Sunday, July 18, 2010

Nine Reasons for Fasting on the Ninth of Av

Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer argues here that it is "wrong" for a Jew today to fast on the Ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av). He claims that Jews traditionally mourned either the exile from the Land of Israel, or the destruction of the Temple. Mourning the Jewish exile is not relevant since nowadays that exile is voluntary; mourning the destruction of the Temple is also not relevant since most Israelis, including religious Israelis, don't really want to see it rebuilt. Both arguments are based on standard Zionist myths and misunderstandings of history and Judaism. For example, Pfeffer writes:

If Tisha B'Av is meant to mark the exile of the Jewish people, then it's no longer relevant. For a decade now, there has not been one Jew around the world who was not free to return to Zion. Ever since the quiet exodus of the last Jews of Syria, in the late 1990s, there has not been a country anywhere that has forbidden its Jewish citizens to leave. Even the 20,000 Jews in Iran can emigrate; they choose not to for financial reasons. They cannot receive a fair price for their homes, property and businesses should they leave.

The argument fails because a) Tisha B'Av was never meant to mark the exile of the Jewish people, and b) the "exile" that Zionists like Pfeffer refer to is a myth whose origin postdates the institution of the fast day. According to all serious historians, Jewish and otherwise, the last mass exile from the land of Israel was in 586 B.C.E., and that lasted approximately 70 years. When Jews returned in 516, many, if not most, preferred to stay in the diaspora. During the time of the Second Temple, according to the foremost historian of the period, Menachem Stern, "the total Jewish population of the Roman Empire outside Palestine and of the Parthian Empire…considerably exceeded the number of Jews living in their homeland." (The Jewish People in the First Century, 1:122).

In other words, since 516, whenever massive numbers of Jews left the land of Israel/Palestine, they did so voluntarily. (Even a Zionist historian like Anita Shapira says flatly that "historians don't deny" that there was no Roman exile. See her review essay of Shlomo Sand, When and How Was the Jewish People Invented here) And when they returned, they also did so voluntarily…well, at least until the Zionists tried to arrange that they could immigrate only to the State of Israel. Jews were prevented from immigrating to the Land of Israel after the Zionist enterprise was launched – considerably after the institution of the Ninth of Av Fast.

If the Ninth of Av Fast was not instituted with a mythical exile in mind, it also has nothing to do with the desire to rebuild the Temple. True, that desire is ubiquitous in rabbinic Judaism. But nowhere is the Jew told that he fasts on the Ninth of Av because he has been prevented from building the Temple.

It is surprising that Pfeffer doesn't refer to the events associated with the Ninth of Av cited in the authoritative code of rabbinic law, the Mishnah. On that day, it was decreed that the Hebrews liberated from Egypt would not enter the Land of Canaan; the first and second Temples were destroyed, Beitar (the stronghold of Bar Kokhbah) was captured, and Jerusalem was devastated. And, according to Jewish tradition other disastrous events occurred on the Ninth of Av, such as the expulsion and exile (a real one, this time) of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Pfeffer ends his article with the following challenge:

The only ideologies that can justify continuing this observance are those that see democratic Israel as a heretic entity defying the majesty of God on earth. But if you are not a member of the Eda Haredit or a settler from Yitzhar, how can you mourn on Tisha B'Av in good conscience?

All right, Mr. Pfeffer, here are 9 reasons why a Jew today in "democratic Israel" should fast on Tisha B'Av. They may not impress those Zionists – religious or secular – who appeal to ideology in order to throw off the yoke of halakha (Let's face it: fasting is a pain). But at least some of the reasons may appeal to people of "good conscience," whether secular or religious.

First, for religious Jews Jewish Law mandates mourning practices on the Ninth of Av, including, but not limited to, fasting. Whether one is in a mourning "frame-of-mind" or not, one is halakhically obligated to observe these practices. Even God, much less his prophets, cannot change Jewish law; for that. there are mechanisms within Jewish law. So if by "reason" one means motivation for observance, then religious commitment to observance is reason enough.

Second, although the Jew is obligated by Jewish law to observe these practices, he or she also should also try to find them meaningful. And while Pfeffer belittles historical commemoration (one wonders what he thinks of Israeli Independence Day or Yom Ha-Shoah), he gives no reason for his devaluation. An historical dimension – or, if you like, the dimension of collective memory – is part and parcel of almost every Jewish holiday, with the possible exception of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And these too, while they do not commemorate any particular event, certainly commemorate religious practices in the life of the nation on those days. Why single out the Ninth of Av, unless feasting for an irrelevant historical reason is better than fasting for one.

