Tisha B’Av – History

Tisha B’Av – Day of Mourning and Reflection


Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, is a day of mourning and fasting for Jews worldwide, commemorating the major tragedies that befell the Jewish people on this day. This article will discuss the historical development and significance of this day as well as lessons for the future using classical sources from the written and oral Torahs.   

The Mishna in Talmud Taanit 26b lists the following tragedies that occurred on this day:

  1. In the year 2449 from creation, Hashem decreed that the generation that left Egypt would not enter the land of Israel (Numbers 13-14).
  2. The Babylonians destroyed the first temple in 3339 (2 Kings Chapter 25).
  3. The Romans destroyed the second temple in 3830 (Tradition).
  4. The Romans conquered and destroyed the city of Betar in 3895 (Tradition).
  5. The Roman commander Turnus Rufus plowed the Temple Mount in 3897 (Tradition). 

For tragedies 3-5,  the Talmud cannot quote from scripture because Hebrew scripture ends at the beginning of the Second Temple based upon the Talmudic saying (Yoma 9b), “After the last prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi died, the Divine Spirit of prophetic revelation departed from the Jewish people.” However the sages of the Mishna and Talmud were divinely inspired, albeit not at a scriptural level, based upon this Talmudic saying (Bava Batra 12a), “From the day that the Temple was destroyed prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the Sages”, meaning that the dates of these tragedies are authentic. In addition laws and practices instituted by these sages have divine approval.

(Note: The years listed above follow the traditional chronology of Judaism starting from creation. However there is a 1 year difference in counting, between the dates of the Talmud (less by one year) and our current numbering of years. This difference, results from the numbering of the year Adam was formed (viz. year 1 according to the Talmud which starts from the creation of Adam or year 2 according to our system which starts from creation of the world on Elul 25.) In addition there is a significant discrepancy between the secular (i.e. 169 years earlier) and traditional counting of years to establish the year of destruction of the first temple. It is beyond the scope of this article to reconcile these differences. The interested reader can examine the following sources for more information – Rav Saadiah Gaon  Emunos V’Deios Chapter 8, Abarbabel Maayanei Hayeshuah 2:3, 10:7-8, and 11:3, and Maharal Beer Hagolah pages 139-140).                                                                                                                                                                

In terms of the second temple there is only a minor variation between the secular and traditional counting of years.   

The land of Israel and particularly Jerusalem are the common thread of these 5 tragic events. Although other tragedies occurred on Tisha B’Av outside of Israel, the Mishna does not list them because they did not fit this divine decree.

Tragedy 1 – Decree against entering Israel

It is interesting to note that the Torah does not explicitly mention the 9th of Av as the day that Hashem issued the decree against entering the land of Israel. The Talmud (ibid. 29a) deduces this date from the following time sequence:

EventStart DateDuration (days)Verses in Numbers
Israelites travelIyar 20310:11-12  and 10:33
Complaint for meatIyar 232911:4 – 20
Miriam quarantinedSivan 23712:13
SpiesSivan 294013:25

(Note: The Torah counts the months starting from the Exodus. Hence Nissan, Iyar, and Sivan are months 1, 2 and 3 respectively). 

The Torah clearly states, that on the 20th day of the second month of the second year from the Exodus, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle and the Israelites started to journey towards Israel (ibid. 10:11-12). The Torah then relates that they journeyed for three days (ibid. 10:33). Then the Israelites demanded meat from Hashem (ibid. 11:4). Hashem agreed to their request and granted meat for 30 days (ibid.11:20). However since their request displayed a lack of faith, Hashem smote the Israelites with a mighty blow (ibid. 11:33). Following this tragedy, Miriam spoke improperly about Moses (ibid. 12:1-2), was stricken with a skin condition called tzaarat (ibid. 12:10), and was quarantined for 7 days (ibid. 13:25). In deference to Miriam, the Israelites did not travel for these days.

On the 29th of Sivan, Moses sent 12 spies to Israel to scout the land of Israel who returned after 40 days (Numbers 13:1-25). Allowing for 2 days in Sivan, 30 days in Tammuz (the 4th month), and 8 days in Av (2+30+8 =40), they returned to camp on the 8th of Av and related their fearful message to the people (ibid. 13:32-14:1). As a result, the people panicked and cried that night, the 9th of Av (ibid. 14:2). Hashem said, “You (the Israelites) have cried without cause, therefore I (Hashem) will establish (this day) for crying for generations.” Hence Tisha B’Av was destined as a day of calamity when the Israelites sin grievously. 

