Tisha B'Av: On What Day Were the Jerusalem Temples Destroyed?
Traditional Significance of Tisha B’Av
The 9th of Av is described in Rabbinic Jewish sources as the day on which both temples were destroyed. It has been observed as a day of fasting and mourning by Jews for millennia, and seems to have biblical roots going back to the Babylonian exile, since the early restoration period prophet Zechariah mentions “the fast of the 5th month (=Av)” among a group of four fasts, presumably mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, that will become celebrations in the redemptive future:
זכריה ח:יט כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת צוֹם הָרְבִיעִי וְצוֹם הַחֲמִישִׁי וְצוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וְצוֹם הָעֲשִׂירִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵית יְהוּדָה לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחָה וּלְמֹעֲדִים טוֹבִים וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם אֱהָבוּ.
Zech 8:19 Thus said YHWH of Hosts: “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the 5th month, the fast of the 7th month, and the fast of the 10th month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.”
Zechariah never says what each of these fasts is for, or the day in the month that they are observed, but according to several Rabbinic traditions, noted below, this fast is on the 9th day of Av—Tisha B’Av.
A Providential Day
The Mishnah piles even more tragedies onto this date (Ta’anit4:6):
חמשה דברים אירעו את אבותינו בשבעה עשר בתמוז וחמשה בתשעה באב….
Five events took place for our fathers on the 17th of Tammuz and five on the 9th of Av….
On the 9th of Av:
נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ
וחרב הבית בראשונה
Our ancestors were punished by being forbidden to enter the land [after the sin of the spies] (Num 14).
The First Temple was destroyed.
So too the Second [Temple].
Betar [Bar Kochba’s capital] was captured. The city [of Jerusalem] was plowed [by Hadrian to turn it into a pagan city].
Although the list presents disasters that occurred on this date, it is more likely that the rabbis are beginning with one well-known event and date and are piling these other events onto that date to express the divine providence behind it and show God’s hand in history as one who punishes Israel for their sins. As Numbers 14 offers no date at all for the story of the spies, and the final three tragedies all took place in the Second Temple period or later, the central event is likely the destruction of the First Temple, which was already mourned in exilic times during Av.
The Seder Olam Rabbah (Milikovsky ed.), an early rabbinic text that offers an overview of Jewish history, lists only the destruction of the two Temples, emphasizing how this day was providentially chosen for the destruction of the Second Temple to exactly match the First (ch. 30):
היה ר’ יוסי או’ מגלגלין זכות ליום זכות וחובה ליום חובה. כשחרב הבית בראשונה אותו היום מוצאי שבת היה ומוצאי שביעי(ת) היתה, ומשמרתו של יהויריב היתה, ותשעה באב היה. וכן בשנייה.
R. Yossi would say: Merit is pushed off till a day of merit, and reckoning to a day of reckoning. When the First Temple was destroyed, it was the night after Shabbat, it and was the year after a Sabbatical year, and it was the service time of the Yehoyariv family, and it was the 9th of Av. The same is true of the Second [Temple’s destruction].
The point here is that not only did the dates match, but even the day of the week, the place of the year in the seven-year cycle, and the priestly family doing the service in the Temple for that week matched.
An Unlucky Time
Moreover, the rabbis also seem to be working with a concept of “bad-luck” days. For example, without making it prohibited, the rabbis encourage the practice of not working on Tisha be’Av (m. Pesachim 4:5, b. Berakhot 17b). One comment in the Geonic period “small tractate” Derekh Eretz (“HaYoetzei” 10) states:
העושה מלאכה בתשעה באב אינו רואה סימן ברכה לעולם.
One who does business on Tisha B’Av will never see any benefit from it.
