Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When Do We Celebrate Tisha B'Av?

All of the fast days (except Ta'anis Esther and Yom Kippur) commemorate various stages in the loss of Jewish independence in Israel. Presumably because of this, the prophet Zecharia (8:25) says that these fast days will be turned into holidays that we celebrate. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18b) explains that there are three stages in these fast days that are not necessarily chronological and may recur in cycles:

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  1. When there is peace -- the days must be celebrated
  2. When there is oppression of Jews -- the days are obligatory as fasts
  3. When there is neither peace nor oppression -- the days are optional fast days (based on the decision of the community as a whole)
As Jews were in exile over the centuries, the universal tradition was to fast for these days even when there was no oppression, although sadly there was no shortage of oppression. However, given the events of the past century, we need to define peace in order to evaluate whether we are still allowed to fast. It is conceivable that, despite the ongoing battles with terrorists in Israel, we have arrived at a time when there is sufficient peace for us to be obligated to celebrate these days. This is not necessarily a theological statement about messianic redemption. Perhaps the cycles are not even over. But if right now there is peace, as defined by the Talmud, then right now we must celebrate these days.

Rashi (sv. she-yesh shalom) defines peace as national independence: "שאין יד הגויים תקיפה על ישראל -- that the hand of the Gentile nations does not dominate on the Jews". It seems to me that Israel's independence as a Jewish country is sufficient to qualify for this limited definition. However, Rabbenu Chananel (ad loc.) and the Ramban (Toras Ha-Adam in Kol Kisvei Ha-Ramban vol. 2 p. 243) write that the definition of peace is that the Temple in Jerusalem is standing (the Rashbatz in Tashbetz 2:271 also takes this position). On first glance, it seems that we have two positions in the Rishonim -- according to Rashi we must celebrate these days as holidays and according to the Ramban we must mourn and fast on them.

However, it seems to me that there is more to Rashi than meets the eye. In a previous comment on the page (sv. de-amar), Rashi says that these fast days apply nowadays when there is no Temple. Why does he mention the Temple at all? I think that Rashi has two qualifications for peace -- we need both national independence and the Temple. So, for example, during the Second Commonwealth when there were long periods of Roman domination of Israel while the Temple was still standing, according to Rashi the Jews should have fasted on those days. In fact, the Ritva (ad loc., sv. u-parkinan) explicitly states that there are two requirements -- peace and the Temple. Similarly, the Rambam, in his commentary on the associated Mishnah, writes that in the times of the Second Temple, these fast days were generally optional. In other words, there was no peace but there was also no oppression.

However, the Meiri clearly requires only national independence. He does not mention any requirement of having a Temple.

I would suggest, then, that according to almost all Rishonim, fasting on these days is still optional (for the community, which accepts it as a standard). We have one requirement for celebration -- independence -- but are still lacking the other -- the Temple in Jerusalem.

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