Tragedy 2 – Destruction of First Temple   

The Talmud (ibid.) notes an apparent discrepancy between verses in scripture related to the destruction of the temple:

2 Kings 25:8-9 – “In the 5th month (i.e. Av) on the 7th of the month … Nebuzaradan captain of the executioners … burned the house of Hashem.”   

Jeremiah 52:12-13 – “In the 5th month on the 10th of the month … … Nebuzaradan, captain of the executioners … burned the house of Hashem.”  

The Talmud (ibid.) resolves this difference by explaining that the Babylonians entered the sanctuary on the 7th, performed depraved acts on the 7th and 8th, and set fire to the sanctuary in the late afternoon of the 9th. The sanctuary actually burned the entire day of the 10th. Rabbi Yohanan felt that the fast should be observed on the 10th. However the Rabbis set the fast on the 9th because the commemoration should correspond to the beginning of the calamity. Here we see that the 9th of Av occurs within a range of a few days of calamity which sets a pattern across history.

It is interesting to note that 2 Chronicles 36:19 mentions the burning of the Sanctuary but does not provide a date. Perhaps this book focuses on the actions of the different Kings of Israel and not on the dates of their defeats.

Tragedy 3 – Destruction of Second Temple


The Talmud (ibid.) establishes Tisha B’Av as the date of the destruction of the Second Temple on the principle of “Good things occur on an auspicious day and bad things on an ominous day.” Josephus, a Jewish historian at the time of this war, puts the date of the destruction as the 10th of Av (Chapter 6 – Of the War). However we can assume that like the first temple, the burning started on the 9th towards late afternoon with the main burning on the 10th. He also recorded that the battle for Jerusalem started a few days after Passover and concluded on the 8th of Elul, about one month after the burning of the temple. The destruction of the second temple and the Bar Kochva rebellion led to the exile of Edom (fourth exile as described in Daniel 7:7-8), which still applies today. In addition the lessons of baseless hatred and overconfidence are timeless and provide a moral framework for introspection on the 9th of Av.                                                                                  

Causes for the Destruction of the Temples

In addition to recording the dates of these calamites, the Talmud investigates their moral cause to answer the obvious question, “Why did Hashem not protect his people?” and to provide instruction for the future. The Talmud Yoma 9b answers that the first temple was destroyed because the Israelites committed the three major sins – idolatry, forbidden marital relations, and murder. However, during the SecondTemple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvoth, and acts of kindness and therefore not guilty of these sins. Rather the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred between Israelites. This comes to teach you that the sin of baseless hatred is equivalent to the three major sins (Yoma 9b). The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza illustrates this point.

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

The Talmud (Gittin 55b) relates that there was a man whose friend was named Kamtza and his enemy Bar Kamtza. This man prepared a large feast and asked his servant to invite Kamtza. By mistake the servant invited Bar Kamtza. When the host saw Bar Kamtza at the banquet, he asked him to leave. To avoid embarrassment, Bar Kamtza asked to stay and was willing to pay for his meal. The host refused and insisted that he leave. In turn Bar Kamtza was prepared to pay for the entire banquet. The host refused and eventually ejected Bar Kamtza. After leaving, Bar Kamtza reasoned since the rabbis who were present did not protest they must have agreed to his public humiliation.

As a result, Bar Kamtza sought revenge and became an informant against the Jews. He went to the Roman emperor saying that the Jews were rebelling against Rome and this claim may be verified by sending an animal offering to the temple in Jerusalem. If the Jews refuse the offering they do not recognize the authority of Rome.  To bolster his claim, Bar Kamtza purposely blemished the animal to prevent its offer on the altar. The rabbis were faced with a dilemma, either offer a blemished animal or kill the informant. They could not come to a conclusion and left the animal unoffered resulting in Roman retaliation. Secular historians, based on Josephus, understand that the zealots did not let the rabbis offer the animal to provoke a rebellion against Rome.

