Words, Order, and Tisha B’Av

Destruction of the First Temple, painting by Francesco Hayez. Credit: Wikipedia.

Destruction of the First Temple, painting by Francesco Hayez. Credit: Wikipedia.

By N.S. Palmer

One of Judaism’s deepest beliefs, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is “that God is to be found in words, that these words are to be found in the Torah …”1

That’s right in one way, but wrong in another.

Words are how we organize the world and make sense of our experience. To name something is to limit it, to divide it from other things. That’s why God’s first acts in the Book of Genesis are to divide things from each other: light from darkness, land from water, and units of time from each other. By doing so, He transforms chaos into order.

Historically, people have thought that names had some magical connection with what they named. To have someone’s name was to have power over that person. It’s one reason we do not utter the most holy name of God: to say the name would imply that we can limit God, circumscribe Him with our language and our concepts. We have no such power or authority, and we rightly refrain from claiming it.

Therefore, I suggest a clarification of Rabbi Sacks’s statement: We can find God in the words of the Torah, but not in the words themselves. Those words represent God as we understand Him, which isn’t much. God Himself — the Ayn Sof — lies beyond the words, beyond the order that we, through language, impose on our world to mitigate chaos.

You must look for God not in the words, but in the spaces between words; in the stillness between breaths; in the moments between moments. You will not understand what you find there, because no finite being can understand the infinite. But you will find God there. And He will speak to you, in soft tones, just a whisper, for which you must listen carefully in the silence. He will speak to you of love, and truth, and trust. Especially trust, because He knows that in this world, trust is one of the hardest things for small creatures like us to sustain. You can trust God even though you cannot understand Him.

But you have thus far trusted me to get to the point, so I must not let you down.

With words, we impose patterns on reality. Sometimes, the patterns are a good fit. Sometimes, they’re not. When that happens, we either must alter the pattern to make it fit the reality, alter the reality to make it fit the pattern, or alter what we say about the reality to make it fit the pattern. All three, I want to emphasize, are morally defensible strategies depending on the circumstances and the results.

Which brings us to Tisha B’Av. For non-Jewish readers, “Tisha” means “nine,” “be” means “in,” and “Av” is the name of the calendar month.

On Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of Av in the Jewish calendar, we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as several other tragedies that have befallen our people. It is interesting in a number of ways, not least in the fact that the tradition surrounding it is a four-tiered story whose truth resides in its results rather than in its foundations.

Tier 1: Time

In the world itself, there is simply time. There are no minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years. They do not exist. We make them up, including Tisha B’Av. Through our words, we impose our clock and our calendar on reality to help us make sense of life and to do things in a productive sequence. That’s Tier One of the story: Numbered days and years. Named months.

Tier 2: Pattern

Tradition says that at a recurring time we’ve named, Tisha B’Av, several great tragedies have befallen our people. They started in 1313 BCE with the Israelites’ failure to trust in God during the Exodus, for which they had wander 38 more years before entering the Promised Land.2

After that, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians on Tisha B’Av in 423 BCE, and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans on the same date in 70 CE. On Tisha B’Av in 1290 CE, our people were expelled from England, while in 1492, we were expelled from Spain.

Of course, there are messy details. As far as archaeology can determine, the 1313 event is a legend. The First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE instead of 423 BCE as claimed by the Talmud. Since the rabbis got the year wrong, the precision with which they identified the month and day is suspect at best. In England, there were only about 2,000 Jews, and our departure was mostly peaceful. In Spain, the expulsion edict came on March 31, which wasn’t Tisha B’Av, though the deadline for leaving was.

What seems to have happened is that the rabbis writing the Talmud3 knew the Second Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, but they weren’t sure exactly when the First Temple was destroyed. In their view, it would have made sense for both to be destroyed on the same date, and they could find some basis for that guess, so they assumed it was true and wrote it into the Talmud. Some other events kind of fit the pattern and kind of didn’t, but with a little effort, the rabbis managed to shoehorn them into it as being on the same date.

Tier 3: Explanation

Why does Tisha B’Av seem like such an unfortunate day? Explanations are in short supply, but some Orthodox rabbis say that “it’s clearly a day set aside by God for suffering.”4 They might be right, but it’s far from obvious why the Creator of the universe would choose a particular date from an arbitrary human calendar for such a thing.

Tier 4: Results

The results of observing Tisha B’Av are more fortunate than the events it remembers. In synagogue, we read from the Biblical Book of Lamentations. It’s a heart-rending account of the horror, suffering, and moral devastation that attended the destruction of the First Temple.

To contemplate such events is to experience the pain of one’s own people across the millennia. It is to grow in solidarity with them and with our contemporaries. It is to grow in compassion for the suffering of all God’s children everywhere. And it is to grow in our resolve to bring more love and justice into the world.

“A story told by English Jews, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a prominent nineteenth-century British politician who was walking near a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and heard wailing coming from inside. He looked in and was informed that the Jews were mourning the loss of their ancient Temple. Deeply impressed, the politician remarked, ‘A people who mourn with such intensity the loss of their homeland, even after two thousand years, will someday regain that homeland.'” 5

And it came to pass.

Works Cited

Sacks, Rabbi Lord Jonathan (2000), A Letter in the Scroll. Free Press, New York.

Telushkin, Joseph (2010), Jewish Literacy, second edition. Harper Collins, New York.


  1. Sacks, J. (2000), p. 39. 
  2. “What Happened on the Ninth of Av,” Chabad.org. 
  3. The Babylonian Talmud was completed in about 600 CE, while the Jerusalem Talmud was completed in about 450 CE. 
  4. “What Happened on the Ninth of Av,” Chabad.org. 
  5. Telushkin, J. (2010), p. 669. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Words, Order, and Tisha B’Av

  1. Pingback: De eerste christenen hun vieringen | Stepping Toes

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