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Why I’m fasting

With an evolving liturgy, Tisha B'Av is in fact the greatest testimony to Judaism's capacity to survive and thrive

As I read Rabbi Elyse Goldstein’s “Why I’m not fasting on Tisha B’Av” this morning, I couldn’t help but notice a parenthetical (and antithetical) statement:

And I’m not fasting because, ultimately, the destruction of the Temple lent way for the democratization of Judaism… It doesn’t make me sad, even though my husband and sons are kohanim and would, in the time of the messiah, be those powerful priests again. (And I’d get to eat from their terumah as the wife of a priest. As a vegetarian, it doesn’t appeal to me. As a feminist, I don’t want to eat their leftovers.)

See, terumah is for vegetarians: it’s the term used in talmudic and halachic literature for the portion of grain, wine, and corn (and other produce as well) given to priestly families. Moreover, every member of the household may partake whenever they feel like it — females don’t eat off the plates of their fathers, husbands, or children (well, maybe children. I’ve yet to meet the toddler who finishes what’s put in front of him.)

This imprecision may seem like a minor quibble, but it goes right to the heart of Rabbi Goldstein’s argument: that Talmud trumps Temple:

To rebuild the Temple would undermine the existence of an interpretive Judaism. The Pharisees won in the end, and interpretation won too over the fixed, hegemonic ritual of the Sadducees… Jewish history has plenty of trauma and we can certainly use a day to remember that. But remember: from the ashes of the Temple rose the phoenix of rabbinic Judaism, and that’s the Judaism I now celebrate, the Judaism that survived.

There’s only one problem with this timeline: rabbinic Judaism precedes the destruction of the Temple by centuries! Yes, during the Persian era, the first part of the Second Commonwealth, the Great Knesset sat, and it is credited with canonizing Scripture (Bava Batra 15a), composing most of our prayers (Berachot 33a), and eradicating idolatry (Yoma 69b). These rabbis were not the successors to the priests, but rather to the prophets (Avot 1:1) — half a millennium before the Second Temple was destroyed.

The Pharisees did not see the Temple’s destruction as a victory over the Sadducee priests, but as a tragedy, which is why so much of the Talmud is dedicated to the laws of holiness (Kodashim) and ritual purity (Taharot): 23 of the original 60 tractates. In fact, the terumah that Rabbi Goldstein is so disinterested in is the reason we all wash our hands before partaking of bread — because that is what the kohanim had to do before eating holy food. In fact, the first paragraph in the Talmud refers to the kohanim going in for supper, since that is the signal for nightfall and the time to say Shema.

However, Rabbi Goldstein maintains that there is no reason to fast on Tisha B’Av anymore, regardless of what it what might have once meant:

Fasting on Tisha B’Av almost seems like a slap in the face to that sovereign Jewish nation. I want to imagine that if the Rabbis of the Talmud were living today, they’d say, “what? How can you keep a fast that longs for a nation you are living in now?”

But there is no need to imagine what the Rabbis of the Talmud might have said, when we can read what they actually did say (Rosh Hashana 18b): “R. Papa replied: The ninth of Av is in a different category, because several misfortunes happened on it, as a Master has said: On the ninth of Av, the Temple was destroyed — both the first time and the second time, and Beitar was captured, and the city [Jerusalem] was plowed.”

As Maimonides and Rabbenu Hananel explain, the ninth of Av is so puissant and pertinent that it was observed while the Second Temple stood. It commemorates far more than the loss of the sacrificial service; it represents the countless tragedies, personal and national, of slavery, exile, rape, dispossession, persecution and genocide.

In fact, the Sanhedrin, the great body that made so many of the reforms Rabbi Goldstein applauds, sat in the courtyard of the Temple! For me, the apex of Tisha B’Av is rising from the cold floor to sing, mournfully, but majestically:

Wail, Zion and her cities

Like a woman in birth pangs

Like a virgin dressed in sack

For the husband of her youth.

For the beat of her dancers

That has been silenced in her cities.

And for the council that has become desolate

And the dissolution of her Sanhedrin.

But if that doesn’t speak to you, write your own kinnah (elegy, dirge). It is Yom Kippur that focuses so minutely on the Temple service, not Tisha B’Av, with its ever-evolving liturgy. There is no greater testimony to Judaism’s capacity to survive and thrive.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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