Burning the storage houses

The Talmud (ibid. 56a) relates that three wealthy residents of Jerusalem were prepared to provide the city with the necessities of grain, oil, and fire wood for 21 years. However the zealots thwarted their plan of resisting the Roman siege. The sages said to the zealots, “Let us make peace with the Romans” and save many lives. The zealots refused the peace offer and in turn said to the sages, “Let us go out and fight the Romans.” The sages replied “You will not be successful”. The sages realized that Rome was too powerful and the Israelites lacked the merit to overcome Rome, as explained below based upon Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:19.                                         

With this standoff, the zealots decided to burn the storehouses of grain and thereby force the residents to engage in battle rather than waiting out the siege and expecting Rome to withdraw. This resulted in widespread famine and a weakening of the zealot forces. In addition the zealots fought amongst themselves resulting in many deaths and losing the moral advantage against Rome. In this context the Talmud says that baseless hatred led to the destruction of the temple. 

Negotiation with Rome (Gittin 56a and Lamentations Rabbah 1:31)                                         During the Roman siege, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai realized that the rebellion against Rome was doomed because the Israelites lacked the physical strength to fight Rome. After burning the storage houses the Israelites were reduced to boiling straw and drinking its water. He felt that the he had to take action to save what he could through some form of negotiation with Rome. Abba Sikkara was the leader of the zealots and a nephew of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. The Rabbi sent a message to his nephew, “Come to me in secret”, because the zealots would not have agreed to any open negotiation with Rome.

When he came, the rabbi said to his nephew, “Until when, will you kill everyone through starvation?” His nephew replied, “What can I do, if I mention any peace initiative the zealots will kill me.” Aware of the difficulty of the situation, the Rabbi responded, “Show me a method to leave the city and attempt a small salvation by speaking to the Roman authorities.” His nephew said the he should attempt the following ruse. He should pretend to be mortally sick, feign death, be placed in a coffin, and be carried out by his students for burial. Once out of Jerusalem he would meet the Roman authorities. The rabbi followed his plan and eventually met Vespasian. During the meeting, the rabbi predicted that Vespasian would become Caesar and asked for some form of clemency as explained below (section Focus on Torah).

Aftermath of Destruction of Temple

Following the destruction of the temple, the rabbis of Israel planned for the future of Judaism, realizing that the centre of focus for Judaism will shift from the temple to the synagogue and study hall. This article will now discuss the following topics of rebirth:

  • Focus on Torah
  • Western Wall
  • Birth of Messiah
  • Avoid baseless hatred                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Focus on Torah


Vespasian, impressed by the wisdom of the rabbi and his correct prediction, granted the rabbi permission to ask for some degree of clemency. According to the Talmud the rabbi asked for the following:

  • Yavne and its sages.
  • The dynasty of Rabban Gamliel.
  • Doctors to heal Rabbi Zadok.

He did not ask Vespasian to spare Jerusalem because he realized that Rome was committed to put down the rebellion. The rabbi felt that if he asked for too much he would receive nothing.

Rabbi Yohanan realized that the focus of Judaism would shift from the temple to Halacha (i.e. rabbinic Judaism) and therefore required a central location (i.e. Yavne) for the Sanhedrin to discuss, debate, and finalize Halacha. In addition he also realized that there must be Torah leadership (i.e. dynasty of Rabban Gamliel which descended from the line of King David) to avoid lingering disputes. Rabbi Zadok was spared in recognition of his fasting 40 years to avert the destruction of the Second Temple. In addition Rabbi Yohanan felt that the great piety and merit of Rabbi Zadok would protect the Israelites during those turbulent times.   


By contrast, the Midrash says that the rabbi did ask to spare Jerusalem but Vespasian answered that this request was impossible to grant once the rebellion had started, as Rome would appear weak. After the refusal the rabbi made the following immediate requests:

  • Limited clemency for the Israelites (i.e. four hours to escape though the western gate towards Lod.
  • Spare Rabbi Zadok and provide doctors to heal him.

The Midrash focused on the immediate concerns during the siege (i.e. saving lives through limited clemency and doctors to cure Rabbi Zadok). Hence there is not necessarily a dispute between the Talmud and Midrash, rather a difference in perspective.

Western Wall

The Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall”, is the most holy, standing site in the world for the Jewishpeople. This wall is located in the Old City of Jerusalem and is the western support wall of the Temple Mount. In addition to political considerations, the Halacha does not permit Israelites to visit the exact site of the temple without purification using ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19:13 and 20 and Maimonides Laws of Entering the Temple Chapter 3:4-5) which are currently not available.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

There are different opinions about the exact site of the temple and its courtyards. Therefore most halachic authorities do not allow Israelites on any part of the temple mount. However there are minority opinions led by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel (1973-1983) that allow Israelites to visit certain sections of the temple mount because they hold that these areas are beyond the courtyards of the second temple. According to the vast majority of opinions, the Western Wall is beyond the temple mount and therefore Israelites can visit this wall without ritual purification.