The 16th century law code, Shulḥan Arukh (OḤ 551:1), states explicitly that doing any work from the beginning of the month of Av until after Tisha B’Av is “bad luck”  (ריע מזליה). Many contemporary (Ashkenazi) Orthodox Jews avoid travel or anything “dangerous” for the entire three-week period from the fast of the 17th of Tammuz through the fast of Tisha b’Av, which is referred to as “between the straights” (בין המיצרים).
Biblical Depictions of the Destruction of the First Temple
Even though Tisha B’Av ostensibly entered the Jewish calendar as the anniversary of the destruction of the First Temple, according to the Bible, this destruction did not occur on the 9thof Av.
The destruction of the Temple is described in two parallel sources, 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52. Although identical in many other respects, these sources give contradictory dates for the Temple’s destruction, and neither mentions the 9th of Av:
|2 Kings 25||Jeremiah 52|
|25:8 On the 7th day of the 5th month — that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon — Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, an officer of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. 25:9 He burned the House of YHWH, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he burned down the house of every notable person. 25:10The entire Chaldean force that was with the chief of the guard tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side.||52:12 On the 10th day of the 5th month — that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon — Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, came to represent the king of Babylon in Jerusalem. 52:13 He burned the House of YHWH, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he burned down the house of every notable person. 52:14The entire Chaldean force that was with the chief of the guards tore down all the walls of Jerusalem on every side.|
כה:ח וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי בְּשִׁבְעָה לַחֹדֶשׁהִיא שְׁנַת תְּשַׁע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה לַמֶּלֶךְ נְבֻכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בָּא נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב טַבָּחִים עֶבֶד מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל יְרוּשָׁלִָם. כה:טוַיִּשְׂרֹף אֶת בֵּית יְ-הוָה וְאֶת בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֵת כָּל בָּתֵּי יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְאֶת כָּל בֵּית גָּדוֹל שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ. כה:י וְאֶת חוֹמֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם סָבִיב נָתְצוּ כָּל חֵיל כַּשְׂדִּים אֲשֶׁר רַב טַבָּחִים.
נב:יב וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁהִיא שְׁנַת תְּשַׁע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה לַמֶּלֶךְ נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בָּא נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב טַבָּחִים עָמַד לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בִּירוּשָׁלִָם.נב:יג וַיִּשְׂרֹף אֶת בֵּית יְ-הוָה וְאֶת בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֵת כָּל בָּתֵּי יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְאֶת כָּל בֵּית הַגָּדוֹל שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ. נב:יד וְאֶת כָּל חֹמוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם סָבִיב נָתְצוּ כָּל חֵיל כַּשְׂדִּים אֲשֶׁר אֶת רַב טַבָּחִים.
As these two sources are almost identical, it is likely that one copied from the other, or, what is more likely, both copied from a third source. Either way, the dates should be identical as well, and the fact that they are not is likely due to a copyist error. Since the text of Kings 25 is corrupt in a number of places, it seems that the text in Jeremiah better reflects the original.
In contrast to most manuscripts of the MT and standard recension of LXX, the BHS reports that two MT manuscripts and the Lucianic recension of the LXX all read 9th here instead of 7th. The same is true for the Syriac Peshitta. Nevertheless, this probably does not reflect an ancient variant, but rather corrections by Jewish scribes to fit what is reported in Kings with the rabbinic tradition about Tisha B’Av.
In addition to 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52, the destruction of the Temple is also described briefly in Jeremiah 39:8(though this is missing from the LXX) and in the book of Chronicles (2 Chron 36:17-19), but neither of these sources offers any date at all for the destruction, though the passage in Jeremiah does offer dates for other events leading up to the destruction.
