The saddest day

What is the saddest day in the Jewish year?

temple destruction521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
temple destruction521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What is the saddest day in the Jewish year? The ancient Hebrew calendar, as found in the books of the Torah, actually has no “sad” days, no days of mourning. All the sacred days mentioned are times of celebration, days of joy (with the exception of Yom Kippur, which is a day of solemnity and self-affliction – but still not a day of mourning). Sadness only comes into Judaism with the destruction of the First Temple, when Tisha Be’av was designated as a day of mourning, along with three other fast days connected to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
Furthermore, unlike the days of celebration described in the Torah, those days of mourning are not intended to last forever. As the prophet said, “Thus said the Lord of Hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the 10th month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah’” (Zechariah 8:19).
From a historical point of view, we have no way of knowing for certain if these fasts were observed during the days of the Second Temple.
Scholars are divided on this question. We do know that in the second century CE, Rabbi Judah the Prince made an attempt to eliminate Tisha Be’av, but the other Sages would not agree (Megila 5:2).
Even today there is controversy concerning the continued observance of these days in view of the State of Israel’s founding and the restoration of Jewish independence.
IN RECENT times, we have added another day of sadness and mourning to the calendar: Holocaust Remembrance Day, which will be commemorated this coming week. I believe that it is the saddest of our days, not only because it is closer to us in time – many of us lived through the events it commemorates, and some of those who experienced it personally are still here to tell the tale – but also because of the nature of the events.
Tisha Be’av was instated because of the terrible military defeat of the kingdom of Judah, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the exile of so many of our people. But nothing in that event was intended to destroy the religion or the people of Israel. It was a defeat in war, of one nation by another. Israelites were free to practice their religion in their exile and did so, even though some questioned whether such practice was possible. There was every reason to hope and believe that the exile would end and the city and Temple would be restored – as indeed it was.
Hanukka represents a time when the continuation of Judaism in its pristine form was in danger, but there was no threat of annihilation facing the entire people.
The Holocaust was of a completely different nature than the Babylonian conquest. In the Shoah, we were not defeated in war, but as individual Jews; the Jewish religion and the Jewish people were singled out for complete annihilation simply because of who and what they were. The only previous time such a plan is mentioned is in the Book of Esther, when Haman threatens to “destroy, massacre and exterminate the Jews, young and old, children and women, and to plunder their possessions” (3:13) – a frightening prefiguration of the Nazi plot.
Although the Nazi plan for total destruction did not succeed, the consequences were devastating. One-third of Jews alive at the time were systematically murdered, and countless others suffered terribly and barely survived. The largest Jewish community in the world was totally destroyed and can never be revived as it was. If ever there was a civilization that was “gone with the wind,” it was the world of European Jewry.
It is true that Am Yisrael hai – the People of Israel lives – but six million did not survive to experience that. That destruction can never be reversed and should never be forgotten. Holocaust Remembrance Day should be inscribed not only on our calendars, but on our hearts and minds as well, a day of collective mourning for the entire Jewish People, the saddest day of the year.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).