Rabbi Bernie Fox
Recognizing the sins of our ancestors and our own iniquities on Tisha B’Av
“There are others days on which all Israel fasts because of the tragedies that occurred on these dates. This is in order to move the hearts of the people and to open the road to repentance. And this is a memorial to our evil actions and the actions of our ancestors that were like our current behaviors to the point that these behaviors have brought these sorrows upon us and our ancestors. Through the recollection of these matters we will repent as it says: And they will confess their iniquities and the iniquities of their ancestors.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Fasts 5:1)
Each year we observe four fast days that commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples and the suffering associated with these events. The fast of Tisha B’Av is the culmination of these fasts and commemorates the actual destruction of both Temples. The above quotation introduces Maimonides’ discussion of the laws governing these fast days.
In his concise manner Maimonides makes a number of important points:
• These fast days were created to commemorate the destruction of the two Temples and the associated suffering and to place us upon the path to repentance.
• The fast days should cause us to recall our own iniquities and failings and those of our ancestors.
• The destruction of the Temples and the related suffering are a direct result of our failings and the sins of our ancestors.
• Recognition of the relationship between sin and suffering should motivate our repentance.
• Repentance requires that we confess our own sins and those of our ancestors.
Maimonides’ comments raise a number of questions. First, it is generally assumed that the observance of Tisha B’Av and the other three fasts commemorating the Temples’ destruction and the related suffering are designed to recall these events and to recognize these events as national and spiritual tragedies. However, Maimonides does not support this position. Instead, he proposes that these fasts are observed in order to acknowledge our responsibility and that of our ancestors for these calamities. Maimonides’ contention that we are responsible for these disasters is difficult to understand. The first Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and the second was destroyed in 70 CE. However, Maimonides attributes these tragedies to the sins of our ancestors and to our own behaviors. How can we be held accountable for these disasters?
Second, Maimonides explains that these fasts are intended to lead us to the path of repentance through recalling these events. How does this occur? How does the recollection of these long-past calamities bring us to the path of repentance?
Maimonides’ contention that subsequent generations bear responsibility for the destruction of the Temples is reflected in the statement of the Sages that any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt is regarded as if the Temple was destroyed in its time. On its simplest level, this statement means that the absence of the rebuilt third Temple is as great a tragedy as the destruction of the second Temple. However, on a deeper level the message of our Sages is that our behaviors and conduct determine when the Temple will be rebuilt. In other words, the Temples were destroyed as a result of the sins of previous generations. The Temple will be rebuilt through the repentance of their descendents. Every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt endures its absence because of its failure to properly return to Hashem. Therefore, Maimonides’ contention that the absence of the Temple is a consequence of the sins of our ancestors and our own iniquities accords with the position of the Sages. Our ancestors’ behaviors led to the destruction of the Temples and our own failings are responsible for the delay in its rebuilding.
This explains Maimonides’ assignment of responsibility for these events to generations living centuries after their occurrence. This interpretation of the Sages’ comments also explains how recalling past calamities leads to repentance. In recalling these disasters, we are not merely remembering a misfortune in our ancient past. We are recognizing that the destruction of the Temples was the beginning of a calamity that continues into the present – our own time. We share responsibility with our ancestors for this disaster. Once we recognize that our behaviors are responsible for the continued delay in the Temple’s rebuilding, we will be motivated to address and improve our behaviors.
We now better understand Maimonides’ comments regarding these four fasts. However, in order to more fully understand Maimonides’ position, it is helpful to consider his general perspective on the purpose of fasting.
Fast Days and their objective
“It is a positive commandment to cry out and to sound the trumpets in response to any affliction that comes upon the congregation …. This is characteristic of repentance. At the occasion of a tragedy, when the congregation cries out and sounds the trumpets, they all realize that the evil that has befallen them is a consequence of their actions…. And this will case the removal of the affliction from upon them…. But if they do not cry out and do not sound the trumpets but say that these events are merely natural events and happenstance, this is the path of cold-heartedness and it will cause them to cling to their evil actions. And upon the affliction will be added more affliction …” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Fasts 1:1-3)
In these opening sentences of his Laws of Fasts, Maimonides explains the purpose and objective of fasts. All fasts are a response to an affliction or suffering. The Sages may declare a fast in response to drought or famine. A fast may be declared in reaction to an impending attack by our enemies. The fundamental aspect of the observance is not cessation from eating and drinking or other self-imposed hardships endured during the fast. Instead, the most essential element is petition and supplication. More specifically – the essential element of the observance of a fast is recognition and acknowledgement that our suffering is not merely a consequence of simple misfortune or chance events but instead, it is a consequence of our actions. All blessings and suffering experienced by the Jewish nation are expressions of Hashem’s will and His providence. In turn, He blesses or punishes us in response to our behaviors.
In the context of this perspective on the function and purpose of fast days it is possible to more fully appreciate Maimonides’ understanding of Tisha B’Av and the other three associated fasts. According to Maimonides, all fasts days have three shared elements:
• They are a response to a present affliction.
• The ultimate objective of the observance is to relieve the affliction.
• This objective is achieved through accepting responsibility for the tragedy – through recognizing that our actions are the cause of the calamity.
Therefore, although Tisha B’Av and the other three related fasts are observed annually, they are fundamentally indistinguishable from a fast declared in response to an emerging, onrushing disaster. Both are responses to current afflictions. The delay in the rebuilding of the Temple is a current, present-day affliction and it is a consequence of our actions.
 Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Yoma 1:1.