Jewish World Review / August, 1998 / Menachem-Av, 5758

Remembering what was ... and what yet can be

Children not only say the darndest things ---- they cause us to think, observes Ari Zivotofsky.

LAST TISHA B'AV eve, my then three year old daughter Shlomit was surprised to find her parents sitting on the floor, shoeless, eating a "dinner" of bread, hard boiled eggs sprinkled with ashes, and water. In response to her bewildered query, we explained that we were showing sadness for the burning of the Beis haMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem) by very bad people a long time ago.

We explained how that although G-d is everywhere, the Beis haMikdash had been the central address where G-d could be more easily found, and it was the place to where all Jews used to make thrice yearly pilgrimages. This dinner, we told her, was the beginning of a very sad day, and that the whole next day we would be fasting to show our deep sorrow.

This seemed to satisfy her, if only temporarily. The day after Tisha b'Av she found us back in our chairs, wearing shoes, and eating a regular meal. Her innocent and sincere question now was: Has the Beis haMikdash been rebuilt?

Her point was well taken, of course, and she, in her simplicity, stumbled upon an idea discussed in the Talmudic tractate of Baba Batra (60b). It is suggested that in our extreme sadness over the destruction of the second Beis haMikdash, there should be a ban on eating meat and drinking wine until the Temple is rebuilt. The Talmud's response is that such a reaction to tragedy can be taken to extremes that would lead to bans on many aspects of normal life. Instead, normal life must continue, but with reminders of this national tragedy sprinkled throughout.

We thus mourn the destruction of the Beis haMikdash at certain time periods that are designated for mourning, such as Tisha b'Av and the three weeks leading up to it. In addition, we have a slew of customs that are intended to remind us of the Beis haMikdash and its destruction that are included in our daily lives and at various life cycle events.

In order to explain this to Shlomit we took out our wedding album and showed her the breaking of the glass. Even at our most joyous occasions we do not suppress the lingering sorrow over the still unbuilt Beis haMikdash. At all weddings a glass is shattered to remind us of the tragedy. In addition, many have the custom of placing ashes on the groom's head as an additional reminder.

At times of personal sorrow, the national mourning is also duly commemorated. The standard formula for consoling a mourner is: hamakom yenachem eschem besoch sha'ar avlei tzion v'yerushalayim --- may G-d comfort you among the mourners of Jerusalem and Zion. We are telling that mourner that he is not alone in his mourning. We are all still grieving the loss of our beloved Jerusalem that is not fully rebuilt.

A custom that has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, especially in Israel, is the Talmudic mandate to leave an area approximately 2 feet by 2 feet opposite the entrance of the house unplastered. This too is a sign of mourning for the Beis haMikdash. A contemporary take on this is to cover the area with a piece of artwork that indicates the reason for it being left unplastered.

Other memorial customs are location dependent. For example, although the general talmudic attempt to ban all music in mourning over Jerusalem's destruction has not taken hold, there is to this day a widely observed proscription on instrumental music in Jerusalem's Old City. And just like a mourner rents his garments in despair (kriya), so too is there a custom to tear kriya when seeing the desolate Temple Mount. This practice is widely observed, and visitors who have not been to the Western Wall in more than 30 days can be seen ripping their shirts.

There are customs that are observed today to remind us how things were practiced in the Temple. On Sukkos we shake the "four species" for a full seven days. According to biblical law the lulav was used for seven days in the Temple and only one day elsewhere. Now that there is no Temple, the lulav is used everywhere for seven days as a reminder of the observance in the Temple. Similarly, at the Passover seder, a "sandwich" of matzah and marror (bitter herbs) is eaten to commemorate how it was done in the Temple.

On Chanukah, in addition to the menorah that is lit in the house, one is also kindled along the southern wall of the synagogue.

Again, to emulate what was done in the Beis haMikdash.

As Jerusalem and the Temple are mourned and remembered, so we hope they will be speedily rebuilt. This fervent wish has been incorporated into the daily prayers said thrice daily, the grace after meals said after every meal, and in the closing liturgy of two of the most important days on our calendar. The Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur and the seder on Passover both conclude with the moving phrase: "Next Year in rebuilt Jerusalem." The essential Yom Kippur ritual was not praying all day in synagogue, but rather the service of the high priest in the Jerusalem Temple. The name "Passover" actually refers to the Paschal sacrifice that was offered in the Temple. It is on those days that the absence of the Temple is most acutely felt and therefore it is on those days that our hope for its restoration is verbalized.

Shlomit continues to ask if the Beis haMikdash has been rebuilt and if not, what can we do to make it happen. We try to explain to her that if we as Jews are "good", it will help make the time right for G-d to rebuild the Beis haMikdash. She, of course, insists that she is good. Other than that, we explain that although life must continue as usual, we try to not let the absence of the Beis haMikdash stray too far from our minds even after the Tisha b'Av fast is concluded.

Ari Zivotofsky is a writer based in suburban Washington, D.C.


©1998, Ari Zivotofsky. A version of this article appears in the Cleveland Jewish News