Fasting on Tisha B’Av when the Beit HaMikdash Stands
BY RABBI YOSEF ZVI RIMON
Maimonides states that the Jewish people fasted on Tisha B’Av during the period of the Second Beit HaMikdash:
“In the days of the Second Beit HaMikdash they did not fast on the tenth of Tevet, nor on the seventeenth of Tammuz; but rather whoever wished to fast – fasted, and whoever did not choose to – refrained from fasting. Therefore the [emissaries for the testimony concerning Rosh Chodesh] were not sent out on Tevet and Tammuz… leaving the choice to the people regarding these days, whether to fast or not… And they did fast on Tisha B’Av despite being given a choice, since on this date our people suffered multiple tragedies” (Commentary to Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:3).
The Sfat Emet (Rosh Hashanah 18b) explains that when the Beit HaMikdash was intact, the people only fasted on Tisha B’Av during periods of turbulence and subjugation to other nations, but not during times of peace. However, the straightforward interpretation of Maimonides’ words is that they always fasted on Tisha B’Av. Maimonides’ opinion seems odd. How is it possible that people fasted when the Beit HaMikdash was intact?
The simple explanation seems to be that the Second Beit HaMikdash was not complete. The returning exiles themselves wept because of this. The Second Beit HaMikdash lacked two vital elements – the Ark and Divine Revelation, and so the people continued to mourn the destruction of the First Beit HaMikdash, when these elements were present.
Though this answer is certainly correct, there are additional reasons why the people continued to fast on Tisha B’Av. We learn from the Sfat Emet that we fast not only because of the past, but also because of the present situation. Our current troubles are an extension of the destruction of the First Beit HaMikdash. This is why the Kinot (lamentations) on Tisha B’Av include many events not directly connected to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, but which describe other troubles in the course of our history, such as the persecutions of 1096, the burning of the Talmud, the Holocaust, and the uprooting of Gush Katif and its residents.
Secondly, the fast reminds us that even when everything seems fine, and the Beit HaMikdash is built, we must live righteously; the situation can, G-d forbid, change. Sometimes we have it so good that we fail to recognize our good fortune. Fasting even in good times is significant because it reminds us of periods in the past when we were not so fortunate, and lacked what we have now. Sometimes, one can see and appreciate the light only when it is contrasted with darkness. Only by reflecting upon the destruction can we truly perceive the supreme and wondrous reality of the Divine Presence. This is the goal of the Tisha B’Av Kinah “Eish Tukad B’kirbi,” “A Fire Shall Blaze Within Me,” which enumerates the wonderful things that we had when the Beit HaMikdash stood, which are missing today.
Hashem has granted us many kindnesses. We have been fortunate enough to return to our homeland after two thousand years. We have been granted a state of our own and have seen much of Yerushalayim returned to us. We see the Torah flourishing. However many elements are still missing. Sadly, the Beit HaMikdash remains destroyed. We do not yet have full control of our Land, and there is still a spiritual deficiency, for we do not yet experience the Shechina (Divine Presence) among us and Hashem’s rule over us.At this time of the beginning of the redemption, Tisha B’Av takes on a unique character. We have achieved so much, we have seen the beginning of our redemption – but we must also reach ever higher. The higher we rise and the more we enjoy the gift of freedom, the more concern we must show for those who are less fortunate and suffer hardship, and help them, too, fulfill their great dreams. Tisha B’Av reminds us that there are many people in our society, including lone soldiers, at-risk youth and others – who need our love and support. Showing solicitude for these groups is by no means for their benefit alone. By elevating their lives and enabling them to aspire to greater heights, all of Am Yisrael will reach a higher plane of existence, and will, please G-d, soon merit complete redemption!
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon is Head of Mizrachi’s Educational Advisory Board and Rabbinic Council. He serves as the Chief Rabbi of Gush Etzion, Rosh Yeshivah of the Jerusalem College of Technology and is the Founder and Chairman of Sulamot and La’Ofek.