OTD in History Tisha B’Av the most tragic day in Jewish history
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, some of the most disastrous and sorrowful events in Jewish History occurred coincidently on the Hebrew date of Tishah B’Av, where the Holy Temples were destroyed not once but twice. On Tishah B’Av we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, Beit HaMikdash, they are considered but two of the five historical events the Mishnah, the books of Jewish oral laws names as reasons to fast on this day. Throughout history, calamity after calamity alternating between mass deaths and expulsions befalling the Jewish people on this specific calendar date in a span of over 3000 years.
The first historical event and the one that set this day as a tragic day for thousands of years occurred in the Bible, the Torah in the book of Numbers, Bamidbar Chapter 13 and 14. In 1312 BCE (2448), Moses sent 12 representatives from each of the tribes to go over the mountain and scout the land of Israel before entering. In the forty days, the 12 spies examined Israel and they took back with them “a branch with a cluster of grapes” and “some pomegranates and figs.” When they returned they told Moses, “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant… We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.”
Only Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Joshua spoke positively about Israel. The other spies told the Israelites, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature.” Afterward, “The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night.” They complained to Moses, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert,” and they wanted to return to Egypt. Caleb and Joshua spoke up and defended the land of Israel telling them “If the Lord desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey…. the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”
Hashem / God responded and promised not to let in those over age 20 to Israel because of their doubt, leading to the Israelites wandering 40 years in the desert, “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you who were recorded in your various lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me, not one shall enter the land in which I swore to settle you — save Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” All of this happened on Tisha B’Av and The Israelites response led to the string of tragedies that have plagued Jewry for thousands of years. According to the Midrash, “The Holy One said to them ‘You cried for no reason? For future generations, I am fixing this night as a night for crying [for good reason].” (Numbers Rabbah 16:20, Rubin, 118)
In 586 B.C.E. (3340), Zedekiah, a King of Judea installed by King of Babylonia Nebuchadnezzar, rebelled and joined into an alliance with Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar’s response was a Siege on Jerusalem lasting months, the city was captured and Babylonian general Nebuzaraddan’s mission was to destroy the whole city including the First Holy Temple built by King Solomon. Afterward, most of the Jewish population was exiled to Babylonia with only a few left in Judah.
In 70 C.E. (3830), the Jews fought back against the Roman aggressors, the Siege of Jerusalem was the climax of the First Jewish–Roman War. The Roman Army under future Emperor Titus commenced his siege of Jerusalem during Pesach, by Av, he looked to capture the temple for Rome, however, fighting at the temple fortress led to a Roman soldier to throw a burning stick at the temple’s wall in no time the temple was destroyed by the 10th of Av, late July. Jerusalem would fall by September 8, after the fall of Herod’s Palace.
In 125 C.E (3892), Simon bar Kokhba led a revolt against the Romans in The Third Jewish–Roman War or Second Revolt of Judea over their Romanizing Judah, rebuilding Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina and building a Roman temple Jupiter on the site of the Temple ruins. The early revolt was successful enough that in 132, the Jews regained control of much of Judah and installed bar Kokhba as the leader with the title prince. The success led many Jews to consider him the Messiah.
By 134, the Roman fought backs under General Sextus Julius Severus. Bar Kokhba fought his final battle on August 4, 135 CE at Betar. The Romans disseminated the Jewish population, with 580,000 killed, and more deaths from harsh conditions including starvation and disease additionally 50 “fortified towns and 985 villages were razed,” including Betar. The Romans left the Jews living at the periphery of Judah but attempted to wipe out the Jewish connection to Israel, with Roman commander Turnus Rufus plowing the Temple ruins. The Roman banned the Jews from entering Jerusalem except for Tisha B’Av.
Throughout history, the date continued to bring despair to the exiled Jewish community:
On August 15, 1096 (4856), the First Crusade began, sanctioned by the Catholic Church, their aim was to conquer the Holy Land from the Muslims. In 1095, Pope Urban II gave a sermon at the Council of Clermont advocating for the crusade to help Byzantine Empire Emperor Alexios I in his fight against the Muslim Turks and guaranteeing Christian access. In the first month, as German Christian soldiers headed towards the Holy Land, they pillaged and destroyed European Jewish communities in their path including killing 10,000 in France and the Rhineland in the persecutions of 1096 or Gzerot Tatenu, “Edicts of 856.” In “Hurban Shum” (Destruction of Shum), the soldiers decimated the Jewish communities in Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. The pogroms were the first instance of anti-Semitism in Europe. On July 14, 1099, the soldiers captured Jerusalem.
