The Saddest Day in Jewish History

(This article was written in response to an address by Penina Taylor to the Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 9 August 2008. Her address was entitled: “From destruction of the Temple to destruction of the soul”.)

The 9th day of Av is the day on which the Temple in Jerusalem was twice destroyed – at the time of the Babylonian captivity (about 630 BC) and then on the same calendar day about 700 years later. It is still commemorated as “the saddest day in Jewish history”. The Temple was first built by Solomon as the dwelling place of God among His people, the place where Israel could meet with God through acceptable worship. All the sacrifices prescribed by the Law had to be performed there. The first Temple was filled with theshechina (the visible presence of God) and sacrifices on the altar were consumed by a fire from heaven (2 Chron. 7:1).

The destruction of the Temple signified the removal of both God’s presence and of the means for atonement. The consequence of sin is death, (Rom. 6:23) and the atoning blood on the altar was given to men as the means by which to acknowledge this consequence before God (Lev. 17:11).

The exiles prayed towards the Temple (Daniel 6:10) – in the faithful hope that it would be restored as promised through the prophets (Jer. 33:10-11; Hag 2:9, etc.). The Temple was rebuilt by the returning exiles at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The priesthood was cleansed supernaturally to remove the guilt that Israel had accumulated in its many years without atonement (see Zechariah 3).

The post-exilic Temple was completely rebuilt by King Herod and his successors (tractateBaba Bathra 4a ; Josephus, Antiquities, Whiston translation, Book 15, ch. 11, par. 2 et seq.; John 2:20). This work was evidently undertaken in anticipation of Messiah’s coming and finally completed in about AD 64, six years before the Temple’s final destruction. The prescribed synagogue reading for the Sabbath before Tisha b’Av (the Shabbat haChatzon), is God’s denunciation of Israel at the outset of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 1:1-27). This passage begins:

‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel does not know; My people do not understand. Woe, sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, sons who corrupt! They have contemned the LORD; they have provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger; they have gone away backward’ (verses 3 and 4).

The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9a) offers these explanations for the destructions of the Temple:

Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three evil things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality [and] bloodshed … Bloodshed, as it is written: Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other … But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed … ? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause(in Hebrew, sinat chinam).

The term sinat chinam appears only once in the Old Testament, in a Psalm written by David to lament his persecution by Saul. 1. David was anointed by God to take the place of Saul, whom God had rejected on account of his disobedience (1 Sam.16:1; cf. Mat 21:43). This provoked the House of Saul to bitter envy and David was persecuted for many years before Saul was removed and David enthroned as the new king over Israel. These events have a clear parallel in Messiah, the Son of David, who deposed the useless shepherds described in Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34 and became Shepherd of Israel in their stead. Jesus was equally despised and rejected by the deposed religious order – which clung tenaciously to its abrogated power. The aforementioned psalm of David reads:

‘Cruel witnesses rose up; they asked of me that which I never knew. They rewarded me evil for good; bereaving my soul. But when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into my own bosom. As a friend, as to my brother, I walked; as one who mourns for a mother, I was bowed down, mourning. But in my stumbling they rejoiced, and gathered themselves; the defamers gathered themselves against me, and I knew not; they tore and were not silent, with the hypocrites, mockers …  they gnashed on me with their teeth. O LORD, how long will You look on? Rescue my soul from their ravages, my only one from the lions. I will give You thanks in the great congregation; I will praise You among a mighty people. Let not those who are my lying enemies rejoice over me, those who hate me without cause wink with the eye.’(Psalms 35:11-19)

In the Genesis account of Joseph, a similar hatred resulted when Joseph was chosen out of his brothers to work salvation for the House of Jacob –  causing him also to be despised and rejected, and sold to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28). In an apparent allusion to this incident, the Holy One asks of Israel: 2.

