The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Tishah B'av During the Second Temple Period
Dr. David Hanschke
Department of Talmud
In his commentary to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1,3), Maimonides states that the Jews in the Second Temple period fasted on Tishah B'av.  In retrospect this is very surprising: the Temple stands in all its glory - and alongside it Jews fast in mourning for its destruction ?! This apparent contradiction prompted Rabbi Shmon Ben Zemach Duran (Spain - North Africa, died in the mid-15th century) to write in a responsa (Tashbetz, B, §271): "It seems as if what [Maimonides] wrote about this is an error of the copyist". Other scholars, even in our own time , have followed the lead of the Tashbetz on this subject. (See: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Responsa Yabia Omer, 1, §34-3).
Today, however, we are in possession of the manuscript of Maimonides' commentary to the Mishnah which was corrected by the author himself - and there can no longer be any doubt that there is no error. Moreover, the author of responsa Mishkenot Ya'akov had already pointed out (§ 136), that even in his major work, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides held the same opinion. In the fifth chapter of Hilchot Ta'aniot, halachah 5, after Maimonides listed the four fast days commemorating the destruction of the Temple, he adds: "It was the custom in all of Israel to fast on these days, and on the 13th of Adar in remembrance of the fasts which were observed in the time of Haman", etc., The Magid Mishneh reacts with surprise: How could Maimonides see the fasts as being dependent on a custom - after he himself has determined that the obligation to observe them was based on prophetic authority?
In his answer the Magid Mishneh cites the Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 18b, that the obligation to fast can vary with the circumstances in each generation. The Talmud defines three different sets of circumstances: "When there is peace they (the fast days) will be for joy and gladness; if there is persecution they will be fast days; if there is no persecution and yet no peace, then those who desire tfast may fast and those who do not need not fast". The decision to fast or not on these days is in the hands of the people. However, "Tishah B'av is in a different category because numerous misfortunes occurred on it", therefore it is an obligation to fast even when the third, intermediate situation exists. Therefore explains the Magid Mishneh, Maimonides determined that the fasts are a custom since there is a circumstance when the fasting is not obligatory but voluntary and according to custom.
Unfortunately the division into three situations which appears in the Talmud does not appear at all in Maimonides. Moreover, the Mishkenot Ya'akov points out the strange construction of the relevant section of Maimonides in Hilchot Ta'aniot, especially the words: "and on the 13th of Adar" - which appear without any explanation as to what is to be done on that day. He suggests that the word "and" is an error and that, in fact, what we have before us is one continued sentence: "It was the custom of all Israel in those days to fast on the 13th day of Adar".
Scholarship is preferable to conjecture and this reading has now been confirmed without a doubt by the examination of manuscripts and early printed editions (See Maimonides, ibid., Frankel Edition). It is now clear that Maimonides never saw the obligation of the fasts which commemorate the destruction of the Temple as a custom, and presented them as a clear absolute obligation, based on words of the prophets. This obligation is not dependent on changing circumstances. Only the Fast of Esther (the 13th of Adar) is based exclusively on custom, as Maimonides wrote, and it is a late custom at that, one which was not known until "these times" .
Now one must ask why Maimonides completely ignored the Talmudic source which recognizes varying circumstances as a factor in determining the nature of the obligation to fast ? The answer, tells us the Mishkenot Ya'akov, is obvious. Maimonides believes that the text in the Bavli Rosh Hashanah refers to the time of the Second Temple, when the observance of the three fast days out of four ordained for the destruction of Jerusalem was dependent on varying political situations. But Tishah B'av was observed unconditionally even during the years when the Temple stood, as he explained in his Commentary to the Mishnah. With the destruction of the Second Temple, that Talmudic text again became irrelevant, and once more all the fasts took on the nature of unconditional obligations,irrespective of any changing circumstances --until such time as the Third Temple is built.