The Western Wall is the only visible, above ground remains of the second temple. However there are many more remains that are below ground and can be seen through tunnel tours of Jerusalem.

The reader may ask the following questions:

  1. Why did the Romans allow this wall to remain?   
  2. Why specifically the Western Wall?

The Midrash answers both of these questions as follows:

  1. Lamentations Rabbah 1:31 – The Romans purposely left a wall to demonstrate their victory to the world. If they had destroyed all the walls there would not have been a visible reminder of their triumph.
  2. Numbers Rabbah 11:2 – Hashem promised that the Western Wall will never be destroyed because the Shechinah dwells in the west. In the temple structure, the Holy of Holies was located in the west.  
  3. The author would like to add that Hashem purposely left a memorial of the temple so that the Israelites would not lose hope of redemption over a long and painful exile.

Birth of Messiah

The Midrash (Lamentations Rabbah 1:51) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 2:4) provide a vignette about the birth of the messiah that occurred on the same day as the destruction of the temple. This story may be literal (i.e. the actual birth of a child) or a parable about the survival of the Jewish people and their ultimate redemption.

The story runs as follows. An Israelite farmer was plowing with his oxen. One ox lowed and an Arab passerby informed the farmer to stop plowing because the temple was destroyed on this day. The ox lowed again and the Arab informed the farmer to continue plowing because the messiah was born on the same day. The farmer asked the passerby, “What is the name of the messiah and where was he born?” The passerby answered, “His name is the Comforter (מנחם), son of the Strong one of Hashem (חזקיה), and was born in Bethlehem.” The farmer went to search for the child and found him in Bethlehem. He planned to sell some children clothing to the mother. The woman said, “It is not worth your bother. The child is a bad omen because the temple was destroyed on his day of birth.”                                                                                            

The farmer responded, “We trust in Hashem. Just as the temple was destroyed on his date of birth so it will eventually be rebuilt through your son, the messiah.” The mother said that she could not afford his wares. He told the mother, “Do not worry. I will come back later and collect payment.” She took the clothing and when the farmer came back she told him that a strong wind had carried her son away (according to Maharsha Sanhedrin 98b to Gan Eden).

The commentators debate whether this story is literal or a parable of the survival of the Jewish people and quest for the messiah. If the birth of the messiah occurred at the actual destruction of the temple more than 1,900 years ago then this child would have died long ago. It is possible that the spirit of this child lives on in heaven waiting to return to earth. As a parable, this Midrash wants to emphasize the concept of the messiah, namely that he will certainly come and redeem the Israelites even though there are many “storm winds” along the way.

The Midrash continues by saying that the messiah could not come until the second temple was destroyed based upon the juxtaposition of the following verses in Isaiah:

10:34 – “Thickets of the forests shall be cut with iron, and Lebanon (interpreted by the Midrash as the Temple) shall fall through a mighty one (in this case Rome).

11:1 – “Then a shoot shall spring forth from the stem of Jesse (i.e. the messiah), and a twig shall sprout from his roots.”  

The Midrash interprets Lebanon (והלבנון) as the temple which purifies Israelites from sin using the root לבן which means to whiten or purify. The Talmud Yoma 39b, Sifrei Pinchas 134, and Targum Onkelos on Deuteronomy 3:25 interpret Lebanon as the temple.

Avoid Baseless Hatred

Since the second temple was destroyed through baseless hatred, a number of rabbinic leaders have suggested that unbounded love one for another, especially among Israelites, should lead to rebuilding of the temple. The reader may ask, “What is meant by the term – baseless hatred. After all, a person does not dislike something or someone without a reason?” Rashi (Shabbat 32b) explains that this hatred is not justified within a Torah context. Rather it is a personal feeling based upon the evil inclination and therefore “the hatred is (morally) baseless.”

The reader may further ask, “Is there a case where hatred is justified by the Torah?” The Talmud (Pesachim 113b) analyzes this sensitive issue, first by discussing Hashem’s approach to hatred, and then by discussing hatred between people. The Holy One, Blessed be He, hates three people, namely one who:                                                                                                               

  1. Says one statement with his mouth and means another in his heart (i.e., a hypocrite).
  2. Knows testimony about another person and does not testify on his behalf (i.e. does not get involved).
  3. Observes a licentious act committed by a person and testifies against him alone. Since he is a single witness, his testimony is not valid in Halacha and will be rejected by the court. Consequently, he merely gives the individual a bad reputation.

