A New Jewish Holiday: Assarah B’Av

The destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.

“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem” (1867), by Francesco Hayez, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Venice.

…at least that’s my proposal in this week’s cover story for  Los Angeles Jewish Journal: What Are You Doing For Assarah B’Av?

Here’s the lead:

The time has come for us to acknowledge the dirty little secret of Tisha B’Av: the destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.

I’d be interested in your comments.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

14 thoughts on “A New Jewish Holiday: Assarah B’Av”

  1. Pedant that I am (hey, this is Judaism, what do you expect?), I must point out that traditionally, some (all?) of the “Nine Days” restrictions, such as not eating meat, actually continue to be in force through noon of Assarah b’Av, because the Temple kept burning into the following day.

    So without commenting on the merits of the proposed holiday itself, I would suggest rescheduling it to י״א אב.

  2. Hi Seth —

    True, but that's a custom, not a law. Or at least so Sacks says. Actually, I think that not eating meat SHOULD be part of Assarah B'Av celebrations, as a partial atonement for the needless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals. I'd propose communal vegan feasts. Rami Shapiro argues that Judaism prefers vegetarianism anyway, so that fits as well.

  3. And Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi introduced the concept of eco-kosher, where part of kashrut of food is how it was produced; kosher certification alone is not considered sufficient. The effects of the food production on the environment and the way the workers in the industry are treated count as important criteria as well.

  4. Well, yes, the Rambam did write that bit about the korbanot, but he also discussed the laws for sacrifices in excruciating detail in Mishneh Torah. What I think the article doesn't really discuss is the way rabbinic Judaism maintains its flexibility precisely through its claim of formal continuity with the preexisting religion. Judaism is now a religion of study and prayer, yes, but it's a religion that studies when a woman's claim that she's divorced is trustworthy enough that she's not deserving of death for remarrying, a religion that prays for the restoration of theocracy (השיבה שופטינו כבראשונה) and Temple sacrifices.

    I'm glad to see, though, that non-Orthodox Jews are increasing their engagement with the Talmud. I'd be interested to see how they react to the rather disturbing conclusion to the Rabbi Akiva story you quoted.

  5. RK —

    For what it's worth, in my experience, the reaction of most of them to the story of Akiva's flesh being weighed out in the meat market is to engage more with Talmud. The power of that story is God's admission that He is NOT going to provide the answer to the question of theodicy. We need to find that ourselves — or perhaps create it. I view it as very empowering, while of course simultaneously horrifying. Too many young Jews experience Judaism on a sort of elementary school level, because that's the way they got it. Aggadah certainly does not do that.

    Your other points are well-taken; it's an article, not a thesis. My own response would be that by celebrating Assrah B'Av, we would also be maintaining flexibility by a claim of formal continuity — I'm proposing it being a Hag Ha-Talmud, after all. Obviously, we cannot whitewash the tradition by insisting that every part of it conforms to modern liberal values — that would be not only dishonest but robbing the tradition of much of its power. Yet its beauty is that one can turn it, and turn it, "for everything is in it." (Avot 5:26) Adhering to the tradition is by studying it.

  6. This discussion made me wish I were Jewish too, until I remembered I'd never be let in, since I'm Catholic. (If I were starting from scratch, of course, the Church wouldn't take me either.)(And who could blame them? ; > There is an advantage to getting dunked at a young age before you get old enough to cause trouble.)

    It's kind of funny how often this same question turns up — in Constitutional law, in Christian theology, I guess any area where there's a text. And I guess this explains a bit why so many of Jesus' parables are so puzzling, and why so many Christians seem to ignore Him in favor of St. Paul or the Old Testament. He just wasn't very convenient in a lot of ways. And for a lot of us, that tradition of asking questions has become lost. I mean, I assume we had it at some point? I have a friend who used to tell me which 3rd or 4th century heretical Christian sect I was a member of that day. Big fun! Maybe the problem is that I don't hang out with enough Jesuits.

    Anyway, it sounds like a lovely holiday. And I think God must be very proud. How lovely to have a religion where you can come up with new/old traditions. Yes, I admit it, a bit jealous over here.

  7. I haven't read the article yet, but let me say, yes, it was a good thing. But there can be too much of a good thing. And other peoples need to learn these lessons too; we shouldn't be selfish.

  8. @NCG

    This discussion made me wish I were Jewish too, until I remembered I’d never be let in, since I’m Catholic

    Well, of course you'd be let into the discussion, if you had something to say; indeed, the whole point (well, one point) of the story Jonathan relates early in his article is that qualifications, even God's qualifications, aren't enough to let someone dictate the result of a discussion – they have to influence the discussion through convincing argument (I could be wrong here, of course: it bothers me that the rabbi didn't let God make his argument and then let everyone weigh its merits, instead of just telling God to butt out).

    And if for some reason you wanted to become Jewish, well that's possible too, although it's not meant to be easy or even necessarily to be desirable.

  9. Sorry, my previous comment came out more harshly than I meant it to. I wish the new holiday all the best, though as someone on the Orthodox side of the mechitza, I can't join in.

    By the way, it's true, as mentioned above, that the practice of maintaining the mourning restrictions until chatzos on the tenth of Av is minhag, not law. (The Sephardic custom is actually to maintain them for all of 10 Av.) But it's based on the opinion quoted in the Gemara (tractate Ta'anis) that the fast should have been instituted on the 10th, since that's the day on which most of the destruction actually took place.