How did Maimonides interpret the Talmudic phrase which tells us that "numerous misfortunes occurred" on Tishah B'av? That "numerousness" expressed in the second destruction had not yet occurred! It would seem that Maimonides interpreted this according to a parallel text at the end of Sotah (49b),"When Rabbi (Yehudah Hanassi) died troubles were multiplied-two fold". This does not mean that on the day he died two misfortunes occurred, but rather that all existing troubles were doubled, similarly: upon the second destruction all the difficulties which preceeded it were doubled - and therefore the reference must be to the first destruction .
Clearly it is Maimonides' opinion that the fast of Tishah B'av was observed during the Second Temple period. It remains to be explained why this was so - why mourn over the destruction of the Temple after it was rebuilt ? The S'fat Emet (in his commentary to Rosh Hashanah, op. cit.) explains that even according to Maimonides fasting on Tishah B'av was not observed during the entire period of the Second Temple and its observance was dependent on the changing political situation from time to time: When the Jews of the Second Temple were under the yoke of foreign rule, that was considered a time when there was "no peace" and then fasting was observed, but when Jews ruled themselves (as during the Hasmonean period),that was a period of peace and the fast of Tishah B'av was canceled .
There is a crucial lesson to be learned here. The main reason for the fast of Tishah B'av is not to mourn over the physical destruction of Temple, since the Temple stood in ruins during that entire period. We mourn because we are under foreign domination, and that factor alone determined the observance or non-observance of the fast during the period of the Second Temple. Even so, when we are free from foreign rule but as yet the Temple has not been rebuilt, there is, of course, an obligation to fast on Tishah B'av. The absence of the Temple in itself is a symptom of our lack of complete independence - both political and spiritual.
Some doubt does exist as to whether the explanation of the S'fat Emet truly reflects the ideas of Maimonides. No mention is made by Maimonides of any differentiation between various portions of the Second Temple period. The implication is simply that during that whole time, even during periods of political independence, fasting was observed on Tishah B'av.
Perhaps the rationale behind this was that the first destruction had proven that the Temple could be destroyed, and from then on the possibility that G-d would destroy His house and exile His people was a real one. We know that the prophets fought against the belief which stubbornly held that this very idea was a theological impossibility. It could not be possible, claimed some, that the Temple of the Lord, the foundation of His seat in the universe, could fall. The destruction of the First Temple put an end to this certainty: Never again could man put his trust in wood and stone - even the stones of the Temple. From that point on responsibility for the future rests squarely on the shoulders of the people and their behavior. If they deserved it - they would live in their own land in the shadow of their Temple, but if not - the Temple would fall and the people would be exiled.
They therefore fasted on Tishah B'av, all through the Second Temple period. On that day they confirmed their understanding that destruction is always a possibility. No faith can be placed in slogans such as "G-d will help us" because the responsibility for our continued existence as a people is ours alone. The awareness that destruction is possible may very well be the key to preventing it in the future when the Temple is rebuilt. Our sense of responsibility may be a contributing factor toward the eventual rebuilding of the Third Temple, may it occur speedily in our days.
1. For a summary of the research literature on the question of the fast during the Second Temple Period, see: Y. Tabori, Moadei Yisrael B'tkufat Hamishnah Vehatalmud, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 398-400.
2. See also: D. Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Part 4, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 250-252.
3. From an addition of an anonymous source to the amoraic text regarding the increased number of misfortunes, it would seem in retrospect that this refers to the actual number of misfortunes that occured on that day. However this explanation is difficult because an equal number of misfortunes occurred on the 17th of Tammuz, and the amoraic text is open to the interpretation which we gave in the article.
4. Compare this to the opinion of the grandfather of the S'fat Emet, the Ba'al Chidushei Rim on Gittin 36b, on the question of the Jubilee year during the Second Temple period: in his opinion the Jubilee and emancipation of slaves were observed whenever political independence existed, but not during the years of foreign domination within the Second Temple period.
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.