Can it still be right to mourn for Jerusalem?

Israel's capital is a thriving city, so how can we say prayers lamenting its fall on Tishah b'Av next week?


By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, August 4, 2011
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Happy families in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem

Happy families in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem

Legend has it that the Emperor Napoleon came to Jerusalem on the fast of Tishah b'Av. Deeply moved by the sight of hundreds of Jews sitting on the ground weeping for the Temple, he declared: "A people who mourns for its temple after thousands of years will live to see it rebuilt."

Although the Temple has not yet been restored, Jerusalem is no longer in ruins, it is a modern bustling capital, so should we still be mourning? The issue was first raised in July 1920 by the British High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, who wrote to the Chief Rabbi, Rav Kook, to inquire whether the fast could be suspended. The great sage replied that the time was not yet ripe.

But after the victory of the Six Day War, with the thrill of seeing the Old City of Jerusalem returned to Jewish control, the questions resurfaced. For thousands of years, Jews who visited Jerusalem ripped their clothes in mourning as prescribed by the Talmud. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great leader of American Jewry, was asked by Jews travelling to Israel whether this was still necessary. He replied that even though the final redemption had not yet come and it was still appropriate to rip clothes at the Western Wall, " they do not have to tear their clothes when they see Jerusalem since, by the loving-kindness of the Holy One Blessed be He, it has been gloriously rebuilt and it is no longer under the control of gentiles" .

The renewal of life in Jerusalem also raised questions about the prayers of Tishah b'Av which describe Jerusalem as "the city that is in mourning and in ruins, despised and desolate". Responding to a question on this, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Haim David Halevy, made an astonishing admission; he wrote that he could no longer say these words, for they were no longer true and reciting them would have turned him into one who lies before God.

The rabbi went on to say that even though Tishah b'Av is a most intense day of national mourning, he could not help but feel an inner rejoicing on seeing masses of Jewish people and thousands of smiling children filling the courtyard where the sanctuary stood. While preserving the fast and all of its prayers, he felt compelled to alter two words of the liturgy tilting the most depressing descriptions of Jerusalem from the present tense into the past.

Not everyone accepted these changes. One of the greatest scholars of our generation, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef argued that the liturgy of the prayers carried so much holiness that it should not be tampered with. He also felt that circumstances did not justify changes, pointing out that much of the city including the Temple Mount, is still controlled by people of other religions, many of whom hate Jews; many synagogues which were destroyed in 1948 have yet to be rebuilt; and also that many Jews are non-observant and young children are being educated to ignore or despise Jewish tradition, so there is little justification for removing the saddest descriptions of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, leader of the Merkaz Harav Yeshivah in Jerusalem, took a middle line, permitting individuals to make changes, if they felt the need, but forbidding changes in public readings.

When the Ethiopian Jews were brought to Jerusalem a few years ago, they saw the beautiful city, but they were disappointed. "Where are the streets and buildings made out of gold?" they asked, "Where is the Temple? We were told it had been rebuilt."

Their reaction is a timely reminder that while we are privileged to have a magnificent capital city with synagogues and yeshivot on every corner, a thriving cultural life and Jews pouring in from the four corners of the earth, Jerusalem is not yet the spiritual capital it is meant to be. Our constant prayers for the rebuilding of Jerusalem refer not only to physical structures, but to a vision of a different world order.

The rebuilding of the Temple will take place when all Jews treat each other with mutual respect and when "Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Isaiah 2: 4). In this new age, the Temple will serve as a centre of prayer for people of all nations. Until we reach that goal of a messianic era of universal peace, Tishah b'Av and its prayers remain profoundly relevant.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel

    Last updated: 12:06pm, August 4 2011