Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim 5761/2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Devarim 5761/ July 28, 2001- Shabbat Hazon

Tish'a B'Av in the Second Temple Period

Dr. David Henschke

Department of Talmud

Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah (Rosh Ha-Shanah 1.3) states that even in the days of the Second Temple it was customary to fast on the Ninth of Ab. It might seem to us astonishing for the people to have observed a fa st day over its destruction while the Temple stood in all its glory![1] For this reason, Rabbi Simeon ben Tzemah Duran (Spain and North Africa, died in the second half of the 15th century), asserted in his responsa (Tashbetz II, par. 273): "It appears that what the Rabbi z"l [Maimonides] wrote in this regard is a scribal error." Other rabbis have followed his lead, up to our own day (see Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yabia Omer, I, par. 34.3).

Now that we have access to a manuscript copy of Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah, proofread by the author himself, we can say without doubt that there was no scribal error. Moreover, it has been noted in the responsa Mishkenot Yaakov (par. 136) that even in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides expressed the same view. For in chapter 5,5 of Hilkhot Taanit, after listing the four fast days associated with the destruction of the Temple, Maimonid es adds, "It was customary for all the Jews to fast on these times. And on the 13th of Adar, in remembrance of the fast observed in the days of Haman."

The Maggid Mishnah expresses surprise at the above formulation: how could Maimonides have ascribed the reason for fasting the four fasts to custom, after he himself had established that the obligation to fast followed from the wo rds of the prophets?

In response, the Maggid Mishnah cites the Talmud (R. H. 18b), which says that the duty to fast changes according to the circumstances pertaining in every generation. Three conditions are defined there: 1) in peacetime th e fast day becomes a day of festive rejoicing; 2) in time of disaster, the fast is absolutely obligatory; 3) when conditions are somewhere between these two extremes -- peace and disaster -- the obligation to fast depends on the will of the community, to fast or not as the community sees fit. This holds for all fasts, save the Ninth of Ab, which, "since the misfortunes were redoubled on that day," is obligatory even in the aforementioned intermediate condition. Hence the Maggid Mishnah explains th at Maimonides said that the fasts were a matter of custom, since nowadays one fasts only because of the wishes and practice of the community.

But this answer is problematic for several reasons. The entire discussion of these three conditions is not mentioned at all by Maimonides. Moreover, Miskhkenot Yaakov notes that the sentence which follows is peculiar in style -- "And on the 13th of Adar" has no predicate: what is to be done on that day? Therefore he suggests that the conjunction "and" before "on the 13th of Adar" should be deleted and the text should read as a single sentence: "And it is customary in these times for all Jews to fast on the 13th of Adar." "A sage is greater than a prophet" goes the saying, and indeed the Mishkenot Yaakov's scholarly emendation was born out in our days, as evidenced by various ancient manuscripts and printed editions (cf. Frankel edition, loc. sit.). Thus it turns out that Maimonides never ascribed the four fast days commemorating the destruction of the Temple to custom, rather he presented them as an absolute obligation following from the wor ds of the Prophets and not contingent on circumstance. Only the Fast of Esther in Adar was ascribed solely to custom – and a late one at that – which is only observed" in these times" i.e., in these generations [bizmanim elu referring not to the fo ur fasts but to "present times"].[2]

This raises the question why Maimonides skipped entirely over the Talmudic discussion about the various conditions that determine the obligation to observe a fast day? According to Mishkenot Yaakov, we already have the answer: Maimonides believed that all these distinctions were said with regard to the three fast days of 3 Tishri, 10 Tevet, 17 Tammuz, during the Second Temple period, during which time they were dependent on various political conditions, but the Ninth of Ab was unconditionally obligatory even in the time of the Temple, as he notes in his commentary on the Mishnah. Once the Temple was destroyed, the entire discussion was no longer relevant, since from that day onwards all the four fasts became obligatory, irrespective of changing conditions, until such time when the Third Temple would be built.

