Tisha Be’Av: Forget about the Romans

Colloseum, Rome. (Pexels)
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“When bad things happen to a group, its members can ask one of two questions: “What did we do wrong?” or “Who did this to us?” The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses.“(Lord Jonathan Sacks)

It was the great Roman empire and Titus Vespasian who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash almost two thousand years ago; except it wasn’t and it would help us a great deal to understand that they were not the ones to destroy the Beit Hamikdash.

Yes, this does refer in part to the rabbinic teaching (Talmud Bavli, Yuma 9a) that says:” why was the first Temple destroyed? Because of three things it had: idle worship, idolatry, and bloodshed. Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of baseless hate(“sinat chinam”) that they had among them.” These words bringing Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the great founder of the first modern-day Yeshiva system, to write that it is only after the Jews had destroyed the Temple’s spiritual infrastructure that God allowed Titus to come along and destroy the remaining physical representation of what the Temple was really all about.

However, when taking a look at the historical events and how they unfolded, it becomes clear that indeed the Roman’s did very little to contribute to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and sending the Jewish people into exile.

Long before the fierce infighting in Judea, the hate between the two brothers Yochanan Hurqanos and Aristobulus II in the year 65 BCE, brought Aristobulus to prefer bringing the Roman’s into Judea, rather than see his brother Yohanan Hurqanos remain king. Aristobulus went to Rome and came back with an army that supported him, besieged the city of Jerusalem, and once he and the Roman’s defeated his brother Hurqanos they entered the city massacring thousands of his fellow Jews.

The fighting did not end there.

Infighting of ideological and political background became part of the daily life in the time that preceded the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash.

The infighting, friction, and divisions were so bad that the rabbis tell us that 40 years before the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Sanhedrin stopped practicing capital punishments due to the high rate of murderers that took place in Judea.

Rabbi Yehudah Lowy, the Maharal of Prague (Netzach Yisrael chapter 5 and chiddushai Aggadot, Gittin 35B) explains[2] that the reason infighting and in-hating caused the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash is because the purpose of the Beit Hamikdash is to untie the Jewish people; once the Jewish people were split, it was no longer appropriate to have a Beit Hamikdash which is there to unite the Jewish people.

Things got worse once the Roman siege on Jerusalem had begun.

Josephus describes a horrible reality in which the Jews inside Jerusalem were divided into three camps, who were busy killing and fighting each other. So much so, that Titus delayed his attacks on Jerusalem because he rightfully believed that letting the Jews kill each other out would be more effective that beginning an all-out assault on them.

The hate and divisiveness were so bad that in starvation and war, Jews preferred fighting each other over uniting to fight the Romans who were encircling the city.

So great was the Jew-to-Jew hate, that even after the complete destruction of the Beit Hamikdash Josephus describes Titus appointing his friend Fronto setting up a field court in Jerusalem in which residents were put on trial based on the confessions of their fellow Jews.

It is reasonable to say that Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that “whoever hates their friend is guilty of bloodshed” is a statement soaked in blood and knowledge of Jewish history.

And so, who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash? Well yes, the Romans were the ones who technically took Jerusalem apart and sent the Jewish people into exile, however, we as a people have long before sent ourselves into our own exile and destruction.

Had we not been focused on fighting one another it is reasonable to say, on many different levels, that the Beit Hamikdash would not be destroyed. Reminding ourselves to forget about the Romans and focus on what we have done to destroy the Beit Hamikdash, can help us change the course of history.

The Rabbis in the Israeli Talmud say:” any generation in which the Beit Hamikdash was not rebuilt in its days, it is as if it was destroyed in its days.” [5]There is no point in rebuilding the destroyed Temple if we show that we would be making the same mistakes all over again. Titus Vespasian and the Romans were not the ones who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash, they were merely the ones to oversee the execution of that horror. If we want to undo the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, we need not think of reversing the actions of the Romans but rather we need to think of how to reverse the hate and divisiveness which made that destruction possible.

Rabbi Yechezkel of Kuzmir(1755-1856), founder of the Modzhitz Hassidic dynasty once saw a Jew sitting on the floor in tears and agony reciting the Kinnot and mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash on the night of Tisha Be’Av. Suddenly, as the man is sitting with tears rolling down his eyes he was approached by his friend asking him for assistance with the writing of an urgent letter which needed to be done then and there. The mourning man declined to help because he was engaged in mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. R’ Chatzkeleh of Kuzmir who was passing by remarked: “what is it that you are mourning? The destruction of the Temple? Well, it was destroyed due to hate and divisiveness. The only think that can rebuild it is kindness and love for one another; please go help your friend”.

For the lesson of Tisha Be’Av to be effective we must remember what its causes are. We must remind ourselves of the extent to which internal conflict and infighting[6] have ravaged the Jewish people and had the Temple burned to the ground. If we want to reverse the course of history we must make sure to take the opposite direction. Reconciliation, kindness, tolerance, and understanding—even for those with whom we disagree most—must be our top priority and may see the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash speedily in our days.

About the Author
The writer is an eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network
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