Fasting and praying on Tishah B’Av sounds like a good idea but only a minority take any note of the occasion.
Most people are busy with their lives and aren’t interested in a historical commemoration. Surprising, since almost everyone observes their family Yahrzeits, and this is the national Yahrzeit of the entire Jewish family.
What we lost when the Temple was destroyed was not only a great edifice but a great concept: That a major way to spirituality was to gather in a sacred place on sacred occasions and to bring offerings. The Temple was lost, but the great idea survived.
Throughout history we have continued to be a community, to ask God’s blessing, and to give of ourselves and our means for the sake of our heritage. Indeed Jewish life has been an unending Tishah B’Av.
Napoleon once passed a synagogue and heard wailing. He wondered if some catastrophe had happened. He was told it was the fast of Av and they were lamenting the loss of their Temple.
“A people who weep for a building they never saw will live to see it rebuilt”.
THE BOOKS IN THE FLAMES.
One of the hardest things Jews ever had to witness was the burning of the volumes of the Talmud in a number of European cities.
In northern France in the 13th century, a former Jew – Nicholas Donin, possibly a follower of Karaite doctrines – led to measures to confiscate copies of the Talmud and in many cases to burn them publicly.
The French rabbis had excommunicated Donin because of his relentless attacks on the authority of the Talmud. He now turned to Christianity, became a Franciscan and urged the pope to ban the Talmud which, he said, was full of blasphemies which prevented the Jews from becoming Christians.
He spearheaded the famous Disputation of Paris, 1240, which led to the Talmud being found “guilty”. It stands to the credit of two of the bishops that the destruction of rabbinic manuscripts was not fully enforced.
In Italy it was former Jews who also spearheaded the war against the Talmud, but friction amongst the Jews themselves added to the problem.
In Venice two rival Jewish printers had issued editions of Maimonides’ Code and other works and their conflict led them to allege to the Christian authorities that the books which the other printer had produced contained libels against Christianity.
Jewish renegades came to the support of both sides, notably two grandsons of the Hebraist Elijah Levita (“Eliyahu Bachur”).
One of the two brothers, Solomon Romano, eventually became a Jesuit under the name of Giovanni Baptista Eliano. Their efforts led to Pope Julian III authorising the Inquisitor General to destroy the Talmud and other books, including the Hebrew Scriptures.
The decree was, probably deliberately, slated for implementation in Rome on Rosh HaShanah 1553, though in the north of Italy the burning was staved off for some time. In Italy as elsewhere there were some Christians who protested.
The story of the burning of the books is recorded in “Emek HaBacha” –”The Valley of Weeping” (the name derives from Psalm 84:7), by the historian Joseph HaCohen. The Tishah B’Av liturgy also contains poems commemorating the tragic events.
THE ACTUAL & VIRTUAL TISHAH B’AV.
Historical events punctuate Jewish history. Our calendar marks them with a kaleidoscope of joys and laments. On two levels – the actual and the virtual.
The actual Pesach is a re-creation of life in Egypt and the Exodus; the virtual Pesach celebrates an idea – the human right to freedom.
The actual Shavu’ot is a reconstruction of a people gathering at the foot of a mountain amidst thunder and lightning with the leader, Moses, then ascending to receive the detail of the Divine message; the virtual Shavu’ot heralds an ideal – a nation living by a moral law.
The ideals and values of Judaism are enshrined in thousands of great works of literature and law, but above all in the days and dates of the calendar. Samson Raphael Hirsch wisely said, “The catechism of the Jew consists of his calendar”.
Does Tishah B’Av fit into this pattern?
Its message, transcending the actual events of the destruction, is that a people can move through trauma towards triumph, but must not be deluded into thinking that its Utopia has come every time there is a pseudo-messianic movement that promises light but so often sinks into darkness.
A people must have a messianic belief but must wait until the evidence of its Messiah is overwhelming.