bathing except under very strict guidelines, doing laundry, wearing new clothes, or even pressed ones, according to some authorities.

It all comes to an end on Tishah B’Av, beginning a week from tomorrow night, in a fast that runs from sundown Saturday until sometime after sundown on Sunday. (All other fasts other than Yom Kippur are observed only during the daylight hours.)

These two fasts, as well as two others related to them, date back to the destruction of the First Temple and the beginning of the First Exile in 586 B.C.E. We know this because the prophet Zechariah refers to “the fast of the fourth month [Tammuz] and the fast of the fifth [Av] and the fast of the seventh [the Fast of Gedaliah on the third of Tishrei, the day after Rosh Hashanah] and the fast of the tenth month [Tevet, meaning the Tenth of Tevet].” (See Zechariah 8: 18-19.)

There is no reason to question the dates on which the latter two fasts are observed, but there is reason to question whether the first two are being observed on the correct dates if the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls and the First Temple’s destruction are the reasons for them.

Tradition says Jerusalem’s walls were breached on the 17th of Tammuz, leading exactly three weeks later, on Tishah B’Av and the destruction of the First Temple. That is what tradition says, but it is not what the Tanach, the Bible, says.

In two different places — Jeremiah 39:2 and 52:6-7 — we are told that the walls of Jerusalem were breached on the Ninth of Tammuz, not the 17th. Tradition says that Jeremiah’s text was corrupted in both places; one instance of a textual corruption is possible, but that the same corrupted text should appear in two different places seems unlikely.

As for Tishah B’Av, according to 2 Kings 25:8-9, the First Temple was destroyed on the Seventh of Av, while Jeremiah 52:12-13 claims it happened on the Tenth of Av. No biblical source claims the Ninth, however.

There is good reason, though, to question whether the Babylonians destroyed it at all when they captured Jerusalem.

In three places in the Tanach — 2 Kings 25:8-9, Jeremiah 52:12-13, and 2 Chronicles 36:19 — that is what we are told. However, Jeremiah 39:8 tells a somewhat different story. It says they “burned down the king’s palace and the houses of the people by fire, and they tore down the walls of Jerusalem,” but it says nothing about the Temple.

That, of course, could have been a corrupted text, but this, too, is unlikely because of a report in Jeremiah 41:5 regarding the assassination of Gedaliah, the man whom Nebuchadnezzar had appointed to be the governor of Judea. In the wake of Gedaliah’s murder, the people were forced into exile (which is the reason for the Fast of Gedaliah).

As Jeremiah reported it, two days after Gedaliah was assassinated, and before the crime was generally known, 80 men who were clearly in mourning were headed to Jerusalem carrying offerings “to present at the House of the Lord.” Most of them were killed by the conspirators, who may have thought they were in mourning for Gedaliah (for why else would Jeremiah emphasize that the murder was as yet unknown). Traditional interpretations insist these murdered men were in mourning for the destroyed Temple, but this makes no sense considering they were bringing offerings to that Temple.

Richard Elliott Friedman, in a letter posted a few weeks ago on the website Academia, discusses “these two problematic reports in Jeremiah.” The common element, he writes, “is the Temple. It isn’t there in the first passage, where we would expect it. And it is there in the second passage, where we would not. A solution that responds to both of these is that the Temple was not yet destroyed.”

Support for this, Friedman suggests, may be found in the psalm we recite before the Grace After Meals on most weekdays, “By the Rivers of Babylon.” Says the psalmist, “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried, “Raze her, raze her to her very foundations!” (See Psalm 137:7.)

In other words, the Temple was destroyed, not by the Babylonians, but by the Edomites, and, given Jeremiah 41:5, sometime later, but not on Tishah B’Av.

Friedman also pointed out a verse in an extra-biblical book, 1 Edras 4:45—Edras is the Greek name for Ezra the Scribe. The verse has Zerubavel, who was Judea’s governor when the Temple was rebuilt, saying that it was the Edomites who burned the Temple, not the Babylonians.

Several other biblical passages — notably verses 10-16 of Ovadiah and Lamentations 4:21-22 — also appear to support Edom as the culprit.

If, in fact, the Babylonians did not destroy the Temple, but it was destroyed by the Edomites sometime later, as suggested by these texts, this would call into question the entire Three Weeks, because the event it marks would not have occurred at the end of those weeks.

Zechariah’s mention of the four public fasts also call into question the Three Weeks by raising the question of whether those fasts need to observe. Zechariah has God saying of them that they will one day “become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals….”

As the Babylonian sage Rav Papa explained it (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 18b): “This is what it says: In times of peace, [these days] shall be for joy and gladness; if [it is a time when] there is government persecution, they shall be fast days; if there is neither government persecution nor peace, those who wish to do so may fast while those who do not wish to do so do not fast.” Traditional commentators assume Rav Papa means this applies only after the Temple is rebuilt, but it is not in the text.

Tishah B’Av is the only exception, according to Rav Papa, because so many other calamities occurred on Tishah B’Av since Zechariah’s time (to which we must add the many more tragedies that occurred since Rav Papa’s day). It follows that if “the fast of the fourth month” is optional, meaning the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, then there is no reason for the three weeks that follow it to be days of mourning.

As for the eight days that precede Tishah B’Av, the Talmud in BT Taanit, the tractate that deals with fasts, does state that “from the start of Av we decrease our rejoicing” (see Mishnah Taanit 4 and also BT Yevamot 43a and b), but it limits the most serious mourning rituals only to the days in the week in which Tishah B’Av actually falls, not from the First of Av.

The most restrictive rules, according to BT Taanit 26b, relate only to the day before Tishah B’Av. Only then, it says, “one neither eats meat nor drinks wine.” The exception to that is if that day is Shabbat, as it does this year.

All that being said, Tishah B’Av should not be cast aside because it has been a day of recurrent tragedies, among them:

• the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. (itself a valid reason),

• the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E., which led to a series of executions that wiped out nearly an entire generation of religious leaders and scholars (including Rabbi Akiva),

• the expulsion of the last Jews of Spain in 1492, ending what was arguably the greatest diaspora community the world had ever known until then, and,

• Germany’s declaration of war against Russia, which began World War I, and set into motion events that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Shoah.

Tishah B’Av is not a day we dare forget, even if it was not the day the First Temple was destroyed.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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