In addition the Talmud allows one to “hate” the following individuals:

  1. Heretics, enticers (to idolatry), and traitors (informants.) In extreme cases, individuals may be stopped with force (Avodah Zarah 26b).
  2. A flagrant violator of Torah law who does not accept rebuke (Pesachim 113b).  
  3. A violator of the laws of intimate relations who will not accept rebuke if the offence was committed in the presence of one witness (Pesachim ibid. based on Exodus 23:5). Only this witness has the permission to hate the offender because Torah law requires two witnesses before a court can take action. By contrast the other reasons apply to all who know of the sinner.  

The reader may ask, “How can the Talmud permit any hate? Are there not verses in the Torah that forbid this action?” The answer is that there are verses that forbid hate and verses that appear to allow it. On one hand, Leviticus 19:17 states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” and the next verse states, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” On the other hand Exodus 23:5 states, “If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him?  You shall repeatedly help him.” The Talmud accepts that this hate is justified by the above reasons based upon the verse (Proverbs 8:13), “The fear of Hashem means to hate evil.”

Similarly Avot of Rabbi Nathan (16:4) says that a person should not say, “Love the sages, but hate the scholars; or love the scholars, but hate the common people.” Rather, love all of them, but hate heretics, enticers (to idolatry), and traitors (reason 1). So, too, did David say (Psalms 139:21-22),” I will hate those who hate You, Hashem, and I will despise those who rise up against You (Hashem). With the utmost hatred I will hate them. They will become my enemies.” However it also says (Leviticus 19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Hashem.”  Why does the verse mention, “I am Hashem?” This is to teach that this commandment applies if the individual follows the ways of Hashem. However if this person does not follow these ways then the commandment of love does not apply.

Maimonides similarly explains (Laws of Murder 13:14), “The enemy mentioned in Exodus 23:5 is not a gentile, but rather a Jew. One might ask: How is it possible for one Jew to hate another? Is it not written Leviticus 19:17: Do not hate your brother in your heart? Our Sages explained that this is referring to a person who while alone sees a colleague violate a transgression and rebukes him, but the colleague did not cease transgressing. In such an instance, it is a mitzvah to hate the person until he repents and abandons his wickedness.” This law applies to the single witness mentioned in reason 3 hence the former verse is written in singular. However the permission to hate applies to all who know of the sinner (reasons 1-2). In fact Maimonides allows force if necessary in extreme cases mentioned in reason 1 (Laws of Idolatry 10:1).  

Likutei Amarim Tanya (Chapter 32), written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, stresses the importance of love between fellow Jews based upon the natural bond of their divine souls which emanate from Hashem. He therefore rules that in the second case hate is justified only where the individual is knowledgeable in Torah and its mitzvoth, disregards rebuke of a close associate, and chooses to reject the mitzvoth publicly.  Even then, one may hate the sin but not the sinner. If the person lacks this knowledge then there is no room for hate because the offence may be considered as unwilful. Rather we are required to act like Aaron, as Hillel says (Avot 1:12), “Loving and pursuing peace, loving people, and bringing them close to the Torah.” The success of the Chabad approach to outreach illustrates the wisdom of this saying. However for extreme cases (e.g. heretics, enticers, and traitors) the Tanya agrees that hate is justified because the person has lost contact with his divine soul.   

Before taking any action about this “hate”, one should consider the following:

  1. One must consult a competent halachic authority on the proper course of action.
  2. One must try to persuade the person, with tact and genuine love, to change his ways. There is no room for a personal vendetta.
  3. One should focus on the improper deeds not the person. In the language of the Talmud (Berachot 10a), “Let the sins end, but not the sinners.” The objective is to save the person and appeal to his divine soul and not destroy him.
  4. The suggestion of hate does not apply to a secular Jew who was not raised in a Torah environment. On the contrary Maimonides encourages observant Jews (Mamrim 3:3) to bring them closer to Torah as he writes about the descendants of Karaites, “Therefore it is appropriate to motivate them to repent and draw them to the power of the Torah with words of peace.”                                                                                               

Rav Kook, first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine wrote in one of his most often quoted statements,” If we were destroyed, and the world with us (including the temple in Jerusalem), due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324).

