The most calamitous Jewish day

The Ninth Day of Av (August 10, 2019): Guide for the Perplexed  

Amb. (ret.) Yoram Ettinger

OpEds Tisha B'Av at Western Wall
Tisha B'Av at Western Wall
צילום: Hadas Parush/Flash90

Based on ancient Jewish Sages and historical research,

1. Remembrance breeds deliverance, while forgetfulness feeds oblivion.  According to a legend, Napoleon walking one night in the streets of Paris, heard lamentations emanating from a synagogue.  When told that the wailing commemorated the 9th Day of Av - the 586 BCE destruction of the First Jewish Temple in Jerusalem - he proclaimed: “People who solemnize ancient history are destined for a glorious future!”  The verb "to remember" (זכור) appears almost 200 times in the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments. Judaism obligates parents to transfer tradition/memories to their offspring.

2. The most calamitous events in Jewish history occurred on the 9th Day of Av and are commemorated annually, in order to minimize future calamities:

*Barring entrance to the Promised Land to all Jews who left Egypt during the Exodus – other than Joshua & Caleb – and dooming them to die in the desert by prolonging the Exodus for 40 years. This calamity was triggered by the mistrust of the divine promise to inherit the Land of Israel; the slandering of the Land of Israel; and the preference for immediate convenience and conventional “wisdom” over faith and long-term reality and vision.

*The destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (586 BCE), which resulted in the massacre of 100,000 Jews and a massive national exile.  This devastation was the result of the failed institution of the Jewish monarchy (as forewarned by Gideon the Judge and Samuel the Prophet), the post-King Solomon violent rupture of the Jewish Kingdom into the kingdoms of Judea and Israel (Samaria), paganism, incest, and the corruption of Jewish Kings and Priests.

*The destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Roman Emperor, Titus (70 CE) – which occurred as a result of severe intra-Jewish divisiveness, unjustified-hatred, physical fighting and moral decay (e.g., the mistreatment of widows and orphans) and paganism - triggered the massacre of one million Jews and another massive national exile. The Roman aim was to erase Judaism and the Jewish people from human memory.

*The Ten Martyrs – ten leading rabbis – were executed by the Roman Empire: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, Rabbi Hanina Ben Tradion, Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha, Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamoa’, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Dama, Rabbi Yeshavav the Author, Rabbi Hotzpit the Translator, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Baba and Rabbi Hanina Ben Hachinay.

*The Bar Kokhbah Revolt was crushed – by the Roman Emperor Adrianus - with the killing of Bar Kokhbah and the fall of his Beitar headquarters (135 CE) - south of Jerusalem in Judea - the plowing of Jerusalem, and 600,000 Jewish fatalities.

*The pogroms of the First Crusade (1096-1099) massacred tens of thousands of Jews in Germany, France, Italy and Britain.

*The expulsion of the Jews from Britain (1290).

*The expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492).

*The eruption of the First World War (1914).

*The beginning of the 1942 deportation of Warsaw Ghetto Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp.

This is also the period of:the Arab riots of 1929 including the Hebron Massacre at the end of August in which close to 70 Jews, men, women and children were brutally tortured and murdered by the Arab neighbors with whom they had lived peacefully for many years..

It is also the period of the 2005 expulsion of over 8000 Jews from Gush Katif in Gaza.

3. The 9th Day of Av (the 11th Jewish month) was first mentioned in the Book of Zechariah7:3.  It is one of four Jewish fast days, commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the two Temples, in an attempt to benefit from history by avoiding costly future missteps: the 10th Day of Tevet (the onset of the Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem); the 17th day of Tamuz (the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached); the 9th day of Av (the destruction of both Temples); and the 3rd day of Tishrei (The murder of the Jewish Governor Gedalyah - who maintained a level of post-destruction Jewish autonomy - which led to a murderous rampage by the Babylonians and to the Jewish exile).

It concludes the 21 days of calamity and lamentation, which began on the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tamuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar (1st Temple) and Titus (2nd Temple), launching a seven-week period of consolation, ingathering and renewal, which are concluded on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  

4.  Notwithstanding the calamities, the 9th Day of Av yields a message of realistic optimism, personally and nationally: from the WW2 Holocaust to the 1948 reestablishment of the Jewish State; from exile and subjugation to the ingathering and liberty in the Land of Israel; from near-extinction and next-to-irrelevance at the end of WW2 to the unique Jewish contributions to humanity – by the Jewish people and the Jewish State - in the areas of medicine, science, space, hightech, education, environment, agriculture, irrigation, military, etc..

5. Key lessons of the 9th Day of Av: sustaining faith and hope, and refraining from forgetfulness, despair, fatalism and pessimism, irrespective of the odds, which may seem insurmountable.   

6. The centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish history is commemorated on the 9th day of Av, highlighted by Psalm 137:5 – "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy." According to the Babylonian Talmud (a key source of Jewish law), Ta’anit 30: “He who laments the destruction of Jerusalem will be privileged to witness its renewal.”

7. The message “from destruction to deliverance and renewal” is conveyed by the Book of Lamentations, which was composed by the Prophet Jeremiah, who prophesized destruction, exile and deliverance. The Book of Lamentations - The Scroll of Eikhah in Hebrew – is one of the five Biblical Scrolls: Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, the Book of LamentationsEcclesiastes and the Scroll of Esther

The Book of Lamentations is read during the first nine days of the 11th Jewish month of Av, “the Days of Calamity.” The numerical value of the Hebrew letters of Eikhah (איכה) is 36, which is equal to the number of righteous, legendary Jewish persons, as well as to life (18) times two. The Hebrew meaning of Eikhah (איכה) could be interpreted as a reproaching "How Come?!", as well as "Where are you (God)?" or “Why have you (God) strayed away?”  The term איכה features in the first chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of Isaiah. Both are studied annually in conjunction with the Book of Lamentations on the 9th day of Av. Thus the 9th day of Av leverages the unique values of Moses (Deuteronomy) and the two Prophets - Jeremiah and Isaiah.  

8. The 9th Day of Av has demonstrated that crisis is a launching pad to growth, and transformation from curse and decay to blessing and renewal.  The Hebrew spelling of Av (אב) consists of the first two letters of the Hebrew Alpha-Beth, the  spelling of “father” and “bud,” and the first two letters of “spring” (אביב which also means, in Hebrew, “the father of twelve months”).  The numerical value of Av, אב, (א=1 and ב=2) is 3, the combination of the basic even and odd numbers (“A cord of 3 strands is not easily broken,” Ecclesiastes 4:12). The zodiac sign of the month of Av is a lion, representing the Lion of Judah, rising from the ashes of the destruction caused by Nebuchadnezzar, whose symbol was also the lion. The fast on the 9th day of Av is succeeded by the 15th day of Av – a Jewish holiday of love and reconciliation.