Tisha Be'av, the aftermath

After the ninth of Av, we relax. But should we not remember the great suffering that must have followed these terrible events?

temple destroyed 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
temple destroyed 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the Orthodox calendar, Tisha Be'av, which we observed on Sunday, is the culmination of three weeks of mourning that started with the 17th of Tammuz, when the Babylonians made the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem. After the ninth of Av, we relax and some celebrate the festival of the 15th, when the daughters of Israel were first permitted to marry outside their tribe, and which also counts as the annual wine harvest festival. But should we not remember the great suffering that must have followed the terrible events of Tisha Be'av? In the case of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, we have been assured that life went on in Israel outside Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was able to set up a new center of learning at Yavne. It became a powerhouse of scholarship and the beginning of the talmudic period of Jewish Orthodoxy, when the ideas of the Pharisees became enshrined in Halacha, or Jewish law. Thousands of Jews had been killed in the revolt and hundreds taken into slavery to Rome, but Jewish life continued in Israel and indeed intensified when the Sanhedrin reconvened at Yavne. BUT WHAT of the aftermath of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple, what happened then to Jewish life? There are conflicting accounts of the numbers taken into exile: the Book of Kings says it was 10,000, while Jeremiah counts a total of 4,600 in three waves. But both agree it was the cream of society that was deported. The peasants struggled on, taking over the fields of the departed middle-class under a Babylon-appointed governor, Gedaliah ben Ahikam. A well-meaning and fair-minded civil servant, he lacked royal charisma, was hated by the jealous royalist party and was murdered by them. As a result turmoil was expected, and many Jews fled to the relative safety of Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. But anarchy did not ensue, and direct rule from Babylon restored some sense of order and economic stability. But the Temple had gone and so had the kohanim, its priests. Jeremiah, who always opposed rebellion against the Babylonians, advised the exiles to accept their fate in Babylon, "Build yourself houses... plant garden... take wives... have children... multiply there and do not succumb" (29:5). He had predicted a stay of 70 years, but it was only to be 50 for those who came back at the earliest opportunity, when Cyrus II issued his cylinder of "human rights" in 538 BCE. For others who only came back with Ezra, it was to be 100 years longer, and for many there was to be no return at all. THE FIRST thing that must have happened to the unfortunate exiles was a forced march of 1,300 kilometers. Their path was along the Fertile Crescent, north to Syria, then east to the Euphrates and south down the river to the heart of Babylonia. It must have been a heartbreaking march, the march of the barely living, harassed on all sides by guards and hostile locals. Their transport may have been camels and horses for the lucky few, and some may have ridden on donkeys and asses, carrying their few goods on rough carts drawn by oxen; but the majority would have trudged on foot. One can get a picture of such exiles from the wall reliefs of the Assyrian capture of Lachish, whose refugees were deported from their city 100 years earlier than those of Jerusalem. They carry their pathetic bundles on their shoulders and their babies balance on kitchen pots on the carts. The route taken by the exiles may well have been the main caravan trail, with regular way stations, but their numbers would have been overwhelming, causing great food shortages. Fights would have broken out over water from wells controlled by others. Women would have been abducted on the way for immoral imprisonment and children captured for abuse and slavery. Many hundreds must have died of starvation and exhaustion. To have attempted to escape would have meant certain death in the desert. It may be that the numbers in the Book of Kings were of those who left, and those recorded by Jeremiah - less than half - were those that arrived. Arrival at Babylon, after months of trekking, would have been a relief. We can imagine that the first set of exiles, who had been deported 11 years earlier and included King Jehoiachin, could have prepared some kind of accommodation for the second wave of refugees. We know from the Babylonian annals that Jehoiachin was released from prison and given rations from the royal table. The Babylonians treated our royals with respect, and hopefully they in turn gave help to the later arrivals. We presume that they took Jeremiah's advice and settled down to marry and to build. Judean women would have been in short supply, as not many would have survived. Taking local wives was the norm, as we know from Ezra many years later, who frowned on the practice. But in Babylon it was necessary for survival, and it would have been considered that the act of marriage, in whatever form, was equivalent to conversion of the woman, as it had been for the Patriarchs. AND THAT leads us to ask, what was the status of the Jewish religion during the first 50 years of exile? There can be little doubt that the exiles kept alive the hope of seeing the Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. But what was there in Babylon, when they wept by its waters, to keep them focused on the Temple? The traditionalists claim that in Babylon the exiles created the synagogue, without sacrifice and priests, to compensate for the lost Temple. But there is no evidence for that, and little likelihood, as the priests and the sacrifices persisted and appeared again 50 years later in Jerusalem. The synagogue as such was not known until the third century BCE in the Egyptian exile. It developed as a new form of community center and prayer and continued without the benefit of priest and sacrifice. But Babylon was different; it had legitimate priests and they were ready to practice their skills for a future Temple. It is likely that there was a form of temple in Babylon that trained the kohanim and the Levites in their duties in readiness for the return, and it would have served, as any temple did, to unite the people in the worship of their God. Such a situation had applied in Egypt, when the military colony of Jews built their small temple on Elephantine Island in the sixth century BCE. It had an altar for sacrifices and a small shrine for the Shehina, the presence of God. Such a building was considered necessary for the small community on the island near Aswan, and so too it would have been for the much larger and more educated group of Jews in Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel ben Buzi, himself a kohen of the Zadokite line, who came with the first deportees in 597 BCE, told his people of the abominations being performed in Jerusalem and showed them, by his vision of the heavenly chariot, that God had accompanied them to the waters of the Khebar, a tributary of the Euphrates. In his own words he describes how the Lord had provided them with a mikdash me'at, or miniature temple (11:16). That is exactly what the shrine at Elephantine was, at this same period, more like the Tabernacle than the Temple, and that is probably how it was in Babylon. EZEKIEL TALKS about the Levites who went astray, having to bear their iniquity (44:10). Where did they go astray except in a temple in Babylon? In the eyes of Ezekiel, they went astray because they usurped the posts of the kohanim, of the line of Zadok, and that must have been in the service of some form of temple. The famous passage in Zechariah, the prophet of the return, accuses Joshua the high priest of wearing filthy clothes (3:4), which sounds mightily like his performing, without the correct ritual garments, in a temple away from Jerusalem. Zechariah also alludes to the unorthodox building of "a house in the land of Shinar" (5:11). The word "house" stands for temple and Shinar is Sumer, the ancient name for Babylon. The evidence from Ezra is more positive. He mentions that Levites for the Temple in Jerusalem should be brought from Casiphia "hamakom" (the temple?), a village near Babylon, where they were serving under a Levite called Iddo (8:17). It seems that Casiphia was the site of a Jewish temple, and Ezra was happy to bring Levites from there to serve in Jerusalem. The evidence is inconclusive and ambivalent as is to be expected when it might have embarrassed later readers. Thus the temple at Elephantine was never recorded in our sources and only came to light from local papyri documents and, 100 years later (10 years ago), by the turn of the spade. Could a Jewish temple in Babylon ever be excavated in our time? That is unlikely in the present state of war-torn Iraq, but inscriptions abound. The great museums of the world house hundreds of unread cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. One day surely, one will be deciphered that will give us the necessary evidence, and then we will have something to celebrate as the aftermath of Tisha Be'av. The writer is a fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.