Third, beyond the historical dimension of the actual horrific events, there is the religious/moral dimension. The Second Temple, we are told, was destroyed because of greed and baseless hatred. We read of the tragedies described in Lamentations, and in the religious elegies from the time of the Babylonian exile to the present. Should these be forgotten? And if they are tied to religious and moral failings, how can one not mourn our failings "in good conscience"?

These reasons are more than sufficient, in my opinion. But here are a few more that will appeal to folks of my ilk.

Fourth, how can one not mourn in good conscience the daily hamas/injustice perpetrated in Jerusalem by Israeli Jews against the Palestinians? Think of Silwan, where Palestinians, who are not allowed to build legally, see their houses and their history destroyed, replaced by Jewish settlement and an "archaeological park" commemorating – only – the Jewish past (real and invented)?

Fifth, how can one not mourn in good conscience the hamas perpetrated against the Palestinian families evicted from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah quarter of Jerusalem? (An event on Tisha B'Av organized by the Sheikh Jarrah activists will take place at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem on Monday night. For details, see here).

Sixth, how can one not mourn in good conscience the discriminatory laws against the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in housing and in the freedom of movement caused by the accursed land-grab wall, may it be speedily destroyed? (For a refutation of the myth that the wall saves lives, see here.)

Seventh, how can one not mourn in good conscience the daily destruction of Jerusalem through the greed of overdevelopment, through failing to preserve buildings slated for preservation, through grandiose projects such as the Holy Land development, the closing of the Jerusalem Swimming Pool, the German Colony hotels, the elimination of green spaces, etc., etc.?

Eighth, how can one not in good conscience mourn the death not only of Jerusalemite Rabbi Yehuda Amital, z"l, but of his sane and pragmatic version of religious Zionism – and the temporary triumph of a religious Zionism that worships stones and trees, makes a fetish of the Temple, and sacrifices so much of what is good and just in Judaism on the altar of racist and fascist nationalism? (NB: I realize that many religious Zionists who did not support Rabbi Amital politically do not fall in this heretical category.)

Ninth, how can one not mourn in good conscience the mental and spiritual state of a people that has no qualms about fulfilling its own self-determination at the expense of, and continuing oppression of, the native people of Palestine?

Maimonides teaches that when troubles come upon the Jewish people we are obligated to fast. If this is true when we are victims, how much more so when we are perpetrators? "On account of our sins we were exiled from the land". That religious-spiritual exile is no myth, and it is not over, either.

It is not hard for me to mourn on Tisha B'Av – even when I recognize that, from the personal and Jewish standpoint, there is a lot to be thankful for. I hope my fast will be an easy one. It certainly will be meaningful.

And the same I wish for you and for Anshel Pfeffer.


ADDeRabbi said...

I was at Sheikh Jarrah on Friday for the very reason you articulate.
ציון במשפט תיפדה

Favorit Son in law said...

Hey! where's my comment?

Jude said...

Note the parallel between the situation of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the beginning of ch 5 of Lamentations:

1 Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
2 Our inheritance has been turned over to aliens, our homes to foreigners.
3 We have become orphans and fatherless, our mothers like widows.
4 We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price.

Anonymous said...

you should not have fasted this past tisha b'av if those were your reasons

the galus remains in place whether one resides in israel or not...and will remain so until mashiach comes and the beis hamikdash is is simple as that

for you to add to it with issues that have nothing to do with tisha b'av(including many other events that befell the jewish people over the years) shows how disconnected you truly are from your own people

sad that you probably gained nothing from this tisha b'av

it is time to do teshuva before it is too late

next year, are you going to rewrite your hagaddah to includee the naqbah....or do what some reform rabbis have done and make purim into a feminist and peace loving holiday by pardoning haman and turning vashti into a hero?

Jerry Haber said...


My first reason was addressed to religious Jews.

"First, for religious Jews Jewish Law mandates mourning practices on the Ninth of Av, including, but not limited to, fasting. Whether one is in a mourning "frame-of-mind" or not, one is halakhically obligated to observe these practices."

Since you write that I should have not fasted if these were my reasons (including the first above), clearly, you do not agree that that commitment to the halakha is reason enough to fast.

On the contrary, you believe that the halakha will cease to operate after the moshiah comes (or why else would you imply that we will cease to observe the fast on Tisha b'av after the Temple has been rebuilt.)

The Rambam (Maimonides)disagrees with you on this and on many things. Shabbetai Zvi, though, is an important precedent for your willingness to abrogate halakha during the messianic period.

So you are not an orthodox Jew -- nothing wrong with that. Maybe you are a Chabadnik? Hey, whatever works....

Ari said...

Have you ever considered addressing more halachic issues (not related to israeli politics) on your blog/or on a seperate blog? I -- and I assume others -- would be very interested to hear your opinion on different controversial halachos.