The gift of ‘Solomon’s time’

The gift of ‘Solomon’s time’

Shabbat Chazon, Parshat Devarim Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Every year, Jews, as we have for more than two millenia, observe the fast of the Ninth of Av, marking the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the holy temple that stood in Jerusalem.  This day, as well as the days and weeks leading up to it, have become a time to reflect and mourn the many historical sorrows of our people. Through various mourning practices, such as not eating meat or drinking wine and not listening to music, we use this time to connect with and remember the millions of martyrs and those we have lost throughout the years of our exile.

Over the centuries, Jews have struggled during this time to balance the serenity of Shabbat with the gloom of the Tisha b’Av season. Is Shabbat, as it generally is, a reprieve from our sorrow and an opportunity to celebrate, or is it a continuation of the somber mood we are cultivating during this period. In particular, such questions as the propriety of wearing the traditional finery on this Shabbat or of setting elements of the regular Shabbat service to the haunting tunes of the Tisha b’Av liturgy have found a variety of approaches in classical sources.

 This year, the tension is even stronger, since the date of the ninth of Av falls on Shabbat itself. In the end, though, Jewish law comes down strongly on the side of Shabbat and rules that the regular Shabbat feasts are to be served, complete with meat and wine. The Talmud (Taanit 29) expresses this in a most evocative fashion, saying that one can even set a table “like the feast of Solomon in his time.”

On the one hand, this phrase illustrates how elaborate the meals of the Shabbat of Tisha b’Av can be. King Solomon’s reign marked a high point in the wealth and power of the Jewish Kingdom, and Tanach testifies to the richness of his daily menu:

“And Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty measures of fine flour, and sixty measures of meal. Ten fat oxen, and twenty oxen out of the pastures, and a hundred sheep, besides harts, and deer, and fallow deer, and fatted fowl.” (I Kings Chapter 5).

At the same time, there seems to be a bitter irony to this description. After all, Solomon’s most famous contribution to Jewish history was his role in erecting the First Temple in Jerusalem, the very Temple whose destruction is mourned on Tisha b’Av. There is something jarring then about the Talmud referencing the expansiveness of Solomon’s feasts at the very moment that marks the destruction of his handiwork.

There is a fascinating tradition about King Solomon that perhaps shifts our understanding of this expression. Maimonides (Laws of the Beit HaBechira 4:1) discusses the ancient mystery of the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant and shares the following tradition:

“When Solomon built the Temple, he was aware that it would ultimately be destroyed. [Therefore,] he constructed a chamber, in which the ark could be entombed below [the Temple building] in deep, maze-like vaults. [Later,] King Josiah commanded that [the Ark] be entombed in the chamber built by Solomon.”

At first blush, the idea that Solomon himself was so aware of the inevitable obsolescence of the shrine that he incorporated a survival bunker for the Ark into the architectural plans of the Temple itself feels so fatalistic. One hears the echoes of pessimism from King Solomon’s dark biblical treatise, the book of Kohelet, where he despairingly repeats how all is vanity.

There is a different read of this tradition that is much more empowering. King Solomon may well have known that his Temple would not stand forever and taken appropriate precautions against that inevitable day. At the same time, King Solomon did not allow that knowledge to paralyze his real joy in the moment, and his ability to appreciate his accomplishments.

This then, may explain the Talmud’s description of the Shabbat of Tisha B’Av as “Solomon in his time.” Certainly, Solomon may have foreseen the eventual destruction of the Temple, but that in no way made the joy in his time any less.

For us, this is the essence of the power of Shabbat. Certainly, everyone has his own fears and insecurities about the future and sometimes even about our present. When we enter Shabbat, we are given the gift of “Solomon’s time”: the ability to transcend and live in a moment of holiness together with God, family and community.

Among the most famous lines penned by Solomon is his listing of the seasons of life: “For every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die.” The Shabbat of Tisha b’Av reminds us that every Shabbat, no matter what else is going on, can and should be a time for rejoicing, serenity, and recharging.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual leader of Poale Zedeck Congregation. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.