Why Remembering Tisha B’Av Matters

Every year on the ninth day of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar — which differs from year to year in the Gregorian calendar, now in common use — the Jewish people observe what is often referred to as the “saddest day in the Jewish calendar.” It is the commemoration of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

The first Temple was built in the second half of the 10th century B.C., during the reign of King Solomon. Over the centuries, despite some internal resistance, the Temple of Solomon became the center of Israelite piety and ultimately the only site where sacrifices were offered. The three great pilgrim feasts of the Pentateuch, which were far older than the Temple, became identified with it.

The Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 587 B.C. The book of 2 Kings 25:1-10 records how the Babylonians broke through the walls of Jerusalem. The brevity of the text belies its pathos: “Nebuzaradan, captain of the bodyguard … burned the house of the Lord” (25:8-9).

In the following centuries under different overlords, the Israelites were able to rebuild the Temple. Nevertheless, Ezra noted: “Many of the priests, Levites, and heads of ancestral houses, who were old enough to have seen the former house, cried out in sorrow as they watched the foundation of the present house being laid” (Ezra 3:12).

However, in the first century B.C., King Herod the Great (circa 72 B.C. to circa 4 A.D.) conducted important architectural projects; one was beautifying what is known historically as the Second Temple.

By the time of Jesus, who was born during the reign of Herod the Great, Judea was a province of the Roman Empire. The Romans were harsh overlords and after several attempts by the Jews to win their freedom, the First Jewish-Roman War occurred from 66 A.D. to 73 A.D. Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans from April to September in 70 A.D. On 30 August of that year (9 Av in the Jewish calendar), the Roman forces captured the Temple, pillaged and destroyed it.

The loss of the Temple was catastrophic for Judaism. The center of Judaism was destroyed. The sacrificial offerings, offered since the time of Abraham and now limited to the Temple in Jerusalem, ceased entirely. It is a tribute to the spiritual strength of Judaism that, despite the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbinic Judaism evolved.

The destruction and desecration of sacred places, whether they are architectural, such as the Temple, or natural, such as a sacred mountain or lake, are analogous to cultural and spiritual genocide. They are attempts to tear a people from their spiritual roots and cut off the source of their spiritual strength. Some religions, such as Judaism, historically have been able to adapt and survive such inhuman barbarity. Many have not.

Tisha B’Av is a Jewish observance. It is also a reminder and warning about the depths to which the brutality of human nature is able to sink.

Read more about the ongoing barbarity of the destruction of sacred places and heritage sites in current times in the article, “Erasing Identity,” by my colleague Olivia Poust in the June issue of ONE magazine.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

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