And I said to them, If it is good, give My price; and if not, let it go. So they weighed My price thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said to me, Throw it to the potter, the magnificent price at which I was valued by them. And I took the thirtypieces of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the LORD. (Zech. 11:12-13)
ואמר אליהם אם־טוב בעיניכם הבו שׂכרי ואם־לא חדלו וישׁקלו את־שׂכרי שׁלשׁים כסף׃

 ויאמר יהוה אלי השׁליכהו אל־היוצר אדר היקר אשׁר יקרתי מעליהם ואקחה שׁלשׁים הכסף ואשׁליך אתו בית יהוה אל־היוצר׃


The Talmud ascribes the unfounded hatred for which the second Temple was destroyed to a vendetta between two notable citizens of Jerusalem:

The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and Bar Kamza in this way: A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the host found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won’t. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform them against the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you. He said, How can you tell? He said to him: Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [for your well-being on the altar]. So he sent with him a fine calf. On the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah ben Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar. (Gittin 55b – 56a)

It appears that the Talmudic account is a coded reference to a more important rift that had developed within Judaism by that time, namely that between the growing body of Messianic believers and the religious establishment that despised and rejected the One whom God had appointed as the nation’s Redeemer and Saviour, and anointed as its eternal King. After revealing the radiance and fullness of God in human form (Heb 1:3; Col 2:9), Jesus “poured out his life unto death” (Isaiah 53:12), “as a ransom for many” who had broken the Sinai covenant and were thus deserving of God’s wrath in his stead (Mat. 20:28). It was this very act of unmerited love (ahavat chinam) that contrasts the intense and unmerited hatred of those who rejected him. For their cummulative sins under the Sinai Covenant, culminating in the condemnation unto death of King Messiah, the punishments of AD70 were poured out, and the Temple in Jerusalem was wholly consumed.

The consequence was that the means of atonement provided under the Sinai Covenant was forever removed. In the typology of King Saul, the institutions of Judaism which God had already rejected at the advent of Messiah were now brought to their consummate end.

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Ta’anith 29a), the Levites were on both occasions, just before the Temple was taken, reciting the words of the ninety-forth Psalm: “And He hath brought upon them their own iniquity; and will cut them off in their own evil. The LORD our God shall cut them off.” 3.

What a stark contrast to that glorious vision in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, that God “has laid on him the iniquity of us all … He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of My people he was stricken” (verses 6 & 8). How providential the affirmation, at the hand of the Eternal and Almighty, of the oft quoted words of Rabbi Eliyya de Vidas (AD1575): “The meaning of ‘He was wounded for our transgressions,. . .bruised for our iniquities,’ is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.”

In this, then, we have the explanation of sinat chinam – the unfounded hatred directed against him who loved his people even unto of death. This hatred has survived and even intensified in modern times. Jesus is commonly referred to by the Rabbis as ‘Yeshu’ – a perversion of his Hebrew name ‘Yeshua’ and an acronym denoting: “may his name and memory be obliterated”.

For obvious reasons, the rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple will be the ultimate step in achieving this objective of obliterating his name:

  • Jesus was vindicated as a true prophet when his prophecies concerning the destruction of the Temple were literally fulfilled (Mat 24, Luke 21; cf. Josephus, War of the Jews, particularly Books 5 and 6 of Whiston’s translation;). Unlike Jeremiah before him – who was initially hated for prophesying the Temple’s destruction, but later accepted as God’s messenger when his predictions were fulfilled – Jesus was never accepted by the rabbinical majority, even after his prophecies were fulfilled in exact detail (cf. Deut 18: 20-22).
  • The desecrated Temple Mount bears a continuing and ever present testimony to Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice as the ONLY means of atonement by which men may now obtain forgiveness and entrance into the presence of God.

The rebuilding of a temple ediface would be the ultimate step in vindicating Jewish unbelief, in usurping the new covenant Temple made up of living stones, and in scorning the gift of Messiah’s blood. If this should ever happen it will surely surpass Tisha b’Av as the saddest day in Jewish history, and herald in the final judgment that will close the mortal age.

1. Psalm 35:19, cited below. “… internal evidence seems to fix the date of [this Psalm’s] composition in those troublous times when Saul hunted David over hill and dale, and when those who fawned upon the cruel king, slandered the innocent object of his wrath.” Thesaurus of David, commentary on Psalm 35.
2. Compare the New Testament account of the betrayal of Messiah in Matthew 26:14-16, etc.
3. These words come from the twenty third (and final) verse of Psalm 94.