Why I Fast on Tisha B’Av
August 5, 2022
By Mike Steklof, Ed.D.

Even though I fast on Tisha B’Av each year, I do not mourn the destruction of the Temple nor do I connect to the Judaism of the Temple with pilgrimages and sacrifices.  Rather I connect with the Judaism of the rabbis (developed after the destruction of the Temple), the Judaism familiar to many of us, that version that is practiced in our homes and synagogues.  In essence, the Judaism of today.

So, what happened after the destruction of the Temple? How did the rabbis react and how did they subsequently create the Judaism of today?

Rabbi David Golinkin sorts the reactions of the rabbis into five categories: depression, developing mourning rituals, searching for alternatives, changing laws, and deciding there is no need to replace the sacrifices. I will briefly elaborate on each reaction below:

  • Some rabbis reacted by depression. This is evident from Mishnah Sotah 9:15: “Pinhas ben Yair says: When the Temple was destroyed, the Haverim [those who are scrupulous about the laws of purity] and the freemen were put to shame and walked with covered heads, and the men of good works have become sparse; and men of violence and men of smooth tongues prevailed.
  • Other rabbis reacted by developing mourning rituals which commemorate the destruction: “Rabbi Yehoshua says: this is what the Sages said: A person may plaster his house with plaster, but he must leave over a small amount in it without plaster to remember the destruction of the Temple. Rav Ḥisda said: This should be opposite the entrance, so that it is visible to all. (Bava Batra 60).
  • A third group of rabbis reacted by searching for alternatives to the sacrifices which could no longer be offered: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said that the prayers were instituted based on the daily offerings sacrificed in the Holy Temple, and the prayers parallel the offerings, in terms of both time and characteristics.” (Brachot 26b).
  • A fourth group of rabbis reacted by changing certain laws which could no longer be observed in the Temple: “At first, during the Temple era, the lulav was taken in the Temple all seven days of Sukkot, and in the rest of the country outside the Temple, it was taken only one day on the first day of the festival. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai instituted that the lulav should be taken even in the rest of the country all seven days, in commemoration of the Temple.” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4:3).
  • Finally, there were a few rabbis who maintained that there was no need to replace the sacrifices: Rava said: whoever studies Torah does not need [to sacrifice offerings] (Menahot 110a).

My teacher, Rabbi Benay Lappe, Rosh Yeshiva at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, proposes a different approach to analyze what happened after the destruction of the Temple. She outlines what would have been the rabbi’s three possible options through her crash theory:

  • People deny that anything is wrong and continue practicing Judaism in the same way they did before the crash (destruction of the Temple) which can lead to death on a physical or spiritual level;
  • People leave their religion, stop practicing their religion, and/or adopt a new (non-Jewish) religious practice; or
  • People go through a transformation and reinvent their religion mixing the old with the new in a way that works for their life. This results in a new and vibrant Judaism.

Rabbi Lappe argues that the rabbis who developed Rabbinic Judaism took the third approach which has allowed Judaism to thrive to this day. By putting their energy into radical transformation, the rabbis created a Judaism that to many is deeply relevant today.

So why do I still fast on Tisha B’Av?

King Solomon wore a ring with three Hebrew letters inscribed on it: gimmel, zayen, and yud. These letters are an abbreviation for Gam Zeh Yaavor (this too shall pass) which served as a reminder to him that the good times as well as the bad times always come to an end. I fast on Tisha B’Av as a reminder that a terrible thing occurred, the destruction of the Temple, which led to a good thing, the invention of Rabbinic Judaism.

I hope and pray that when Judaism faces a “crash” again, that there are people able to transform and reinvent Judaism in a way that is relevant for the current time in service of creating a new and vibrant Judaism. Rabbi Becky Silverstein once taught us that the Judaism of the future will be unrecognizable to the Judaism of today. Let’s both never forget what we lost but also appreciate what we currently have.

Mike Steklof Ed.D, is a Director of Jewish Experience at LiNK Jewish Buffalo and will be fasting from 8:30 pm Saturday through 9:07 pm Sunday.

Why I Fast on Tisha B'Av - Jewish thought of the week graphic