My rabbi once told me that God created the world because he loves stories and the best stories are about people. But some stories take generations to tell.
The Bible graphically illustrates this. The covenant that God made with Abraham promises that his descendants will be too numerous to count, and that they will live in the land of Israel. Part of that promise was the exile to Egypt and the subsequent Exodus. This all came about over the next several hundred years.
The prophets spoke about another exile along with another return to the land. That story is taking a little longer to tell, but after 2,000 years we are witnessing the prophetic return and even taking part in it.
Part of that story is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple is treated with gravitas, and is remembered through a process of mourning of increasing austerity. This process begins on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, which kicks off a three-week period of mourning. The mourning increases in intensity during the first nine days of the Hebrew month of Av, referred to as the Nine Days, and culminates on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.
The sages teach us that “When the month of Av enters, we reduce our joy . . .” — (Taanit 26b). The Torah teaches us how to live; how to be happy, how to celebrate, and also how to cope with loss. When we are overwhelmed with sadness, it can be difficult to understand how to act, and how to channel our sadness. The Torah and the sages help us with that. They lay out for us how to mourn the loss of a loved one, and, in a similar fashion, how to mourn for the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem.
There are a number of practices during these days that are meant to help us focus on the destruction and reduce our joy.
During this time we do not:
- Eat meat (including poultry) or drink wine, for during this period the sacrifices and wine libations in the Holy Temple ceased.
- Launder clothing (except for a baby’s)—even if they will not be worn during the Nine Days—or wear freshly laundered outer clothing.
- Swim or bathe for pleasure.
- Remodel or expand a home.
- Plant trees to be used for shade or fragrance (as opposed to fruit trees).
- Buy, sew, weave or knit new clothing—even if they will be worn only after the Nine Days.
- Listen to music
But why do we need these customs at all? Why can’t we just feel sad over the loss of the Temple? Why can’t each person express their feelings of sadness and loss in their own way?
Mourning is a specific process intended to produce the desired result. It is not intended to punish the mourner or to create suffering. In a very practical manner, it removes us from distractions, allowing us to focus on the feelings of loss and the process of healing and recovery.
In the case of the Nine Days, we are to focus on the loss of the Temple, a loss Jews feel deeply as if they lost a close family member. Just like a family gathers for meals every day, so too did the Jewish people go to the Temple to meet the shechina (the Divine presence). Just as families gather for holiday meals, so too did the Jews gather in Jerusalem for the Biblical feasts. Losing the Temple was like losing a close relative.
The sages say that in any generation that the Temple is not built, it is as if it has been destroyed. The loss is therefore very real, even 2,000 years later. Those of us who are alive today have never experienced the Temple but we still miss it, still feel the lack, still need what the Temple provided.
Yet, when it comes to something you have never had or experienced, it is hard to feel the real extent of the loss. The sages, therefore, gave us guidelines for how to behave and act at this time in order to get us to focus and reflect on the loss of the Temple.
But the point of this time period isn’t simply to feel sad. Mourning done right is also a healing process. In the case of mourning for the Temple, it prepares us to receive the Third Temple and return to Jerusalem in joy. For this reason, the mourning practices during these days are not meant simply to focus us on what we don’t have, rather they serve as reminder to think about the reason why the Temple was destroyed.
According to Jewish tradition, what led to the destruction of the second Temple was sinat chinam (causeless, or ‘free’, hatred). Our mourning should bring us to meditate on this and think of how to fix it in our generation. The purpose of the destruction of the Temple was not meant merely as a punishment. It was, in fact, a rehabilitation process, to fix what was wrong and to grow even stronger in our relationship with God and with others so that we can return and rebuild.
As we pass through this period of austerity, we reflect on the heavy loss. But the same covenant and ensuing prophecies that presaged this loss contained the promise of redemption. The destruction of the Temple was not the end of the story of the Jewish people. It was only one part of the story. The same period of mourning should be preparation for the continuation; the glorious reestablishment of the Davidic dynasty and the Third Temple where we will once again greet the shechina (Divine presence).
When that happens, when mourning runs its course and we prepare ourselves appropriately, our mourning will be transformed into joy, as the prophet Zechariah (8:19) promised.