Tisha B’Av: The Day of Tragedies

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

Tonight, five appalling tragedies occurred.

 A decree against our ancestors, denying them the Land;

Afflicting them with oppressing pain and worse,

A day destined for harm and hurt.

The enemy stood and shrieked horribly,

‘Attack! For this is the day that God foretold!’

Tonight my children weep and wail.” (Kina 3)

The day approaches. The day marking the destruction of both Temples, the cause of our current state of disarray and disrepair. The theme of the horrific events of the churban – destruction – dominates the tefilas and kinos, and are seemingly the focus of the day. And yet, we know Tisha B’Av to be a day where other tragedies befell the Jewish people. The Mishna indicates that there are five of these tragedies that occurred on Tisha B’Av, three of which seem to be isolated and separate from the churban. Furthermore, the Mishna does not indicate a “superiority” of one event over the other. How are we to balance the dominance of the churban with the importance of reflecting on these other tragedies? Looking at the fifth event introduced in the Mishna may offer guidance to our necessary state of mind on this important day.

The Mishna (Taanis 4:6) writes about these five events:

“...On Tisha B’Av the decree was given to our forefathers to not enter into Eretz Yisrael, the first and second Temples were destroyed, Beitar was captured, and the city (Jerusalem) was plowed up.

The Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 5:3) elaborates on the last event, offering the following:

“..and on that day set aside for terrible events, the evil Turnus Rufus of the kings of Edom ploughed the heichal and its surroundings, fulfilling (the prophecy of Jeremiah 26:18) that of ‘Zion shall be ploughed like a field’.

In this elaboration of the fifth tragedy, the question of its importance relative to the churban becomes even more apparent. Sure, Turnus Rufus seems like a really bad guy and what he did is certainly indicative of someone who had aggression against the Jewish people. But is this really on par with the destruction of the Temples, the institutions which served to unite Bnai Yisrael and reflected God’s unique relationship to the Jewish people? Furthermore, the event of Beitar involved the capture of that important city, along with the slaughter of tens of thousands, great talmidei chachamim included. Nobody was injured in plowing up the area of the Temple. When the decree came that none of those who had left Egypt would enter Eretz Yisrael, a seismic shift occurred that ultimately changed the destiny of Bnai Yisrael. The magnitude of that event does not seem parallel in importance to what Turnus Rufus accomplished. What are we to make of this fifth event?

The first step is to understand the intrinsic relationship of the three events to the destruction of the Temples. It would seem that each of these events is related to the churban, whether they be causally related, or an effect of the destruction. At the same time, each event requires its own analysis, devoid of the impact of the churban. For example, there was the decree given to Bnai Yisrael as a result of their terrible sin by the incident of the spies. The event itself needs to be understood, why they sinned, and why their punishment was fitting. Yet this sin and punishment played a pivotal role in the destructive events in the future. Had the generation that left Egypt, who bore witness to countless miracles, and received the Torah via the revelation at Sinai, entered into the Land of Israel and conquered it, the churban may never have occurred. The void that emerged as a result of their sin played a unique causal role in bringing about the churban.

This same approach can be used to help explain the importance of Turnus Rufus’s plowing feat. This event took place some time after the Temple had been destroyed.  The ruins were still left, clear physical evidence of the catastrophe. As long as the ruins were still present, the area of the Temple would retain its designation. The Jewish people would see this area, the remnants of the Temple, and plan for its re-building. To rebuild means to take that which already exists in some capacity and redo it.  Plowing up this area, making it into a field, meant a new designation for this area. It would no longer be used for the Temple. There was to be no re-building. In a sense, this was a necessary component of galus. It could be the fulfillment of this prophecy was actually the true beginning of the galus. As long as the ruins were still present, the Jewish people would be resistant to accepting the result of the churban and would try and rebuild the second Temple. Now, with the ruins gone, there could no longer be a “re-building.” The galus was in place and could only end with final redemption and the building of the Third Temple. 

This demonstrates the connection between the churban and the event of plowing over the ruins. However, there is another necessary analysis, an understanding of who Turnus Rufus was and what makes him so dangerous. 

The Rambam inserts a few additional elements in his description of the event. First, he adds in “and on this day set aside for terrible events.  Yet the Rambam omits this introduction by the other tragedies. He (along with all other commentaries) includes as well that this action was the fulfillment of a prophecy. The Rambam is alluding to an important concept. Turnus Rufus shows up throughout the Talmud and Midrash in one recurring context. He challenges Rabbi Akiva, the great Talmudic scholar, to different intellectual debates, questioning the validity of the halachic system. He disputes the rationale for Shabbos (Sanhedrin 65b) and scoffs at the logic of an obligation for tzedaka (Bava Basra 10a). In the end, Rabbi Akiva offers rebuttals that expose the fallacy in Turnus Rufus’s arguments. The key here is the danger Turnus Rufus presents. His objective is the ideological destruction of Judaism. He understood the effect his actions would have on Bnai Yisrael. Acting as he did on Tisha B’Av, the day of the churban, would only serve the purpose of stirring doubt in the minds of the Jewish people. His goal was to destroy Bnai Yisrael’s link to God – without any means of serving their God, the Jews were lost. However, his understanding of the Temple was purely superficial. Rather than a vehicle to affect God (an idolatrous concept), Temple serves to perfect Bnai Yisrael. There would be other ways for Bnai Yisrael to achieve this perfection. 

The threat presented by Turnus Rufus serves as an important idea for us in our current state of galus. We live under a constant threat of annihilation, surrounded by those who despise our ideology, who try to uproot our belief system through convincing arguments. We must always be prepared to counter the many Turnus Rufuses, to understand the clear, rational arguments for Judaism’s basis. Without it, we will be truly lost.

As we can now see, there is a natural duality within all the tragedies that exists on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the day for us to reflect on all calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. Each event requires its own analysis, understanding our downfall and inspiring us to be involved in teshuva. At the same time, the churban takes center stage. All tragedies that occur to the Jewish people are the direct result of the destruction of the Temples. The reality of this must be at the forefront of our minds during this most solemn of days.