How, then, did Maimonides explain the Talmudic expression that on the Ninth of Ab the misfortunes were redoubled ("hukhpelu hazzarot"), since the redoubling that is reflected in the destruction of the Second Temple had not yet occ urred, and nonetheless Maimonides is of the opinion that the people of the Second Temple Period fasted? It seems Maimonides interpreted this turn of phrase in a similar manner to the parallel text in Sotah 49b: "After Rabbi's death, the misfortune s were redoubled." This does not mean that the day Rabbi died two misfortunes occurred, but that all the previous misfortunes were intensified when Rabbi died. The analogous expression here should be similarly understood: when the First Temple was dest royed, all the preceding misfortunes were intensified.[3]

Thus what Maimonides meant is clear, for it was indeed customary to fast on the Ninth of Ab during the Second Temple period. It remains to be explained why they saw fit to fast over the destruction of the Temple when it had been rebui lt? The author of Sefat Emet (in his insights on R.H., loc. sit.) explains that even in Maimonides' opinion the Jews did not observe the fast of the Ninth of Ab throughout the entire time that the Second Temple stood. Rather, it dep ended on the political situation: when the Jews of the Second Temple period were subjugated to foreign rule, that was interpreted as a time when "there was no peace," and in such times indeed they fasted; but when they won Jewish independence (such as in the time of the Hasmoneans), it was viewed as "peacetime", and even the fast of the Ninth of Ab would be cancelled.[4]

This teaches us an important point: the fast of the Ninth of Ab is not primarily about the physical destruction of the Temple, for in this regard nothing changed in any era. Rather, the fast is primarily about being subjugated to fore ign rule, and therefore this is the criteria determining the obligation to fast, even when the Temple is standing. However, if an end is put to foreign domination but nevertheless the Temple does not stand, certainly the obligation to fast holds; for the very fact that there is no Temple is indicative of a lack of independence, be it political or spiritual.

Nevertheless, the explanation given by Sefat Emet can hardly be seen as addressing the plain sense of Maimonides' remarks; for the Rambam mentioned no distinctions drawn during the Second Temple period, from which it follows simp ly that in every period, including times of political independence, it was customary to fast on the Ninth of Ab. Why? The most reasonable answer seems to be that the destruction of the First Temple proved that such a thing was at all possible – that it was conceivable the Lord would destroy His Temple and send His people into exile. We know that the prophets struggled against views that insisted such a course of history was theologically impossible, that it could never be that the Lord's Temple, His th rone in this world, would fall. The destruction of the Temple brought about the demise of this certainty as well, so that no longer could a person trust in wood and stone, even the stones of the Temple. Henceforth the entire responsibility lay on the s houlders of the public community and its spiritual-cultural strength: if they were worthy, they would live in their land in the shadow of the Temple; if not, the Temple would fall and the people would be exiled.

Therefore, throughout the Second Temple period, the fast of the Ninth of Ab was observed. On this day they wished to impress upon the consciousness of the people that destructio is always possible and that one cannot complacently put one's trust in "the Lord's help," for the responsibility ultimately rests only on ourselves. Being aware of the possibility of destruction is precisely what might help keep the Temple standing. Perhaps this sense of responsibility can contribute to building the Third Temple, speedily in our day.


[1] For a summary of the literature on the question of this fast during the Second Temple Period, see: J. Tabori, Moadei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 1995, pp. 398-400.

[2] See what is said in my name by D. Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, 4, Jerusalem 1995, pp. 250-252.

[3] From the additional anonymous comment in the gemara on the remark of the Amoraim that the misfortunes were redoubled, it does indeed seem that they were referring to the accumulation of misfortunes on t hat very day (loc. sit.). Nevertheless, this interpretation has its difficulties, because the same number of misfortunes can be counted on the 17th of Tamuz, and the remark itself can still be interpreted as we explained above.

[4] Compare this approach with what the grandfather of Sefat Emet, author of Hiddushei ha-Rim, wrote on Gittin 36b regarding observance of the Jubilee laws during the Second Temple period. In his vi ew, the Jubilee year and release of bondsmen was practiced as long as there was political independence, but they were not observed in the years of the Second Temple period when the Jews were under foreign subjugation (loc. sit.).