In his magnum opus Orot HaKodesh (vol.iii pages 324-334), Rav Kook gave practical advice on how to achieve this love among Jews (excerpted from http://ravkooktorah.org/TISHA-AV-70.htm)

  • Love for the Jewish people does not start from the heart, but from the head. To truly love and understand the Jewish people – each individual Jew and the nation as a whole — requires a wisdom that is both insightful and multifaceted. This intellectual inquiry is an important discipline of Torah study.
  • Loving others does not mean indifference to baseness and moral decline. Our goal is to awaken knowledge and morality, integrity, and refinement; to clearly mark the purpose of life, its purity and holiness. Even our acts of loving-kindness should be based on a hidden Gevurah, an inner outrage at the world’s — and thus our own — spiritual failures.
  • If we take note of others’ positive traits, we will come to love them with an inner affection. This is not a form of insincere flattery, nor does it mean white-washing their faults and foibles. But by concentrating on their positive characteristics — and every person has a good side — the negative aspects become less significant.
  • This method provides an additional benefit. The Sages cautioned against joining with the wicked and exposing oneself to their negative influence. But if we connect to their positive traits, then this contact will not endanger our own moral and spiritual purity.
  • We can attain a high level of love for Israel by deepening our awareness of the inner ties that bind together all the souls of the Jewish people, throughout all the generations.

This unbounded love does not preclude disagreement or encourage group think. Rather there is room for civil dialogue and respectful disagreement based upon Torah principles with decisions reached by consensus, where possible.

In the opinion of the author and numerous political commentators in Israel, the strident discord in Israel and about the reforming of the Supreme Court (in this year of 2023) has neared the level of baseless hatred. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel (1993-2003) advised when dealing with conflicts between secular and religious Israelis:

  • Dialogue.
  • Compromise.
  • Mutual Respect.       

Tragedy 4 – Fall of Bethar (Bar Kochva Rebellion)


About 60 years after the destruction of the Second Temple the Israelites rebelled for a second time against Rome. In contrast to the infighting that led to the destruction of the second temple, this rebellion was led by a single leader with military prowess and support of the sages of Israel. His original name was Simon bar Koseva and was changed to Bar Kochva (son of a star) by Rabbi Akiva who claimed that he was the messiah (Lamentations Rabbah 2:4 with correction of Eitz Yosef). The latter chose this name based on Numbers 24:17, “A star has arisen from Jacob … and will undermine the children of Seth (meaning all the nations since Seth and his descendants led to Noah).” The Romans put down the rebellion on Tisha B’Av and as a result of this crushing defeat the Israelites did not take up arms on a national scale until the modern state of Israel more than 1800 years after this revolt.

Details of Rebellion

The Talmud (Taanit 29a) mentions that the Romans put down the rebellion on Tisha B’Av but does not provide many details of this rebellion. Again there is no scriptural reference to this event because this it occurred much after the completion of Hebrew scripture. Parts of the rebellion are told in Talmud Gittin 57b with more detail in the Jerusalem Talmud 4:5, and Midrash Lamentations Rabbah 2:4. Unlike secular, historical sources which describe battles, armies, generals, and dates these sources focus on the moral aspect of the war with a message for the future and may not be literal.

Both the Jerusalem Talmud (ibid.) and Midrash (ibid.) relate that Bar Kochva built up an army of 400,000 fearless warriors. Bar Kochva insisted on testing the strength of his warriors by submitting them to cutting off a finger before joining his army. Presumably he wanted to see if they could withstand pain and the sight of blood. The rabbis objected to this test because it involved disfiguring a body given by Hashem. Rather they suggested that each new recruit uproot a tree while riding on a horse. In this manner he accumulated an army of 200,000 soldiers with a cut finger and an equal number who uprooted trees.   

The Midrash relates that initially Bar Kochva was very successful with his campaign against Rome and was able to repel the Roman catapults with his own strength (literal reading of the Midrash) or through his military cunning (figurative interpretation of the Midrash). In any event his success in capturing Jerusalem and driving back the Romans convinced Rabbi Akiva and most of the sages of that time that he was the Messiah (Talmud Jerusalem (ibid.) and Midrash (ibid.)). Maimonides (Laws of Kings 11:3) writes that the entire generation of sages supported Bar Kochva and considered him potentially as the messiah. However the Midrash records a dissenting view. Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta said to Rabbi Akiva, “Even after your death (literally grass will grow on your cheeks) the messiah will not come.”  Maimonides continues (ibid.) that after Bar Kochva was killed because of his sins the sages realized that he was not the messiah.

