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Tisha B'Av In The Fourth Century
By Prof. Meir Loewenberg, Bar-Ilan University
Many believe that the Jews abandoned the Temple Mount once the Roman armies destroyed the Temple in the year 70 CE. Jews would mourn for the ruined Temple and pray for its speedy rebuilding every day of the year, but especially on the anniversary day of the destruction, that is, on Tisha b'Av. While Diaspora Jews would assemble for prayer in their synagogues, Jerusalem Jews assembled on this day at their central worship site, at first on the Mount of Olives from where they had an unobstructed view of the Temple Mount and in later years, at the Wailing (Western) Wall.
However, there are two independent accounts, written almost 1800 years ago by non-Jewish observers, that describe in detail how Jerusalem Jews mourned for their ruined Temple on Tisha B'av. It is important to keep in mind the societal and cultural conditions under which 4th century Jews lived in Palestine. At the beginning of the century the Roman empire adopted Christianity as the state religion. This made life for those Jews who had remained in or near Palestine much more difficult. Under the influence of the Church fathers, Emperor Constantine renewed the edict that prohibited Jews from living in or even visiting Jerusalem. On only one day of the year were Jews allowed access to the Temple Mount – that day was Tisha b'Av, the anniversary of the day when the Second Temple was destroyed. Two Christian sources, written seventy years apart, describe this annual Tisha b'Av event on the Temple Mount.
The Pilgrim from Bordeaux, a Christian whose name we do not know, came on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 333. His travelogue, written in Latin, is the first and one of the very few from this period that survived. One of the Jerusalem sites that he described in some detail was the Temple Mount. He noted that it was a desolate place, but that some ruins of the Temple of Jupiter were still visible. He also saw the two statues of Hadrian that had been erected two hundred years earlier – one, an equestrian statue of Hadrian, and the other, a bust of the Emperor "raising up" the province kneeling before him. Near these statues the Pilgrim from Bordeaux observed a "perforated stone" which the Jews rub with oil once a year on Tisha b'Av. While standing in front of this stone he heard them recite Lamentations and saw that they tore their clothes as a sign of mourning. To this day Jews recite the Book of Lamentations on Tisha b'Av; and they also tear their clothes as a sign of mourning. But the custom of rubbing oil on the Foundation Stone (known in Hebrew as Even ha-Shetiyah) on Tisha b'Av is not known among contemporary Jews, nor is there any reference in any known Jewish source to there having been such a custom.
Almost seventy years after the Pilgrim from Bordeaux visited Jerusalem, a monk by the name of Jerome (347-420) moved from Rome to the Holy Land. He is known in the Christian world as the authorized translator of the Bible into Latin. Actually, he translated the Bible twice – the first time he did so while living in Rome at the Vatican; his first translation was from the Greek version, known as the Septuagint. He spent the last thirty-four years of his life in and near Bethlehem. Part of the time he lived in a cave southwest of that city. During those years he learned Hebrew from an apostate Jew and once again translated the Bible into Latin – this time from the original Hebrew. In his commentary on Zephaniah 1.6 he described the mourning practices of the Jews that he had observed on the Temple Mount on Tisha b'Av. He portrayed with evident relish how the Jews had to bribe Roman soldiers for permission to lament at their holy site, how a whole people came mourning, women feeble with age, old men burdened with years, etc. The Jews who came were pale and were weeping, their hair was disordered and their garments were torn and worn out. While they were wailing over the ruins of the Temple and blowing the shofar, the Roman soldiers came and demanded additional money to allow them to continue mourning.
Both reports agree that Jews would go up on the Temple Mount on Tisha b'Av and, most probably, whenever they were permitted to do so. Sixteen centuries later a British Royal Commission (1931) concluded its report with the observation that, "From and after the year 333 A.D. … there is a more or less continuous tradition about the Jews' devotions at the ruins of the Temple or its environs."
from the August 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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