In 587 BCE, King Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II and the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Almost 600 years later, the Second Temple was demolished by the Roman Empire.
Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day that falls in the summer of our Gregorian calendar (the evening of July 26 this year), commemorates both tragic events. Its five prohibitions (including a 25-hour fast), its reading of the Book of Lamentations and its recitation of elegiac poems (known as kinnot) are designed to help Jews remember their saddest days.
As post-temple Jewish history continued, such days became more frequent. The holiday now recalls the slaughter of Jews during the medieval Crusades, the Edict of Expulsion from England in 1290 and the Alhambra Decree that expelled Jews from Spain in 1492, among other calamities.
From Tisha B’Av, it is possible to gain an understanding of Jewish history after Jerusalem and during the rabbinic era. So, why don’t more modern communities observe this most historical of Jewish holidays? The answer is complicated, according to historians.
For starters, the holiday falls in the summer, and that’s vacation season. It’s also about the destruction of the temples, and only Orthodox Jews pray for the rebuilding of the temple, according to Rabbi Lance Sussman, a historian of American Jewish history who has taught at Princeton University.
Additionally, the day was reinterpreted by the Reform movement in the 19th century, according to Zev Eleff, the president of Gratz College. Rabbi David Einhorn, the father of the Reform movement in the United States, argued that the destruction of the temple was a blessing because it allowed Jews to become “a light unto the nations,” Eleff said.
But perhaps the biggest reason has to do with a modern Jewish tragedy: the Holocaust. There was a moment after World War II when the Shoah could have joined the expulsions and Crusades as a part of Tisha B’Av. And to many Orthodox communities, it did. But to less traditional Jewish groups, the Holocaust needed its own days. Today, we call them Yom HaShoah, Israel’s day of remembrance, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the United Nations’ version.
Both have overshadowed Tisha B’Av, according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“Now that we have Yom HaShoah and Holocaust Remembrance Day, it’s harder to use Tisha B’Av for that,” Sarna said. “Some summer camps do. But it kind of lost its contemporary relevance for some Jews.”
The message of Holocaust days, memorials, lessons in school, archival stories and artistic works is “never forget.” Yet in remembering the Shoah, modern Jews may have forgotten the holiday that gave us that message in the first place.
Should Holocaust remembrance take precedence over the destruction of the temples, the expulsions and the massacres just because the Holocaust happened more recently? On the one hand, it was an attempt to annihilate the Jews. On the other, the Jews’ survival sends the same message of perseverance that the Reform movement likes to emphasize with the post-temple period of Jewish history.
It’s a question with no clear answer. Only one thing is clear: The history lesson of Tisha B’Av is valuable.
“You don’t understand what can happen to Jews when there’s nowhere for them to go,” Sarna said.
“The desire to fold the totality of Jewish historical suffering into Tisha B’Av was part of our historical memory,” Eleff added.
“Tisha B’Av is a historical reminder that the Jewish people have suffered terrible catastrophes throughout their past and that they survived. And that we are in a period of relative strength today,” Sussman concluded.
Rabbi Roni Handler, who leads the Conservative Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun in Glenside, Pennsylvania, acknowledged that her synagogue does not do much for Tisha B’Av since it falls in the summer. But she agreed with the historians on the importance of it.
“The history is important so we can understand where we came from and who we are,” she said.
Rabbi Gregory Marx, who guides Reform Congregation Beth Or in Philadelphia, also admitted that his shul does not do much for the summer holiday. But like Handler, he agrees with the historians that it may deserve more.
“If you ask Jews today who we are as a community, they are going to be talking about prayer and good deeds. It made us stronger,” Marx said. “If the destruction had not happened, I’m not sure we would have survived another 2,000 years. Our focus became clear.” PJC
Jarrad Saffren writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication where this first appeared.