Tradition Today: The limits of mourning

Once again we will recall the catastrophes that overtook our people.

The three week period mourning for the destruction of the Temple begins this week and once again we will recall the catastrophes that overtook our people both in the year 586 BCE when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and in 70 CE when the Second Temple was burned by the Romans. Perhaps it is too simple, however, to speak only about the Temple. Much more was involved. In the first instance we also lost political independence and were cast off our own land into foreign exile. In the second there was again the loss of independence as well as many who were killed or enslaved. Although Jews continued to live in the Land of Israel, all of their institutions were destroyed. It was a situation that lasted until the rise of the State of Israel only 60 years ago. Yet there is something strange about continuing this mourning when we now observe it in our own land as a sovereign nation, as a people in control of its own destiny. It is not quite the same thing as the hundreds - indeed thousands - of years of mourning when Jewish sovereignty was but a distant dream and the there was no Jewish homeland. How should we mourn under these new conditions? Immediately after the catastrophe of 70 CE there were some who were so overwhelmed by the enormity of what had happened that they adopted extreme mourning customs - not eating meat because there were no more animal sacrifices and not drinking wine because there were no more libations on the altar. At that time Rabbi Joshua pointed out to them that if that were to be the case they would have to stop eating fruit and drinking water because these too were used in the Temple rites. He concluded, "Not to mourn at all is impossible because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible. Therefore the Sages have ordained that one may stucco his house but leave a little bare. One may prepare a banquet but leave out an item or two. A woman may put on ornaments but leave off one or two" (Baba Batra 60b).Thus, observing mourning customs which enabled life to continue but nevertheless kept the memory and the hope of restoration alive, was an intelligent and practical approach to the problem. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz, which begins the three-week period of mourning, is the first of four fasts associated with the destruction of the Temple. It commemorates the breach of the wall of Jerusalem by the Romans. According to Jeremiah 39:2 the Babylonians breached the wall on the 9th of Tammuz, the original date of the fast of Tammuz. The others are the 9th of Av commemorating the destruction of both Temples, the fast of Gedaliah, when the last Jewish ruler, Gedaliah, was murdered by Jews in 586 BCE, and the fast of the 10th of Tevet, which marks the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem. Over time other calamities were associated with these dates. The first reference we have to these fasts is a statement by the prophet Zechariah who lived during the period of the return from the Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple in which he enumerated them and concluded that they "shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah…" (8:19). Zechariah may very well have been indicating that once the Temple was rebuilt these fasts, observed during the Babylonian exile, would become instead days of joy. We are not certain if in fact they were observed during the time of the Second Temple or not. Quite possibly not. If not, the question arises about their status today. Obviously the Temple has not been rebuilt, but other conditions of Jewish life and Jewish sovereignty have certainly undergone a major change. After the establishment of the State of Israel there were discussions on this topic in religious circles and there were some who advocated abolition of these fasts or moderation of their observance, if not of Tisha Be'av then at least of the three lesser ones. That discussion was based largely on the passage in Rosh Hashana 18b: When there is peace these days shall be "for joy and gladness," but when there is no peace they shall be fasts. Obviously the question is the meaning of "peace" in that context. Some interpreters took it to mean "when the Temple exists." Others interpreted it as "when Israel lives in its own land and the nations do not rule over Israel." The Law Committee of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly discussed this issue at some length and opinions were divided as to whether or not any modification should be made concerning Tisha Be'av. There was, however, unanimity of opinion regarding the other fasts, including the 17th of Tammuz, that these fasts in our days should be considered individual and voluntary rather than required. If one wishes to one may fast, but otherwise need not. (For the complete discussion of these issues consult the Responsa of the Rabbinical Assembly, Volume 1.) In this way we take into account the fact that for the first time since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE a free Jewish nation has been established within the Land of Israel and Jerusalem and that others do not rule over us - indeed a cause of rejoicing. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.