Judea and "The City" were Temporarily Silenced

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Jul 20, 2018

During this past week, known as the Nine Days, the mourning period preceding Tisha B’av, I arrived at Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan as I normally do. The trajectory I take to exit the station takes me past an area where musical artists often perform during the morning rush. I often walk right by, but this week, there was a string quartet playing “Hey Jude” by the Beatles. It was really beautiful. It appeared that the musicians were teens. A crowd gathered around them, part in support of their love of the arts, and also partially because the tune was catchy and well known. I wanted to stop and join them in the famous melodic chorus, which, like a nigun, has no words (until the words “Hey Jude”). But I didn’t. I looked at my feet, and continued on my way because, during the Nine Days, live music is inconsistent with our focus on the national tragedies we recall during this time of year.

The Talmud relates five different incidents throughout history that occurred on Tisha B’av for which we fast.

"בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ, וחרב הבית בראשונה ובשניה, ונלכדה ביתר, ונחרשה העיר" (תענית כ"ו:)

“On the 9th[of Av] the decree against our ancestors preventing them from entering the Land of Israel was enacted; and the first and second Temples were destroyed; and the city of Beitar was conquered; and the city was plowed over”(Ta’anis 26b)

The first four tragic events on this Mishnaic list are fairly well documented. The fifth one is more ambiguous. The Tana’itic text does not even mention which city was plowed over. Most people identify Tisha B’av with the destruction of the Temples. Many who have studied further know its precursor, the horrific attempted coup of the scouts Moshe sent into Canaan. The story of Beitar is also well known and documented in the Talmud, the final nail on the coffin of Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel.

But what is this about a city being plowed over?

It’s fair to assume it refers to Jerusalem. When a text states, “The City” it’s not referring to Manhattan, as so many of my fellow commuters to Penn Station assume when they hear those words together. Jerusalem is the only city for Jews that can be identified as The City.

So the question remains when did this plowing take place? Rashi understands it to be a plowing after the destruction of the First Temple, whereas the Tur assumes the plowing referenced took place after the destruction of the Second Temple. We (as was Rashi) are also aware of the famous passage where Rabbi Akiva laughs upon seeing a plowed-over Temple Mount with foxes trotting over it. His colleagues wept when seeing the depths of destruction and asked their illustrious friend why he displayed such irreverence. He famously cited a Scriptural verse that foretold the destruction of the Temple Mount. “If the first tragic verse was realized,” he reasoned, “the prophetic passages about redemption will too become true.”

Certain history from the period, to which Rashi may not have had access, (the Tur lived centuries after Rashi) seems to support that “plowing of the city” refers to the Second Temple. Josephus (Jewish War 7:1:1) testified that the city of Jerusalem was so devastated by the Roman invasion that one would never have assumed that the city was once inhabited.

In the year 130 CE, Emperor Hadrian entertained the notion of rebuilding Jerusalem and even the Temple. When he visited the ruins of “The City” he changed his mind, vowing to build a Roman city there, which would include a pagan temple at the spot of the Bais Hamikdash. He delegated the job to the region’s governor, Turnus Rufus, whom the Talmud mentions several times as having conversations with Rabbi Akiva (Bava Basra 10a and Sanhedrin 65b). When Rufus began plowing over the Temple, the Jews were incensed and intensified the rebellion against Rome. This rebellion, led by Shimon Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva, led to the murder of the ten sages of the day, the decimation of the Jews in the Land of Israel, and the ultimate fall of Beitar. Enraged by the rebellion, Hadrianre named Jerusalem Aelia Capitalina (Aelia referenced his name Publius Aelius Hadrianus; Capitalina was a tribute to the Roman god Jupiter Capitolina).

So what does “The City was plowed” refer to? If it referred to the physical plowing over of the Temple, which occurred before the fall of Beitar, why does the Mishnah place the plowing after the fall of Beitar? The rabbis in the Mishnah lived through the events. Certainly they knew the proper chronology!

Plowing of the city refers to something else. It refers to uprooting Jerusalem’s connection to the Jews. Hadrian uprooted the term “Judea” from the map. He changed the name of the province known as Judaea, - which was named such, obviously, due to its unbreakable and obvious tie to the Jewish people - to “Syria Palaestinia.” Perhaps someone can enlighten me, but from the research I’ve done, Palestine was a term to describe another part of the Middle East, used in the 5th century BCE by the Greek Historian Herodotus. To the best of my knowledge it was not used until Herod’s government renamed the area, as a punishment to the Jews.

 Rabbi Soloveitchik addressed the fifth tragedy of the plowing. His words are captured so eloquently in the book edited by my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, “The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways: Reflections on the Tish’ah be-Av Kinot”, pp. 238-239.

