On Fasting and Feasting on Tisha b'Av
The prophet Zechariah promises, "the fast of the fourth [month], the fast of fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth will be transformed into days of joy, happiness and appointed times for the House of Judah; [therefore you should] love truth and peace".
These four dates are the fast days connected to the destruction of our two Temples in Yerushalayim. It would seem from this verse, as well as from other sources, that during the Second Temple period these days continued as [optional] fast days, probably because the new Temple was not complete, perhaps even only temporary, and second, the majority of Jews, let alone Israelites, had yet to return home. This interpretation seems to be correct, even though when asked by visiting Babylonian Jews if they should continue fasting as they had for the previous seventy years, God tells the prophet to inform them that they may eat and drink on these days.
Each of the four fast days commemorates pivotal events leading up to the final devastations. In both Temples, the final defeat and sacking occurred on the 9th day of Av, tisha b'Av. This date has had negative connotations throughout Jewish tradition. It was decreed on this day that the children of Israel would wander for forty years in the desert following their acceptance of the ten spies' negative report. Betar and its defenders lead by Bar Kochba, and hence the entire Jewish uprising, fell on this day in 135; and in 1492 the Jews of Spain were given until this date to leave the borders of Spain. Many other tragedies occurred to our people on this date.
Those of you who have been following my developing ideas know that I strongly believe that "the end is nigh", that our long galuth, the Jewish diaspora from its inherited homeland, is in its closing, dying days. I sit here now, having just returned from my annual pilgrimage to the ancient cemeteries in Hevron, wondering how this transformation will occur, how it will play out. I spent the morning trying, as I also do every year on this day, to understand the kinoth. The language is poetic, far from easy, and their allegoric and implicative style is often hard to decipher.
Half of these dirges are attributed to one man, a poet, a paytan, a person about whom we know nothing. We call him the Kalir -- his first name may have been Elazar or Eliezer. Historians place him at any time between the second and tenth century, though most scholars point to the seventh. What is certain is that his poetry is beautiful, elegant, masterful. His proficiency of the language, vocabulary and grammar, is nothing short of superb, remarkable. While the Hebrew is pure, almost biblical, his metaphors are largely Midrashic and Talmudic. He is obviously very well versed with this literature, sometimes using just a single word to imply an entire midrashic thought or narrative.
Without Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld's (whom I had the privilege to meet in New Zealand and later in Yerushalayim) footnotes and translations, I admit to being unable to understand much of the symbolism and often also some of the language.
This morning I came across a couple of interesting points which I wish to share with you. The following quotes from kinoth by Kalir are based on Rabbi Rosenfeld's compendium. The round brackets are his additions to clarify the text, the square brackets are my humble notes.
Kalir writes, "I search to behold that (God who is) my strength (should come) to my aid; each year my frightened ones (Israel) say, 'This is the year!'"
This verse demonstrates the continuous yearning of our people to end the cursed exile, to return home. Every generation believes that this year will be last one in exile. This thought perhaps hints at the futility of calculating or assuming anything vis-à-vis the End, as the Rambam so strongly points out, "until it actually happens, we won't know how it will be". But this does not stop the Rambam himself from attempting to calculate this date.
While I am certainly aware that I tread on unstable dangerous ground in assuming we are now extremely close to the end of the current era, I too must admit that I am interpreting the prophecies from where I stand in this two and half thousand year exile. I pray that I am not far off the mark, though certain I would not the first to err. I am comforted only in that the Rambam and others over the centuries too were prepared to take the risk. Many Talmudic sages relate that they have no wish to live in that [our] time as the events will be so terrible and unbearable, even though at the end of the process, we will have entered to the messianic age. But we are here now; we do not have the luxury of history to be living in a different time, earlier or in the future.
