By Rabbi Josh Pernick
By the year 70 CE, there had been a degree of Jewish political autonomy in the land of Israel for over 200 years, but this autonomy was wavering. The story of the Maccabean revolt of 200 years prior was now ancient memory. The Greeks were no longer the regional superpower.
At this point in time, the Jewish people had spent more than a century under the thumb of Rome. Under Roman rule, the Jews were allowed to maintain at least a semblance of independence. But the burden of functioning as a vassal state was taking its toll. The taxes to Rome were ever increasing, as were the expected gifts. It was clear that things could not continue on their current path.
A small group known as the Zealots decided to capitalize on this moment, arming themselves to fight against the Romans. They even achieved short-term successes, taking over the palace in which the Roman overseer Gessius Florus dwelt. But the success was short-lived. As Rome began to send reinforcements, the battles gradually moved from the countryside of Judea to the national center in Jerusalem. As the Romans blockaded the walls of Jerusalem from the outside, the Zealots imposed an internal blockade, refusing to allow any emissaries through to negotiate with Rome.
On the 17th day of the Hebrew Month of Tammuz, the same day over 650 years earlier in which the walls of Jerusalem were breached during the siege of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, the Romans breached the walls of the city. Precisely three weeks later -- on the same day on which the First Temple fell in the year 586 BCE -- the Second Temple fell in the year 70 CE.
The period between the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and the destruction of both Temples is the saddest period on the Jewish calendar. This period, often referred to as the “Three Weeks,” begins with a fast day on the 17th of Tammuz, which this year falls on Thursday, July 6.
There are numerous customs that are traditionally practiced throughout the subsequent three weeks, including refraining from scheduling weddings. These mourning practices are expanded during the first nine days of the Hebrew month of Av; in addition to refraining from weddings, people traditionally refrain from eating meat and drinking wine and from listening to many forms of music.
This mourning period concludes with the saddest day on the Jewish Calendar -- Tisha B’av, or the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. In addition to commemorating the destruction of both Temples on this fast day, we also commemorate calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages.
The mood shifts fairly dramatically after Tisha B’av, as just six days later we celebrate one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar, known as Tu B’av. As our calendar shifts from mournful to celebratory, we also begin to recognize the looming High Holidays on the horizon, reading a series of special readings from the Prophets each Shabbat for seven weeks leading up to the celebration of the Jewish New Year -- Rosh Hashanah.