On July 18, 1290 (5050), King Edward I signed the Edict of Expulsion evicting the Jewish community in England, the community would have to leave by November 1, All Saints day. The Jewish community in England was as old as William the Conqueror’s reign starting in 1066. Jews mostly served as merchants and then moneylenders and in the Feudal society were “direct subjects of the King,” where the King always had to renew a charter. Their economic roles led to an increase in anti-Semitism, and in 1190, 100 Jews were killed in the Massacre of York. In the thirteenth century, the Jewish situation deteriorated and King Henry III required them to wear a badge with the 1253 Statute of Jewry and imposed high taxes.
In the 1260s, there were pogroms during the Second Barons War attacking Jews in London, Worchester, and Canterbury. In 1275, King Edward banned Jews from usury, lending money with interest and decided in exchange levying high taxes to expel the Jews for not complying with the statute. The edict was enforced until 1657. In 1655, Menasseh ben Israel, the leader of Amsterdam’s Jewish community petitioned British Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews to return citing the economic benefits to England.
On July 22, 1306, (10 Av, 5066), King Philip IV mass arrests France’s Jews then notified them of their eviction. King Phillip was referred to as “the Fair,” and he ruled from 1285 to 1314. King Philip’s expulsion of the Jews was related to his desire to make France “most Christian realm” and funding his military. In the years leading up to the expulsion, King Phillip demanded Jews wear a badge and pay a fine for doing so, he restricted where Jews could live and restricted their contact with Christians. King Phillip wanted to outdo his cousin King Edward and refused to let the Jews expelled from England into France. He also believed himself more spiritual than Pope Boniface VIII. Most importantly, however, where the financial benefits, the King would not allow Jews to take any of their belongings and property, and all debts owed would be paid to the King. By 1311, all Jews were out of the country but within a few years, Louis X readmitted the Jews in 1315.
On July 31, 1492, (7 Av, 5252) King Fernando and Queen Isabella executed their expulsion of Spain Jewry after the Spanish Inquisition. Three months earlier on March 31, they issued the Alhambra Decree, the Edict of Expulsion requiring all Jews to leave the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The main reason was to prevent influence on the conversos, formerly half the Jewish population, who converted by force to Christianity in 1391 after persecution. By 1415, 50,000 more converted and by the time of the decree, “200,000 Jews converted to Catholicism.” King Fernando and Queen Isabella feared the conversos might go back to Judaism, which many in fact were secretly practicing. Only 40,000 to 100,000 Jews left with the decree. Jews only started to return to Spain in the late nineteenth century and the Second Vatican Council formally revoked the decree in 1968.
More recently major historical events on this date lead to the Holocaust and destruction of European Jewry. On August 1–2, 1914 (9–10 Av, 5674) Germany declared war commencing World War I. Several incidences in World War II led to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany extermination of European Jewry. On August 2, 1941 (9 Av, 5701), the Nazi Party approved and informed SS commander Heinrich Himmler of “The Final Solution” formally beginning the Holocaust. A year later on July 23, 1942 (9Av, 5702), the Nazis began transporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka concentration camp, six million Jews would be killed during the Holocaust once the war finished in 1945.
The tragic events kept on coming, with no stop up to recent history. On July 18, 1994, 10 Av, 5754, an attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA; Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) building killed 85 and injured 300, it is suspected that Hamas and Iran are behind the attack, Ansar Allah, a Hamas front claimed responsibility. On August 15, 2005, 10 Av, 5765, Israel begins their disengagement from Gaza dismantling all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. In a month, Israel evicted 8,000 Israelis from 21 settlements, and 4 additional settlements in the northern West Bank.
Despite the continual sorrowful events, the Jews continued on, with a spirit of survival and a will to thrive. As Chabad points out, “To date, Jewish history spans over 3,300 years. To be born a Jew today is not an accident of birth but the sum total of over 3,300 years of ancestral self-sacrifice, of heroes who at times gave their very lives for their beliefs. Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Nazis, and Communists all tried to obliterate Jewish practice and faith but failed. The indomitable Jewish spirit survived and clung to its traditions despite all odds.”
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.