Two Av Fast Days: The Karaite Practice
In keeping with their general approach of tailoring their practice to the biblical text, the Karaites accept both the text in Kings and the text in Jeremiah as authoritative, and keep two fasts in Av, one on the 7th and one on the 10th. This requires them to understand “the fast of the 5th month” in Zechariah as “the fasts of the 5th month.” Thus, the Karaite sage Aaron ben Elijah (c.1328-1369) in his halachic work, Gan Eden (“Laws of Yom Kippur, ch. 5), writes:
והצום החמישי הוא חדש אב שנאמר בחדש החמישי בשבעה לחדש היא שנת תשע עשרה שנה למלך נבוכדנצר ובחדש זה עצמו נאמר ובעשור לחדש, ונראה כי בשביעי התחילו באשר סביבו ויום העשירי התחילו בבית עצמו, כי אחרי שני המאמרים אומר וישרוף את בית ה’. והנה צריך לצום אלה שני הימים.
“The fast of the 5th” (Zech 8:19) – this refers to the month of Av, as it says (2 Kings 25:8): “On the 7th day of the 5th month — that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar…” But regarding this same month, it says (Jer 52:12): “…on the 10th of the month…” It would seem that on the 7th of the month, they started [burning] the area surrounding it (the Temple), whereas on the 10th they burned the Temple itself, since both passages end with “and he burned the Temple of the Lord” (2 Kings 25:9, Jer 52:13). Thus, it is necessary to fast on both of these days.
This same interpretation appears in the Adderet Eliyahu of the Turkish Karaite scholar, Elijah Bashyazi (ca. 1420-1480),who adds (“Laws of Yom Kippur, ch. 3):
וקצת מן החרדים על דבר ה’ המתאבלים על שבר ציון וירושלים מתענים ארבעה ימים בחדש החמישי שהם משבעה בו עד עשרה בו.
Some of those who tremble (chareidim) about the word of God, who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem, fast for four days on the 5th month, from the 7th until the 10th.
This Karaite practice for the extra-pious, to fast a four-day fast, highlights the problem with the rabbinic practice, which seems to ignore both biblical dates for the destruction. In theory, the question should be whether to fast on the 7th, the 10th, or both – but why fast on the 9th?
A Three-Day Event: Rabbinic Resolution
The rabbis were well aware of this problem and searched in the biblical text for ways to defend the rabbinic practice. The Babylonian Talmud suggests the following (b. Ta’anit 29a; MS Munich 140):
ותניא: אי איפשר לומ’ שבעה שכבר נאמ’ בעשרה, ואי איפשר לומ’ בעשרה שכבר נאמ’ בשבעה.
It was taught: It is impossible to say “seven” because it already says “ten” (in Jer 52). It is impossible to say “ten” since it already says “seven” (in 2 Kings 25).
הא כאיצד? בשבעה בו נכנסו גוים להיכל ואכלו ושתו וקירקרו בו [שביעי] שמיני ותשיעי, עד שפנה היום, שנ’ אוי לנו כי פנה היום כי ינטו צללי ערב. לעיתותי ערב הציתו בו את האור ונשרף עם שקיעת החמה ובעשור לחדש.
How can this be? On the 7th of the month, the gentiles entered the Temple. They ate, and drank, and raised a riot on the [7th,] 8th, and 9th, until the day was about to end, as it says (Jer 6:4): “Alas for us! for day is declining, the shadows of evening grow long.” In the late afternoon, they lit flames within it, and it burned with the setting of the sun, and on the 10th of the month.
To support both dates in the biblical text, the rabbis imagine a four-day period extending from the 7th to the 10th in which the destruction occurred. Moreover, to ensure that the 9th itself has significance, they claim that the Babylonians set the Temple aflame on the 9th, immediately before sunset, so that it burned on the 10th.
The Rabbis’ idea that the Temple was set aflame as the day was ending which offers a solution to the problem of 9th vs. 10th, was inspired by a verse in Jeremiah describing an attack upon Jerusalem in the night:
ירמיהו ו:ד קַדְּשׁוּ עָלֶיהָ מִלְחָמָה קוּמוּ וְנַעֲלֶה בַצָּהֳרָיִם אוֹי לָנוּ כִּי פָנָה הַיּוֹם כִּי יִנָּטוּ צִלְלֵי עָרֶב.ו:ה קוּמוּ וְנַעֲלֶה בַלָּיְלָה וְנַשְׁחִיתָה אַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָ.