What does it mean when we say that “the city was plowed up?” (Ta’anis 26b)? After the collapse of the insurrection of Bar Kochba, they changed the name of the city and plowed up its surface in order to wipe out every physical trace that once upon a time the Beit Hamikdash had stood there. There is historical evidence that whoever it was, Christians or Byzanties, tried very hard to remove the makom hamikdash(location of the Temple) from the map. There is a story (whether it is historically true or not I do not know) abut a famous decree issued by some ruler that the makom hamikdash should become the dumping ground for Jerusalem. They tried very hard to erase Jerusalem not only from actual history but from the memory of the people.

That is why, as we have already mentioned, a few leading Jewish scholars who visited Eretz Yisrael, among them theRambam, do not mention the Western Wall. The Rambam writes something very enigmatic, very puzzling. Describing his visit to Jerusalem, he writes, “I entered into the big house (le-bayit hagadol) to pray in it (l’hitpallel bo).” What bayit hagadol? What is l’hitpallel bo? What does this mean? Is it easy to walk into the Beit Hamikdash? After all, today we ae all ritually impure; we would be liable to the penalty of karet (excision). We do not know whether the phrase is genuine, but, in any case, the Rambam mentions nothing about the Western Wall. Then he writes that he is going to Hebron to dig a grave for himself near the Me’arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs). That he does write, but nothing about the Western Wall! Where did it disappear to? Apparently, for many generations, it was invisible because it was designated as a dumping ground, and it disappeared under the trash and garbage of the Christian and Arab populations. Go trust them with the Western Wall!

But they did not succeed. They did not succeed! The Beit Hamikdash may have been destroyed, but we continue to remember it. Jerusalem is still a living city in our consciousness. Our memory is excellent as concerns Jerusalem and the makom hamikdash. We know many things about Jerusalem that would be impossible to know about any other city in the world. Unlike Shiloh, Jerusalem was not and never will be removed or erased from the collective memory of the Jewish people.

Hadrian did not plow for military or landscaping motives. When the Romans plowed over Jerusalem, they wanted The City to be silent. In Hebrew silence and plowing share a root (ch.r.sh). When the Mishnah says “nechresha ha’ir,” the city was plowed, it could also mean, metaphorically, that The City became silent. It was not heard from. It seemed to be buried.

This week is not a time for consolation; that happens after Tisha B’av. But let me point out that centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah (62:1) declared that we will never be silent over Jerusalem.

"למען ציון לא אחשה ולמען ירושלם לא אשקוט..." (ישעיה ס"ב:א)

“For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not rest”

The commentary, Metzudas David, writes, that the prophet declares that the lack of silence is due to the humiliation of Jerusalem, which was destroyed to its foundations” (see the amazing Targum on this verse, which explicitly mentions the future redemption.)

Jews were barred by the Romans from living in Aelia Capitolina. Jews were once again able to live in The City from 637 until 1099, when the Crusaders conquered her. Jews moved back in 1187, but the community was terminated in 1260 when the Tartars conquered her. Ramban’s move to Jerusalem renewed its Jewish presence in 1267, which stood strong until 1948, when the Old City and East Jerusalem were lost to Jordan. Only in 1967 was The City re-united (courtesy of “Day by Day in Jewish History” by Rabbi Abraham Bloch).

Paraphrasing Dickens, Jerusalem today lives simultaneously in its greatest and most challenging time. While we finally see the US Embassy in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel (even according to the United States and other countries!), we also read about Birthright participants who go to Israel, just to protest her policies. We see unparalleled support in Congress for Israel, yet worry about BDS movements in Europe and yes, now more and more emerging from the US, attempting to cripple The City. Just this week we encountered resistance to Knesset legislation affirming Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people” medinat hale’um hayehudi in Hebrew.

We must never underestimate the will of those who desire to plow over us, whether our history, our land, or our faith. Hadrian was hardly the first, and most certainly will not be the last. At the Seder (and Pesach has so many parallels to Tisha B’av) we declare how our enemies emerge in every generation.

Let us spend time this Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night) and Sunday contemplating the scourge of this reality, the ultimate humiliation of trying to silence us. May we learn from this introspection and resolve to never allow anyone to attempt to make us disappear. Those attempts are why we mourn this Tisha B’av.



The Mishnah mentions 5 sources for fasting on Tisha B'av, the last one being that, "The City was plowed over." What city is this referring to? What time period? More importantly, can 'nechresha ha'ir,' be understood differently, offering a valuable Tisha B'av lesson about our eternal holy city.

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