This Sunday, August 14, Jews will mark the fast of the Ninth of Av, an annual day of mourning commemorating the anniversary of the destruction of both the First and Second Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. It’s the darkest date in Jewish history.
According to tradition, the 12 spies sent by Moses to scout the land of Canaan (Numbers 13) returned from their mission on Tisha B’Av. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, brought a positive report, while the others relayed false tidings that the land would be “impossible” to conquer. According to the biblical account, the Jews chose to accept the slanderous report over the favorable one. They wept and despaired of ever entering the “Promised Land.”
In punishment for their lack of faith, God declared that the generation that left Egypt would not inherit the land, and decreed a forty year journey in the desert until the last male of the generation had died out. Furthermore, in the midrashic literature, in response to the Israelites’ needless weeping, God announces that the ninth of Av will henceforth be a day of sadness, misfortune, and tragedy for all generations.
Aside from the destruction of both Temples on the ninth of Av (586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), several major calamities have fallen on this date, or been ascribed to this date by Jewish tradition: The Bar Kochba revolt is crushed by Roman Emperor Hadrian (135 CE); The First Crusade is declared by Pope Urban II, which killed thousands of Jews and destroyed Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland (1095); Expulsion of the Jews from England (1290); Inquisition in Spain and Portugal culminates in the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (1492); Britain and Russia declare war on Germany, first World War begins, and millions die, including 120,000 Jewish soldiers (1914); Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin (1942); Deadly bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, kills 86 people and wounds 300 others (1994).
It’s not hard to sense that there’s some bad mojo around the ninth of Av. Likewise, regardless of your Israel/Palestine politics, there’s no denying that the past two millenia are rife with the consequences of the Roman expulsion of the Jews from their homeland.
So how did this all happen? What precipitated all these tragedies? And what can we learn from that origin story?
The Talmudic tractate of Gittin 55b relays the most famous midrash regarding the Roman destruction of the Second Temple.
The story tells of a wealthy man who had planned an extravagant party, and sent his servant to deliver an invitation to his friend, a man named Kamtza. However, the servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to Bar Kamtza, the wealthy host’s bitter enemy. Upon seeing Bar Kamtza at his party, the man ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza, attempting to save face, first offered to pay for the food he ate, then for half of the expenses of the party, and then for the cost of the entire party. Each time, he was rebuffed by the angry host, who then had him physically removed.
Humiliated, Bar Kamtza vowed revenge against the many prominent rabbis present at the party who did not defend him, and who, with their seeming silent acquiescence, allowed him to be publicly embarrassed. Soon after, Bar Kamtza visited Emperor Nero and told him the Jews were plotting a revolt against the Roman Empire. Nero, unsure of whether to believe Bar Kamtza, sent a choice calf with Bar Kamtza to be sacrificed as a peace offering in the Temple. During the journey to Jerusalem, however, Bar Kamtza secretly made a minor blemish on the animal, disqualifying it as a Jewish sacrifice but not as a Roman one.
Upon seeing the disfigured animal, the rabbis of the Sanhedrin had to make a decision as to how to respond to the delicate situation presented. Some advocated dispensing with the law and offering the animal anyway to avoid war. This plan was vetoed by Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos who feared that people would begin to bring blemished animals to the Temple to be sacrificed. Other rabbis suggested putting Bar Kamtza to death to prove that he was at fault and that they were not aligned with him, but Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos again refused, noting that intentionally bringing a disqualified offering to the Temple is not a death penalty offense under Jewish law.
The delegation returned to Rome and told the emperor that his offering had been refused. Furious, Nero sent an army to lay siege to Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan thusly remarked: “Because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
It appears that according to Jewish tradition, two thousand years of persecution was triggered by the leaders of the Jewish community being silent in the face of wrongdoing. Moreover, when these leaders finally did address the victim they had dismissed, they did not reach out to apologize to him for their inaction, or to help reconcile the aggrieved party and his offender. No, they instead considered punishing him, to make a great show of not being in any way his ally.
Consider this food for thought—the only kind permitted—as we fast this Tisha B’Av.