By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Tesha B’Ab, literally, the Ninth [day of the Hebrew month] of Ab, is the Jewish “National Day of Mourning,” so to speak. Tesha B’Ab is a day on which, each year, Jews commemorate many of the tragedies which have befell the Jewish people over the centuries.
During Biblical times, those tragedies included:
1. 1313 BCE: The Biblical account of the Twelve Spies, who reconnoitered Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel) before the Jewish people first entered the Land;
2. 423 BCE: The destruction, by Nebuchandnezzar, of First Temple in Yerushalayim, which had been built by King Solomon;
3. 69 CE: The Second Temple in Yerushalayim, which had been built by Ezra and Nehemiah, is destroyed by the Roman emperor Titus;
4. 135 CE: Bar Kokhba (a Jewish leader who led a revolt against the Romans) and his men are defeated and the Jewish city of Betar, where more than a half million Jews were murdered, was destroyed; and
5. 135 CE: The plowing under, by the Roman commander Turnus Rufus (Tinneius Rufus), of the site where the First and Second Temples had previously stood.
During post-Biblical times, other tragedies which are commemorated on Tesha B’Ab include:
1. 1096 CE: Jewish communities in France and Germany are destroyed during the First Crusade;
2. 1290 CE: Jews were expelled from England;
3. 1306 CE: Jews were expelled from France;
4. 1492 CE: Jews were expelled from Spain;
5. 1914 CE: Germany entered World War I, which eventually led to the Holocaust;
6. 1941 CE: Nazi German SS commander Heinrich Himmler received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution,” which ultimately resulted in the murder of some 6 million Jews;
7. 1942 CE: Mass deportations began of Jews from Warsaw to the Nazi death camp at Treblinka;
8. 1994 CE: A Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 85 and injuring 300; and
9. 2005 CE: The State of Israel relinquished sovereign control over Gaza, which, among other things, resulted in the expulsion — by the Israeli military — of 8,000 Jews who lived in Gush Katif (southern Gaza) and which, to this day, has resulted in Arabs firing rockets, and digging tunnels, from Gaza into Israel.
The letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the “Aleph Bet,” each have a numerical value to which they correspond. For example, the first letter of the Aleph-Bet is “aleph” [א], which has a numerical value of 1. The second letter of the Aleph-Bet is “bet” [ב], which has a numerical value of 2, and so on.
The first word in Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, is “Bereshit” [translated: “In the beginning”] begins with the letter “bet” [ב], the second letter of the Hebrew “alphabet.” From this, the Rabbis derived that this world, the physical world in which we live, is represented by the number 2.
Jewish Sages and other great Rabbis have also taught that HaShem gave Moshe Rabbeinu two Torahs on Mount Sinai: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.
Both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, collectively referred to simply as the “Torah,” contain instructions from HaShem concerning the conduct of mankind. One category of instructions found in the Torah, a category which might be called the “Torah for Individuals,” sets forth instructions relating to individual conduct (e.g., keeping the Sabbath, honoring one’s parents, etc.).
The other category of instructions found in the Torah, a category which might be called the “Torah for the Jewish Nation,” sets forth instructions relating to national conduct (e.g., laws relating to Eretz Yisra’el, Jewish kings, the law of war, etc.). Contemporary Jewish religious practice focuses almost exclusively on the former, while almost completely ignoring the latter.
Although the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Yerushalayim have become the quintessential example of Jewish tragedy which is commemorated each year on Tesha B’Ab, we might also view Tesha B’Ab from a slightly deeper perspective.
The Second Temple was destroyed during the year 69 CE. At its core, that tragedy represents the loss of Jewish sovereignty, which was not regained until 1948 — almost 2,000 years later — when the modern-day State of Israel was established.
Thus, because one of the two “Torahs” that HaShem gave to the Jewish people — the Torah which provides instructions relating to national conduct — was lost for almost 2,000 years, and which has yet to be fully reacquired or realized in Medinat Yisra’el (the State of Israel), it might be appropriate to view Tesha B’Ab in a new light.
Rather than being seen as a commemoration of seemingly unrelated tragedies that befell the Jewish people over the centuries, Tesha B’Ab might be better understood as commemorating a singular tragedy: the loss of Jewish sovereignty, a tragedy which encompasses and encapsulates all the discrete Jewish tragedies which are commemorated on Tesha B’Ab; a loss of Jewish sovereignty which, to a meaningful degree, still persists in Medinat Yisra’el to this day.
However, to understand Tesha B’Ab, and its related rituals of mourning, as a commemoration of the single tragedy which was the loss of Jewish sovereignty, creates a bit of a problem.
Tesha B’Ab is a rabbinic holy day – “holiday.” When the Rabbis instituted Tesha B’Ab, Eretz Yisra’el was desolate; today the Land has been rebuilt. Prior to 1948, Jews could only dream and pray about coming to Eretz Yisrael; now, Jews not only live in Eretz Yisra’el, Medinat Yisra’el is a Jewish state which is governed (for the most part) by Jews. During the time when the Rabbis instituted Tesha B’Ab, the only practical thing Jews could do was to cry over the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple in Yerushalayim).
That was then. But what about now?
Is it not a bit absurd for diaspora Jews the world over to sit in Beit Knesset on Tesha B’Ab and beseech HaShem for a speedy redemption, when all that need be done is go to the nearest computer or mobile device, grab a credit card, and book a flight to Ben Gurion Airport? Is it not even more absurd for all Jews – Israelis and diaspora Jews alike – to lament the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, when the Temple Mount, which is located in the Jewish State of Israel, with its capital in Yerushalayim, could be purified and the Beit HaMikdash rebuilt?!
Since 1948, the Jewish people have experienced miracles the likes of which have not been seen since the Exodus from Egypt. The Jew who, prior to 1948, cried on Tesha B’Ab did all that he could. But today, the lamentations of Jew who only cries on Tesha B’Ab, while doing nothing else the rest of the year, leaves a lot to be desired.
Recall that after the Jewish people left Egypt, just before the splitting of the sea, Moshe was standing, hands raised to Heaven, praying for safe passage. HaShem responded, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Yisra’el and let them journey forth!” Shemot 14:15.
Likewise, now is not the time to only cry out to HaShem, on one day each year, about the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash; now is the time for the Jewish people to journey forth and take meaningful action toward rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.