In another dirge, Kalir writes, "How (can man alter God's prediction of the destruction of the Temple) when it is already accomplished [predetermined]? God claimed his debt from me even before the heavens were spanned [literally stretched i.e. prior to the creation] for it was my fate that God pointed [hinted] (as it is written) 'and the earth was void (and empty)'. He revealed (the building and the destruction of the Temple) with the words, 'evening and morning', (and) the Lord declared the end in the beginning; he built and destroyed, and will rebuild at the end, and he engraved His destruction by (anticipation of) my guilt."
Further in the same piece, Kalir extends the theme of a fixed, predetermined time for redemption. "The wearied (sons [of Jacob]) delved deeply to find out the time (of redemption), for the patriarch (Jacob) had been on the point of revealing the end (of days, but) the Beneficent One, who was ready to disclose the Messianic age to Jacob, restrained himself and concealed it (from him), and so the time of redemption was hidden . . . though it was not made known until God will hasten the time, and (only then) will it become known."
Exactly how the galuth will end is hotly debated in our ancient sources and by our understanding of the prophets. I have previously presented some possible scenarios. What is certain, the New World Order will not be as perceived by George Bush I, Al Gore, Brzezinski, et al. It will be something totally different, starting, as the Rambam puts it, with the end the domination of Israel by the nations of the world. From that point in time, other things too will change in the running of the world, but the end to our subjugation will indicate to us that messianic process has moved to a new stage. In the next stage, there will universal recognition of the Divine in the world. This will be manifested by the "remaining" nations joining us in Yerushalayim every year for the Feast of Tabernacles, going up to the Beth haMikdash in universal prayer.
In the poem above, Kalir sheds light on some of our questions, and perhaps the Rambam and others have derived their position on this issue from his words. The key point here is that the End was already predetermined at the time of creation. This is similar to my explanation of the how God uses the laws physics to drive the universe, in order to carry out his predetermined plan. Kalir expresses his frustration that our transgressions and guilt are used as an excuse for the destruction and the exile, "he engraved His destruction by (anticipation of) my guilt". This grapples with the concept of our free will.
He again illustrates each generations' desire for the knowledge of the coming of the messiah. This desire goes all the way back in history to our very first banishment to a foreign land. "He engraved and made known gross darkness (referring to suffering during the destruction of the Temple) [or perhaps the entire galuth], and our forefathers foresaw the destruction (of the Temple) which was made know then to Adam; even before the foundations were laid it was (decreed to be) destroyed."
I tried to explain the verse that the final redemption will come "in its time, suddenly" to mean, not as it is usually understood, that if were we repent, the End will come suddenly and immediately prior to the appointed time. I explained that from the plain meaning of the text, the prophet is telling us that even though the time of our redemption is fixed. We need not fear, as when this time eventually comes, it will occur over a short timespan, relatively quickly.
Subsequent to writing this interpretation I found that the Vilna Goan in Kol haTor is quoted as expressing a similar idea. I believe Kalir too is expressing this concept when he says, "until God will hasten the time, and (only then) will it become known". This word 'hasten' is the same word used in Isaiah's prophecy. Kalir is telling us the date of the redemption is fixed, but hidden. God will only reveal it in its time (cf Rambam).
It is well know that once an idea sees the light of day via a brilliant thinker, even a fool can deduce the same concept. In no way am I comparing my self to either the Gaon or to Kalir. In fact, had I learnt the texts better in my youth, I would have learnt the lesson directly from them. But I do admit there is something grand when you figure something out yourself.
My question today is not when these developments will occur, but rather how will they manifest themselves? As in the time of Zechariah, and the period known as the 'Return to Zion', will the alterations to the world order occur via political events, the type of thing you read daily in the newspaper? or by blatantly miraculous events, things never before experienced in the world, like the ten plagues against Egypt and another splitting of a sea, allowing Americans to drive home?