  10. Warren, in the story, God actually does get a line in: יצתה בת קול ואמרה: מה לכם אצל רבי אליעזר שהלכה כמותו בכל מקום, "There came down a voice from heaven and it said: 'Why do you all dispute with R. Eliezer, as the halakha agrees with him everywhere?'" Not the most cogent argument (though God at least should be allowed an occasional argument from authority), but it gives R. Joshua the opportunity to stand up and deliver the famous line: Lo bashamayim hi, it is not in heaven! (from Deuteronomy 30:12, but used in a somewhat different context).

  11. Yes, I was talking about conversion, which I can't imagine would ever be allowed as things stand. But you're right, anyone can check out the books at the library (I assume). It all does sound pretty interesting.

  12. @Ed Whitney,

    and, some years ago, a Boston beth din ruled that produce harvested under conditions unjust to the migrant workers doing the harvesting was to be regarded as though treyf. They did this at the urging of Cesar Chavez to persuade the Stop & Shop chain, then owned by observant Jews, to honour the UFW boycott. Stop & Shop did so, thereby solving the first mover problem, and most other grocery chains then fell into line. I am not remotely religious, indeed fairly anti-religious, but I like to recall this story, both because what the rabbonim did was right and just on its own terms, and to remind me, in a world that needs such reminding, that religion can work for the good even if it is not in any objective sense true.

    Of course, I am not Jewish, and it is always easier to think well of religious people from traditions other than one's own. So I point out here, as a gesture of penance, that Richard Cushing, the RC archbishop of Boston, once did the Jews of Massachusetts a good turn. The Mass lege was considering "blue laws" requiring shops be closed on the Christian sabbath. Observnat Jewish merchants protested that this put them at a competitive disadvantage: their religious law bade them keep closed on the Jewish sabbath when non-Jews could trade freely, the laws of the (ostensibly) secular state would now bid them be shut a second day as well. Mass pols' response was "suck it up, losers". So a delegation from the Jewish community visited Cushing to explain their problem. Cushing, there and then, phoned down to the State House while the lege was in session and told the Speaker that the law's effect was unconscionable. The Speaker did as he was told. It is, of course, a scandal that a shaman should have such influence in a secular polity. That being the unfortunate case, however, Cushing was a good man for doing what he did.

    @RK,

    I love that story! It is the single most honest utterance in the history of religious thought. (And, IIRC, God Himself was a good sport about it.)

  13. @NCG

    Sorry, what do you mean? It isn't any harder for Catholics to convert to Judaism than anyone else.

  14. As per the rabbinic requirement, I have re-read the Book of Lamentations this Tisha b'Av. I cannot disagree with Professor Zasloff on his argument that rabbinic Judaism, rather than sacrificial service, is the glory of Israel. The notion that the holy Temple's destruction is "one of the best things that ever happened to the Jewish people", while rather shocking, may be a rhetorical device. Even if it is not, although one might quarrel with the superlative, one has to admit that a Judaism which emphasizes moral behavior and the getting of wisdom seems preferable to one which emphasizes animal sacrifice. Having said that, however, there are a few other points to make.

    I note, for instance, that Lamentations mourns that "there is no more teaching" (Chapter 2, verse 9), among other things. Granted, that lament appears only once, but it still appears more often than any mention of the Temple's destruction. Mention of gold and scarlet and other treasure we find in plenty, and all those items were found in the Temple, but the Temple itself gets not a word. Evidently, Jeremiah (or whoever actually wrote the book) agrees with Professor Zasloff that learning and the getting of wisdom is preferable to animal sacrifice.

    If the author of Lamentations seems comparatively indifferent to the destruction of the Temple, what is he so worked up about? This is clear from the text. It's the human suffering and the loss of Israel's independence, in approximately equal measures, that he finds devastating. What's more, he realizes that it is Israel's own sins – its departure from a righteous life and unwillingness to correct itself – that brought this on, and this is almost unbearable. On the other hand, it gives him some hope that the future might be brighter, and a hint as to how that might be. If we submit quietly to this horror for a time, and use it to reform, we might be happy again.

    In short, what we remember at this season is not the loss of the sacrificial service (although there are those who say that the service will return in the coming Messianic age). Rather, it is the independence of Israel under the rule of God's law that we miss. If my experience is any indication, most synagogue services for Tisha b'Av follow that emphasis to this day, regardless of the particular strain of Judaism.

    None of this contradicts a word of Professor Zasloff's argument, of course. I find his apparent contempt for the sacrificial service troubling; as has been pointed out by far greater commentators than me, giving up a part of one's substance in such a visceral way had its uses, such as providing an immediate opportunity to acknowledge the source of one's wealth and a visual, maybe shocking, illustration of sin's consequences. Evidently, as Professor Zasloff points out, God did not find the sacrifices necessary for very long – God certainly would not have declined to rebuild the Temple for this long if the sacrificial service were of any critical importance. I repeat, it is not the loss of the sacrificial service that we mourn at this time; rather, we grieve over the manner in which God removed it, brought on by our sins, and the consequent loss of life, dignity and nationhood that accompanied it.

    I commend Professor Zasloff for his careful suggestion that we add a new celebration without disregarding the old. It would have been all too easy for him to dismiss Tisha b'Av as old-fashioned or misguided; clearly he has more respect than that. A little more of that respect might go a long way toward bringing back the Jewish unity whose loss we mourn at this season.

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