Grave Sin

The reader may ask, “What was the grave sin that led to his downfall?” The Jerusalem Talmud (ibid.) and Midrash (ibid.) relate that a Samaritan plotted the downfall of Bar Kochva through a ruse. He entered the fortified city of Beitar, stronghold of Bar Kochva, through a water pipe and appeared to speak to Rabbi Elazar Hamodai, the uncle of Bar Kochva. The rabbi was busy in prayer and did not pay attention to the Samaritan (Midrash) or in fact the Samaritan did not say anything (Jerusalem Talmud). In any event, the supporters of Bar Kochva suspected Rabbi Elazar of planning to make peace with the Romans.   Bar Kochva asked Rabbi Elazar, “What did the Samaritan say?” Rabbi Elazar responded that since he was deeply involved in prayer he did not hear anything. Bar Kochva was not convinced of the rabbi’s sincerity, flew into a rage, kicked the rabbi, and killed him.

A heavenly voice proclaimed that by killing Rabbi Elazar, who had fasted and prayed daily for the safety of Beitar, Bar Kochva lost divine support and was eventually killed by a snake or the Romans. The Talmud Sanhedrin 93b explains that the rabbis tested Bar Kochva and found him lacking of powers of discernment, especially in the killing of Rabbi Elazar, and killed him. Many commentators explain that the rabbis did not actually kill Bar Kochva, rather they withdrew their support and he died in battle because of his sins (Maimonides Laws of Kings 11:3 with the explanation of the Radbaz).      

Secular Viewpoint

In addition to the classical rabbinic sources for the rebellion, secular historians have written about these events. However these sources suffer from the following drawbacks, they were written:

  • About 70 or more years after the events.
  • By historians who supported Rome against the Israelites.

Reasons for the Rebellion

Although rabbinic sources did not discuss the reasons for the rebellion, secular historians have advanced the following ideas:

  • Resentment – Emperor Hadrian had promised the Israelites that he would allow them to build a temple in Jerusalem and later reneged on the promise.
  • Oppression – The Roman governor of Judea, Tineius Rufus, treated his subjects harshly.
  • Outrage – Hadrian either planned or started construction of an idolatrous temple on the temple mount in Jerusalem.
  • Decrees – Hadrian banned observance of Judaism (e.g. Torah study, circumcision, and Sabbath). It is not clear from the secular viewpoint if these decrees preceded the rebellion (i.e. the cause) or were a result of the rebellion (i.e. effect). It is possible that both views are correct, meaning that some decrees were initiated before the rebellion and some afterwards as Rome imposed its authority through increasingly harsh, retaliatory measures. 
  • Rumours – After Hadrian left Israel in 132 AD (3892), rumours had circulated that Hadrian had died providing a window of opportunity for a rebellion.

Failure of the Rebellion

In addition to the moral failures of Bar Kochva, secular historians explain the victory of Rome in terms of:

  • Size of the army – Initially the success of Bar Kochva was against smaller Roman armies. Then Rome increased the size of their army by drawing trained men from different parts of the empire.
  • Military tactics – Rather than confronting Bar Kochva’s forces directly, the Romans fought methodically laying siege town by town thereby weakening his forces.
  • Leadership – The Roman army was led by Julius Severus an experienced commander of large armies and many battles.

Catastrophic Loss of Life

The losses from the rebellion were catastrophic because the Romans killed both soldiers and civilians, even women and children. The brutality of the Romans was intentional to send a message to the Israelites to abandon any thoughts of future rebellion. In addition the Romans did not allow the burial of the dead until a new emperor was appointed. Although the number of casualties reported by the Talmud – Babylonian and Jerusalem, may not be literal the devastation in Israel was felt for generations. The numbers are listed below and may reflect the potential loss of future population or the intense grief felt by the surviving population:

  • 4 million or 40 million (Gittin 57b)
  • 800 million (Taanit 4:5)

Maimonides (Laws of Fasts 5:3) puts the number in the hundreds of thousands and accepts that these numbers are not literal. In any event Jerusalem was lost and the Romans banished the Israelites from this city and its environs.       