Had people in Persian times not known the earlier prophecies, that the exile would be for only seventy years, would they have considered something unnatural had occurred when the benevolent king of Persia proclaimed that the Jews within his kingdom, exiled by an empire which he destroyed, could now return to their homeland and resume where they left off? Was this 'natural' development any different from the events leading up to the establishment of our independent Jewish nation, within its ancestral boundaries, in the previous century? Did it matter to Cyrus and Darius any more than it mattered to Truman or Eisenhower that other people had entered in the interim to fill the population vacuum?
The Return to Zion presented theological problems then as now. Do we continue to fast, to mourn on Tisha b'Av? At what point do we stop fasting? Do we celebrate a new holiday to commemorate our return? Is Tisha b'Av this holiday? How will our prayers, written during the Second Tempe period, change in response to our changing reality? Will our synagogue service continue as we now know it? Without a doubt if we do retain the synagogue context, there will be changes -- we will cease to differentiate between the various traditions we adopted [adapted] in the galuth: Ashkenazi, Hassidim, S'faradim, Italian, Yemenites, etc. Or perhaps not? And when the other ten tribes arrive home? What traditions do they retain, wherever they are currently exiled, customs which have been with them since the late First Temple period?
I admit to having many questions but few answers. Let us assume the Temple has been built and the nations have stopped persecuting us -- the Rambam's definition of [the start of] the messianic age. The next ninth of Av rolls around. According to Zechariah it is now a joyous day of celebration. What kind of celebration? Like Purim? Like Shavuoth? Perhaps like Independence Day? We will need instruction. Will there be a time when Tisha b'Av is no longer a fast but not yet a feast? Already Tisha b'Av has some festival aspects, e.g. no tachanun is said.
And what happens to the long sad history of this day, all the people brutally murdered, rendered homeless, forced to the fringes of society -- all the suffering that this day caused? Forgotten? In our joy will we whitewash the tragic history of the Jewish people, in one fell swoop? In the messianic age, the six million murdered in the Holocaust, also forgotten?
It would be nice to believe that the dead, or at a minimum the righteous dead, those who bore the brunt of two thousand years vicious world anti-Semitism, will be immediately resurrected, their dry bones reconnected with new sinew as prophesied in the Valley. But even according to the Rambam resurrection occurs at a much later stage in the redemptive process. The Rambam teaches us that nothing will change in the way the world operates. The laws of physics will remain intact. Chemistry will operate under the same formulae it does today. Bacteria and viruses will continue their friendly and unsociable chores.
And the Beth haMikdash, the Third Temple, how will it look and function? Lately there's been a mini-surge of information on Ezekiel's vision of his visit to the Temple. I can't say I really know how the new building will look, even were Ezekiel's vision the blueprint. But I am pretty certain it will not look like many of the models and sketches I have seen, in eighteenth century Germanic style.
We are talking about a building some fifteen stories high. My guess it won't be built of stone nor steel. There are many alternate materials available today that Yehezkel could not have known about, but these technologies are well known to us.
I also doubt the Beth haMikdash will appear overnight, cast down from the heavens. This possibility is presented by Rashi in order to solve a Talmudic difficulty -- I doubt this was his real opinion.
One thing is certain; even after we 'decide' it is time to build, it will take a number of years for its implementation, leading to its dedication. I suggest we start now by learning the relevant texts and submitting possible designs for public perusal and discussion. As well as allowing us to have a ready design when the time finally arrives to build, speedily in our days, this openness will bring a wider public into the now small Temple circle.
In the opinion of Temple researcher, Tuvya Sagiv, the burnt out shell of the Second Temple lies buried in the soil behind the Western Wall. If so, will a renovation be sufficient? to get us started?
Kalir continues, "They [the sons of Jacob] sat asking (their) father to make known the mystical end (of days, saying to him), "When will it become known? And so they were still waiting for the day of salvation, though it was not made known."
I too ask our Father in Heaven to make known to us "the mystical End of Days", and to grant us the wisdom to build His House for all mankind for whom the Jewish people will fulfill their true destiny, becoming a holy people, a kingdom of priests to all humanity.
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