Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, is not mentioned in the Torah. It is hinted at in Zechariah 8:19 (Source 1 and Qs). The Mishna tells that five disasters occurred on this date, including the destructions (churban) of the First and Second Temples (Source 2 and Qs).
The Rabbis, living in the centuries after churban Bayit Sheni (the destruction of the Second Temple), were preoccupied with the causes of these calamities. In one well-known source they tell us that the First Temple fell, in 586 BCE at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, because of the high rate of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The Jews of the Second Temple time behaved much better, they say, but nonetheless the Romans were still able to capture Jerusalem and destroy the Temple, in 70 CE, because of sinat chinam (causeless hatred) (Source 3 and Qs).
The Rabbis illustrate the sin of sinat chinam in the famous story about Kamza and Bar Kamza, who lived just before the Second Temple was destroyed. An innocent “secretarial” error initiated a series of events (a “scene” at a party, the uninvited guest expelled) which ultimately lead to the destruction of the Temple (Source 4 and Qs). While these explanations sound simplistic, historians confirm that disputes within the Jewish community inside the besieged Jerusalem, including violence and the destruction of property, were major factors in the city’s downfall.
This is not the only explanation the rabbis give for the destruction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Yochanan, an important Amora (Talmudic rabbi) in Eretz Yisrael in the early third century, makes a radical statement: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments there in accordance with the laws of the Torah,” suggesting that the destruction was not rooted in sin or serious behavioral lapses. His colleagues are shocked – what do you want, they ask, “that they should have judged like amateurs?” To which Rabbi Yochanan (or the Talmud itself, on his behalf) responds: “because they based their judgments [strictly] on the Torah law and did not go beyond the strict requirements of the law” (they didn’t take equitable [broader, non-legal] considerations into account) (Source 5 and Qs).
“Lo charva Yerushalayim ela bishvil…Jerusalem was destroyed only on account of…” The Talmud in Shabbat 119b gives a remarkable list of additional causes of the fall of Jerusalem, from eight rabbis spanning several centuries in both Eretz Yisrael and Bavel. The reasons are very diverse, reflecting the social reality and particular crisis that each rabbi felt in his time and place. They include the desecration of Shabbat; neglect of the recitation of Kriat Shma; deterioration of the school system; that people no longer felt shame for sinning; failure to pay respect to those of position or achievement; people failed to rebuke each other; scholars were treated with contempt; and, last but not least, the presence of people of integrity was no longer felt (Source 6 and Qs).
Two things should be noted. Firstly, the rabbis analyze the destruction of Jerusalem not only as a historical episode but as a paradigm, of the Jewish people as a whole and indeed of each subgroup and community, as applicable today as it was in 70 CE. We do not always have control over the circumstances and values in the greater society/world, but we should try to influence those within the Jewish community, as these can play a critical role in its ultimate strength or weakness. Alongside the importance of religious observance and education, these sources emphasize that the society must be based on respect, integrity and a willingness to compromise personal interest for the welfare of the community (Source 7 and Qs).
Secondly, amongst the many causes the rabbis found to explain the churbans, there is one they never mention – that perhaps the Babylonian or Roman armies were simply stronger than our forces. In the rabbinic view even these misfortunes were the work of the one and only God, and the Babylonians and Romans were, unwittingly of course, instruments of His purpose, an idea already expressed in Isaiah (ch 10) and Jeremiah (chs. 50-51). While on the surface it seems cruel, it contains within it the seeds of hope. If our deficiencies are a significant factor in our tsarot (problems), then hopefully their correction can improve our situation.
Thus the fast of Tisha B’Av moves from mourning to hope; the mood by mincha time is less bleak, and the liturgy reflects that. Zechariah’s prophecy (Source 1) that the days of fasting will become days of gladness includes Tisha B’Av as well, and it is commonly stated that the Messiah will be born on this date. The texts underlying this statement are a bit challenging, but they provide a basis for the optimism that has accompanied the Jewish people through many dark moments in its history (Source 8 and Qs). May Tisha B’Av be an inspiration for tikun, improvement, in the lives of all of us and the Jewish People as a whole.