Tisha B'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, can be called "the mother of all mourning."
Many Jews use the ninth of Av as a day to pause and reflect on the nature of tragedy in general, and, more specifically, the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.
It is a time of reflection and the rediscovering of unity within the Jewish people. Traditionally, one fasts from sunset to sunset, reads the Book of Lamentations (attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, details the trials and terror of the destruction of the First Temple), and, in addition, abstains from activities such as listening to music, sitting on comfortable chairs, and sexual relations.
This year, Tisha B'Av falls on Sunday. Throughout Israel, people will gather Saturday night after the end of Shabbat to read Lamentations. A special, mournful tune is used in the chanting. Synagogue attendees usually sit on the floor in a symbol of mourning.
This idea is reflected in the destruction of the two Temples. The first was built by King Solomon. His father, King David, was not allowed to build it, because he had "blood on his hands" from the many wars he fought. It would not have been proper for the Temple, symbolizing peace, to have been built by a warrior.
Yet the First Temple was destroyed in war by the Babylonians, and the resulting exile lasted for 70 years. The Talmud relates that the reason for its destruction was the relentless pursuit of idol worship, sexual immorality, and murder.
The Second Temple was destroyed, according to traditional sources, for one reason only - baseless hatred (in Hebrew "sinat hinam"). The Jewish people at the time simply hated one another for no reason, and had absolutely no compassion for each other.
The First Temple lasted 420 years, while the Second Temple lasted 410. The two are separated by only a difference of 10 years. Ten is the number of Jews required to form a minyan, a prayer quorum, the bare minimum for a community. The senseless hatred of the Second Temple period destroyed all sense of community among the Jewish people.
It would seem that God must have viewed the transgressions that destroyed both temples on an equal level, and, in fact, it could be argued that senseless hatred was the more grave offense (the first exile lasted but 70 years, the second . . .).
Judaism believes that there are two types of commandments - those that regulate interpersonal relationships, and those that regulate the relationship between an individual and God. These are like two legs. It may be possible to stand on one, but if we wish to take a further step in our spiritual evolution, we must stand on both of them at the same time.
If we wish to make this day relevant we must look at ourselves in a true light regardless of our backgrounds and ask what have we done to overcome the enormity of the destruction.
Historically, this day marks many tragedies:
- The worshipping of the golden calf.
- The returning of the spies from the Promised Land, and their negative report - the rejection of the belief in God's ability to help us in the physical world and the rejection of Eretz Yisrael as the focus of our freedom.
- 586 BCE: Destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.
- 70 CE: Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the beginning of the Exile.
- 135 CE: Fall of Betar, last stronghold of the Bar Kochba Revolt. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were either killed or exiled while, at the same time, the last hope of regaining independence from the Romans was destroyed.
- 136 CE: Jerusalem destroyed and Roman city of Aelia Capitolina established in its place.
- July 18, 1290: King Edward I expels all Jews from England.
- August 2, 1492: Jews expelled from Spain.
- July 26, 1555: Ghetto established in Rome. Pope Paul IV moves all the Jews into foul smelling area near the Tiber River. The Jews were forced to pay for the wall which was built around the ghetto.
There is a story of Napoleon related to this idea of mourning. One day on the ninth of Av he was walking past a synagogue when he heard the crying from within. He inquired as to the reason for their wailing and was told that they were weeping over the destruction of the temple.
When was it destroyed, he asked. They told him 1,800 years ago.
Napoleon reportedly responded: "I vow that this people is destined for a future in their own homeland. For is there any other people who have kept alive similar mourning and hope for so many years?"