As a teenager, I attended a public high school on Long Island where I was the only observant Jew. I quickly got used to explaining to my teachers and classmates about the various Jewish holidays, which were the reason for my poor attendance record at various points throughout the year. The only holiday that I never had to explain was Tisha b’Av, since it always arrived in the summer, when school was not in session. And so the story of the destruction of the Temple, which is the reason we mourn and fast on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, was unknown to my classmates, who had otherwise received from me quite a comprehensive Jewish education.
One summer, when I was training for the high school track team, I made a plan with my friend Katie to go running three days a week. She would pick me up in her car at 7 a.m. and we would drive to the school track, where we would run laps for 45 minutes. It just so happened that during that particular summer, there was construction work being done on our synagogue, which we would pass in the mornings on our drive to the school. One day I realized that our next scheduled morning run coincided with Tisha b’Av. I called Katie on the phone to inform her that I’d have to miss a day. “Why?” she asked. “Oh,” I explained. “It’s a day of mourning tomorrow because of the destruction of the Temple.” Katie paused for a moment, and then responded in astonishment: “The Temple was destroyed? I thought they were just doing construction!”
This story still makes me laugh, but I think it also hints at a more serious issue, namely how difficult it is to understand the significance of Tisha b’Av in today’s day and age. Why was the destruction of the Temple such an incredible tragedy for the rabbis, even for those rabbis living hundreds of years after both the first and second Temple (destroyed in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively) were no longer standing? Why is it that this day took on successive levels of sadness—to the point that the Mishnah in Taanit (4:6) explains that five of the most devastating tragedies in Jewish history took place on this date? Not only were the two Temples destroyed, the Mishnah asserts; also, this was the day on which the spies sent to scout out Canaan brought back a negative report, and Bar Kochva’s revolt failed, and the Romans razed Jerusalem. The rabbis convert Tisha b’Av into a general national day of mourning, unquestionably the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
In the absence of the Temple, rabbinic Judaism proceeded to engage in the creative process of inventing a decentralized, prayer-based form of Jewish worship; but the rabbis never stopped missing the Temple and longing to return to its glory days. The Talmud is filled with statements and stories that give voice to these sentiments. We are told, for instance, that Rabbi Yosey reports that God Himself mourns the destruction of the Temple, wailing like a dove and crying: “Woe to the children — because of their sins I destroyed my home and burned my sanctuary and exiled them among the nations” (Brachot 3a). Elijah goes on to teach that God mourns this loss frequently:”Whenever Jews enter into synagogues and study houses and answer, ‘May the great name be blessed,’ the Holy One Blessed Be He nods His head and says, “Blessed be the king who is praised in his home, and woe to the father who exiled his children, and woe to those children who are banished from their father’s table” Elijah compares the destruction of the Temple to the banishing of children from their father’s table, since the people of Israel, lacking the system of sacrificial worship, can no longer attain the same degree of closeness to their heavenly father.
It has been nearly 2000 years since the second Temple was destroyed, and yet still we are obligated, each year, to mourn this loss. But, try as I may to get into the right mindset for Tisha b’Av, the metaphors traditionally invoked just don’t do it for me. And so I prefer to conjure a different image—one that reflects my own associations with loss and longing. I think of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet is standing at her window leaning her cheek against her gloved hand, and Romeo gazes up at her under cover of darkness. Juliet sighs (“Ay me!”), and Romeo hangs on to her every sound and gesture (“She speaks! O, speak again, bright angel”), wooing her from below her balcony in language reminiscent of the Song of Songs, which Shakespeare seems occasionally to invoke (“Stony limits cannot hold love out”). I imagine the balcony as the site of many subsequent late-night trysts, as it is the one place where the lovers can speak freely to one another without risking the wrath of the Montague and Capulet clans. I think about how Juliet must long, each day, for night to come, so she can go out on her balcony to speak to her Romeo.
And then I imagine that one day, Juliet comes home from school to find that her parents have boarded up her balcony. Her window is covered with wooden planks fixed rudely to the wall; her balcony has been hacked at with axes and spades; and pieces of the railing lie strewn on the street below her window. “Her gates have sunk into the ground, he has smashed her bars to bits.” (Lamentations 2:9). Juliet is utterly distraught: how will she see Romeo that evening? How will she communicate with her lover? “See, O Lord, the distress I am in! My heart is in anguish.” (Lamentations 1:20) It is not only her balcony she has lost, but the whole elaborate system of semaphores and scheduling that she and her lover have constructed to ensure that they see each other regularly. Juliet wails. “Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheeks wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends” (Lamentations 1:2).
It may seem surprising that I choose such a romantic image, but this kind of analogy is not without precedent. In the rabbinic imagination the Temple was, indeed, the rendezvous place between God and Israel. As Rav K’tina says in the Talmud, “At the time when Israel would go to the Temple on the festivals, they would roll back the ark curtain to reveal the cherubs, who were hugging each other, and saying: Look at how beloved you are of God, like the love between a man and a woman” (Yoma 54a). That very same passage compares the poles that protruded through the ark curtain to the breasts of a woman, using a proof text from the Song of Songs: “My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh, lodged between my breasts.”
And when it comes to the loss of the Temple, the rabbis invoke similar images. In a passage in the Tractate Yoma that pulses with lyrical poetic intensity, they take turns reminiscing about the Temple. Rabba bar bar Channa recalls that the smell of the incense in the Temple was so fragrant that a bride in Jerusalem during the time of the Temple would not need to wear perfume. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha responds with a story: “An old man told me: Once I went to the city of Shiloh [where the portable sanctuary used to reside], and I breathed the smell of the incense from between the city walls” (Yoma 39b). This imagery is deeply passionate, if not overtly sexual. Who said the rabbis were not romantic? It is true that the tractates dealing with marriage are preoccupied with brute economic facts, and that marriage in the Talmud is essentially a business transaction; but when it comes to the Temple, the rabbis wax more poetically than Romeo, Don Juan, and Cyrano de Bergerac combined.
And so although I do not personally desire the restoration of Temple worship, it is these images I invoke to get me into the right mindset on Tisha b’Av. I think of Juliet pouring out her heart like water as she cries, “My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult, my very being melts away” (Lamentations 2:11). The language of Shakespeare flows into the language of Lamentations and then I, too, am able to mourn and weep.