Jer 6:4 Prepare for battle against her: “Up! we will attack at noon.” “Alas for us! for day is declining, the shadows of evening grow long.” 6:5 “Up! let us attack by night, And wreck her fortresses.”
Jeremiah doesn’t say here who the attackers are and what they will destroy, but as Jeremiah is the prophet who predicted Jerusalem’s destruction, the rabbis connect this verse to that event.
The Talmudic passage concludes, acknowledging that its interpretation is not straightforward:
והינו דאמ’ רבן יוח’ בן זכאי: אלמלא הייתי באותו הדור לא קבעתיו אלא בעשירי. ורבנן: אתחלתא דפורענותא עיקר.
This is why R. Yohanan ben Zakkai said: “If only I had been around during that generation, I would have set [the fast] for the 10th.” The rabbis [believe however] that the beginning of an ordeal is its essence [and thus the fast is on the 9th].
In short, some Talmudic rabbis acknowledge the problem of the date of the fast.
Tosefta: On the 9th the City Was Destroyed
The Tosefta, which also has the midrash about the four-day revelry in the Temple, opens with something quite different (t.Ta’anit 3:10, Vienna):
אם נאמר בשבעה לחודש למה נאמר בתשעה לחדש, ואם נאמר בתשעה לחודש, למה נאמר בשבעה לחודש?
If it says the 7th of the month, why does it say the 9th of the month? If it says the 9th of the month, why does it say the 7th of the month?
This text is puzzling, since the formula למה נאמר, “why does it say,” should introduce a biblical citation, but no biblical verse suggests that the Temple was destroyed on the 9th! For this reason, many scholars, including Saul Lieberman in his Tosefta Ke-feshuta (ad loc.), assume that the text of the Tosefta in the Vienna MS is corrupt, and emend it to the 10th, following the biblical text of Jeremiah and the version of the baraita in the Babylonian Talmud and Seder Olam.
Nevertheless, Bar Ilan University Professor of Talmud, Chaim Milikovsky, notes that on principle, the difficult text is often the correct one (lectio difficilior potior), especially since the “mistake” (9th instead of 10th) appears in that manuscript, which is considered the most reliable manuscript of the Tosefta, three separate times. (The Erfurt MS is known to have been corrected in many places to fit with the text of the Babylonian Talmud.)
Milikovsky thus suggests that the Tosefta is not addressing the contradiction between Jeremiah 52 and 2 Kings 25, but is addressing a different problem specific to 2 Kings 25. The text begins by saying that Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem on the 9th year of King Zedekiah’s reign and that the siege lasted until the 11th year. Then the text says that the walls were broken on the 9th of the month but does not say which month. The lacuna is clearest when comparing this verse in Kings to the parallel verse in Jeremiah:
|2 Kings 25:3-4||Jeremiah 52:6-7|
|By the 9th day the famine had become acute in the city; there was no food left for the common people. Then the city was breached…||By the 9th day of the fourth month, the famine had become acute in the city; there was no food left for the common people. Then the city was breached.|
בְּתִשְׁעָה לַחֹדֶשׁ וַיֶּחֱזַק הָרָעָב בָּעִיר וְלֹא הָיָה לֶחֶם לְעַם הָאָרֶץ וַתִּבָּקַע הָעִיר…
בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרְבִיעִי בְּתִשְׁעָה לַחֹדֶשׁ וַיֶּחֱזַק הָרָעָב בָּעִיר וְלֹא הָיָה לֶחֶם לְעַם הָאָרֶץ וַתִּבָּקַע הָעִיר
The only month mentioned in the rest of the passage in Kings is the 5th month (Av), so the Tosefta assumes this verse is speaking about the 9th of Av. As the verse in question states that the city was ב.ק.ע, which can mean “breached,” “split apart,” or even “torn to pieces,” the Tosefta reads Kings to be saying that Jerusalem was destroyed on the 9th of Av.
