How slavery caused the Temple's loss

The Talmud offers a disturbing explanation for the tragedy of Tishah b’Av


By Benedict Roth, July 12, 2013
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Praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on the fast of Tishah b’Av, which begins Monday evening (Flash90)

Praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on the fast of Tishah b’Av, which begins Monday evening (Flash90)

The ninth of Av is the day we mourn the destruction of the two Temples, Solomon’s and Herod’s, as well as the fall, 65 years later, of the city of Betar. The land of Israel was depopulated and the city of Jerusalem ploughed over.

Against this backdrop of pain, loss and grief, the Talmud’s view of it might surprise us. Rather than focusing on what “they”, the enemy, did to “us”, the victims, the Talmud is introspective. It attributes the destruction to internal failures, not to outside aggressors. It has no doubt that the Jewish people, if it remained true to its ideals, could survive any invasion. And it articulates those ideals in a fashion that is disturbingly relevant to today’s problems.

The stage is set by Rabbi Yochanan, writing a generation after the fall of Betar. He identifies the date of the 9th of Av as the day when the generation of the Exodus refused to enter the Land. Brought to its borders after a walk across the desert that took less than half a year, they took fright and rebelled. Their punishment was to continue wandering, knowing that their children would inherit the Land but that they would never see it.

By linking the date of their rebellion to later historical events, the tradition suggests a tragic dialectic, as if the refusal of one generation to commit itself to the Land resulted in a cycle of loss that afflicted later ones.

The Talmud picks up this theme as it describes the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70. According to its version of the story, there were three wealthy benefactors who, between them, had sufficient means to sustain the city under siege for 21 years. One agreed to provide oil, one to provide grain, and the third wood.

But there were also militants — zealots — who wanted to fight and to make their fellow-citizens fight with them. The zealots burned the store-houses. With the city starving to death, there was no alternative but to engage the Romans in a battle that the Jews could not possibly win.

The rabbinic view that external disaster can only be the result of internal failure is exemplified by a comment attributed to Rabbi Ila in the Jerusalem Talmud and quoted in Eichah Rabbah, an ancient commentary on the Book of Lamentations. Rabbi Ila, probably writing in Galilee a few generations after the fall of Jerusalem, says, “Israel was only ever punished because of not freeing slaves.”

Jewish aversion to slavery is well-known and one of the first civil statutes to be recorded in the book of Exodus — directly after the “big ten” commandments — is the injunction that a slave cannot serve his master for more than six years. In the seventh year he must go free. Based on the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the destruction of Solomon’s Temple at the hands of the Babylonians, the Jerusalem Talmud suggests that this command was originally given before the Jewish people left Egypt. As well as painting their doorposts with the blood of the paschal lamb, the people of Israel were commanded to free their own slaves.

Rabbi Ila implies that the Jewish nation only gained its freedom when it freed its slaves, and only lost its freedom when it failed to live up to this ideal. Learning Rabbi Ila’s idea for the first time is shocking.

Surely we were victims in Egypt, not perpetrators! We were slaves, not slave-owners! How could Jews in Egypt have kept slaves? But any of us with knowledge of psychology or history will know that it may have been true: the idea disturbs us precisely because of the acuity of its insight.

Even more shocking and disturbing is the Talmud’s recollection of the fall of Solomon’s Temple, narrated in tractate Shabbat. It is based on a vision of the prophet Ezekiel, who saw an angel place a protective mark on the foreheads of the righteous people of Jerusalem. Apparently, these were to be saved from the invading soldiers.

Yet, when the slaughter began, it began “with the elders in front of the Temple”. The angel’s mark was of no value. The rabbis struggled to reconcile this evidence of the brutal reality of war with their vision of divine justice. They imagined a conversation in heaven in which God tried to defend his “wholly righteous” people from an accusing judge.

When the accuser claims, “They were indeed wholly righteous, but they could have spoken out against injustice and they failed to do so”, God defends them again, saying, “No one would have listened.” But the prosecutor’s reply is incontrovertible: “You know that no one would have listened, but how could they have known?” God is unable to answer. And the slaughter commences, “in front of the Temple”.

Hearing the Talmud’s voice today disturbs us. None of us can claim with confidence that we live up to its ideals: commitment to the Land, commitment to peace, compassion for those who are enslaved and a willingness to speak out with courage against injustice.

Yet, according to the rabbis, they are mandatory for a people that seeks to dwell in the Land. In the closing words of the haftarah that they ordained for the Shabbat before the Ninth of Av, “Jerusalem will be redeemed by justice; those who return to her will be redeemed by charity.”

Last updated: 3:45pm, July 12 2013