Aftermath of Rebellion

Following the failed Bar Kochva rebellion, the sages adopted a cautious attitude towards Rome and rebellion. They expounded verses in Deuteronomy Chapter 2 which advised the Israelites in the desert to avoid warring against Edom (ibid. 5) and therefore bypass their land (ibid. 8). They extended this lesson of dealing with Edom to accepting Roman rule viewing this empire as a successor of Edom.

Specifically the Midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:19) expounds upon Deuteronomy 2:3, “Turn yourselves northward (צפנה)”, with word and concept association. Even though the word (צפנה) literally means northward this Midrash develops the following strategy for dealing with Rome:

  • Avoid confrontation – If Edom wants to provoke the Israelites then hide until the danger passes. Esau (father of Edom) was blessed by his father Isaac (Genesis 27:40);”By your sword you shall live.” In this case the root word צפן means to hide, or in the vernacular, “Keep a low profile.”
  • Study the Torah assiduously – If Edom wants to join with you (i.e. assimilation or intermarriage) then flee to the protection of Torah study and observance as the verse states (Proverbs 2:7), “He lays up (וצפן) sound wisdom for the upright, a shield for those who walk in integrity.” The word וצפן is similar to the word “northward (צפנה)” hence the word and subsequent concept association. The importance of Torah study and observance as a bulwark against the influence of Esau is found in Genesis Rabbah (65:16), “When Jacob weakens his voice (in Torah study and prayer) then the hands of Esau rule. When Jacob strengthens his voice then the hands of Esau do not rule (i.e. are weakened).” Isaac’s remark when feeling the hands of the disguised Jacob (Genesis 27:22), “The voice is Jacob’s voice but the hands are Esau’s hands.” This verse alludes to the relation between the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau. In addition the phrase “The voice is Jacob’s voice” is written in Hebrew as, “יעקב קול הקל”. The word הקל is written without the letter vav “ו” and can be read as light or weak, implying that when the voice of Jacob is weak then the hands of Esau will prevail.
  • Wait until the Messiah – After two catastrophic defeats against Rome, the rabbis advised the Israelites to bide their time until the advent of the messiah when the Israelites will be permitted to fight against Rome (and allies) with divine approval and aid. This Midrash selects Psalms 31:20 for the word and concept association of the great bounty (i.e. peace, prosperity, and freedom to serve Hashem) at the time of the messiah. The verse reads, “How great is Your (divine) goodness that You have laid away (צפנת) for those who fear You.”

Tragedy 5 – Plowing of Temple Mount

Following the defeat of Bar Kochva, the Romans consolidated their power in Israel. They plowed the temple mount and surrounding areas (Maimonides Law of Fasts 5:3), on Tisha B’Av to discourage any attempt to build a third temple under Roman rule. This date is similarly known by tradition (Taanit 29a).

Rashi (ibid.) comments that this plowing, which included the city of Jerusalem, fulfilled Micah’s prophecy (Micah 3:12), “Zion will be plowed like a field; Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest.”                                      

Later Events

As mentioned in the introduction of this article, the common thread of these 5 tragedies that occurred on Tisha B’Av involves the land of Israel and particularly Jerusalem. In addition each of these events affected the majority of the Jewish population. Although other tragedies occurred on Tisha B’Av outside of Israel these other events do not exactly fit this pattern. Nevertheless it is instructive to examine these tragedies for an historical perspective and appreciate our current position of relative safety. These events include:

  • Jews expelled from England 9 Av 5050 (July 18, 1290).
  • Jews expelled from Spain 7 (or 9) Av 5252 (July 31, 1492).
  • Germany entered World War I on Av 9–10, 5674 (Aug 1-2 1914) which caused massive upheaval in European Jewry and whose aftermath led to the Holocaust. Britain and France declared war on Germany a few days later.   
  • Formal approval of the “Final Solution” which led to mass murder 9 Av 5701 (August 2, 1941).
  • Mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 9 Av 5702 (July 23, 1942).

Fortunately in recent history there have been no major tragedies of this nature.


This article discussed the five national tragedies that befell the Israelites either en route to Israel or in Israel itself. In addition, the article focused on the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple and failed Bar Kochva rebellion to obtain practical lessons for our daily lives (e.g. avoid confrontation and division, love one’s fellow, study Torah, and await the messiah).  It is comforting to know that Hashem allowed the Western Wall to remain as a visible reminder of our eventual deliverance and to contemplate that the messiah was (or will be born) on Tisha B’Av.

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