The text continues by describing what Nebuzaradan did on 7thof Av, which includes burning the Temple, the palace and all the houses, and tearing down the wall (vv. 9-10). But this would be two days earlier. To make sense of this, the Tosefta assumes that the text is in reverse chronological order, beginning with the final destruction, and then going back to say that the process began on the 7th.
As a peshat reading, this is very unlikely, since Kings never doesn’t generally write this way. Modern scholarship might suggest that the month number fell out of the text of Kings, but was preserved in Jeremiah, especially since, as noted above, the text of Kings is filled with scribal errors and lacunae.
Both the Tosefta and the Talmud pick up on real problems in the text. Nevertheless, each seem to be a post-hoc explanation to an already existing date. In other words, Rabbinic Jews mourn the loss of the Temple on the 9th of Av, and these midrashim are aimed at explaining why this is so, given the biblical evidence. But these midrashim cannot be used to reconstruct the dates of the destruction of the First Temple.
Destruction of the Second Temple
I suggest that the tradition that the First Temple was destroyed on the 9th of Av is secondary, based on the date of the destruction of the Second Temple. The original date of this fast on the 10th, as per Jeremiah, was adjusted so that a single fast could commemorate the destruction of both temples.
Adjusting the Fast of Tammuz
Precedent for this slight adjustment of dates from the destruction of the First Temple to agree with the destruction of the Second is found in the fast on the 17th of Tammuz. In this case, the biblical sources (Jer 39:2, 52:6, and 2 Kings 25:3 [month reconstructed]) agree that the Babylonians breached the walls on the 9th, and yet the fast is on the 17th because that is when the Romans breached the walls before destroying the Second Temple (b. Ta’anit 28b).
Wasn’t the Second Temple Also Destroyed on the 10th?
Josephus writes that the Second Temple was destroyed on the 10th of Av (Judean War, 6:250):
250 But as for that house, God had, for certain, long ago doomed it to the fire; and now that fatal day was come, according to the revolution of ages; it was the 10th day of the month Lous, [Macedonian for Ab,] upon which it was formerly burnt by the king of Babylon;
He returns to this point later in this same passage, and, like the Mishnah, notes that the 10th of Av must be a fateful day, since both Temples were destroyed on it:
267 Now although any one would justly lament the destruction of such a work as this was, since it was the most admirable of all the works that we have seen or heard of, both for its curious structure and its magnitude, and also for the vast wealth bestowed upon it, as well as for the glorious reputation it had for its holiness; yet might such a one comfort himself with this thought, that it was fate that decreed it so to be, which is inevitable, both as to living creatures, and as to works and places also.268 However, one cannot but wonder at the accuracy of this period thereto relating; for the same month and day were now observed, as I said before, wherein the holy house was burnt formerly by the Babylonians.
In short, Josephus here is clear: both Temples were destroyed on the 10th of Av.
I believe that Josephus may have adjusted the date of the destruction of the Second Temple forward a day to agree with the biblical date of the destruction of the First. Like the rabbis, he was interested in showing that this destruction was providential, perhaps because he sided with the Romans and wished to show that God too sided with them. Thus, counterintuitively, it may be that the date of the destruction of the Second Temple was correctly preserved not in Josephus—a source contemporaneous with the events themselves—but in the lived practice of rabbinic Judaism.
In sum, both Josephus and the Rabbis subscribe to the believe that events “cluster” around fateful days. Josephus shifted the date of the destruction of the Second Temple by a day in his Judean War, in order to make it fit with Jeremiah’s date of the First Temple’s destruction. The rabbis did the inverse, aware that their date of the 9th did not agree with the biblical account, they devised the fire-on-the-eve-of-the-10th midrash to make the biblical text align with their practice.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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