A Nation’s Loss: National Mourning in the Jewish Tradition

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The news of a loved one’s death utterly transforms us and our perception of the world. A young man, returning to his studies after being called home following the death of his father said, “The buildings were all in their familiar places, but it was a wholly different place… for the world had changed.”

MourningOur grief and mourning is singularly intense. Even when we “share” the loss of a loved one with other family members, we are transformed alone by our grief and mourning. What then can it mean to speak about “national mourning?” Is there any calamity which a nation suffers that so alters its fundamental nature as to be truly analogous to the existential crisis death brings to an individual?

Certainly nations have been called to war and suffered grievous loss. They have endured natural disasters and heartbreaking political upheaval. They bury their dead. They mourn their dead. They honor them in public displays. But can the loss be said to have fundamentally altered the national character of those nations?

There may be among the family of nations another nation besides Israel that has endured such a transformative loss and risen again, transformed by the fire of grief, but which among the nations has endured not one but two such horrors? Which nation, other than Israel, knows such pain?

How we grieved and mourned after our First Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, was destroyed by the Babylonians! David sang, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you…” Then Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians. Our national character was redeemed when he allowed us to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash anew.

In 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed by soldiers of the Roman Empire, led by General Titus. From that time forward, we have wandered through the centuries, cast adrift from the land that God had promised us. We, a once proud and noble people, were reduced to a nation of wanderers, beggars and slaves; a people, once admired and revered, the object of scorn.

How far had the Lord’s chosen fallen!

The purpose of mourning is teshuvah, redemption. But how could we possibly mourn such a national calamity in a way that could bring about teshuvah? The destruction of the Second Temple, the Churban, changed the course of Jewish history and destiny; its repercussions affected every aspect of our national and religious character.

The redemptive qualities of mourning demand our attention to the past, which is forever gone; the future, where our hopes must reside; and God, in whom all things are possible. These three qualities all come to bear on our response to the Churban. Avelut and tzaar – mourning – is a response to the past; zikhronot, tziyunim, and semalim – memorials and remembrances – focus on the future; teshuvah and introspection focus on our relationship with God.

Isaiah teaches us to mourn and grieve the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all you that love her; Rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn for her.” The Talmud teaches that “whoever mourns over Jerusalem merits to see her joy, and whoever does not mourn over Jerusalem does not see her joy.”

Zikaron – If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem…

The first form of zikaron begins on the 17th Tammuz, when the Three Weeks of mourning is ushered into our liturgical year and our remembrance of the destruction of God’s dwelling place on earth begins, to culminate in the soul-searing tones of Tisha B’Av’s mournful lamentations. The pain and sorrow we experience during this period, the restraints we practice reawakens but a glimmer of recollection for the historic tragedy which forms the backdrop for our customs of mourning.

The second form of zikaron obligation has two aspects. The first demands active remembrance of the destruction: leaving a spot of the house unpainted; leaving over a part of one’s meal; making mention of Jerusalem in tefillah and birkat hamazon – direct, concrete demonstrations of the diminution of our joy and “normalcy.” The well-known wedding custom of breaking a glass under the chuppah is likewise derived from this demand.

Our actions proclaim that we will never forget the terrible tragedy; that the actual tragedy remains as real to us as it was to the poor souls whose eyes bore witness to its horror.

We remember Jerusalem too with our performance of mitzvot just as they were enacted and performed in the Mikdash itself. For this reason, Reb Yochanan ben Zakai legislated that the lulav must be taken throughout for seven days (during Temple days it was only taken for seven days) as a zekher l’Mikdash.

Beyond the obligation to perform mitzvot in the same manner in which they were performed in the Mikdash (in order to always make real and immediate the Mikdash experience) there is also an injunction to perform only those mitzvoth that were performed in Eretz Yisrael during Temple days. Jeremiah exclaims: “Set thee up marks (tziyunim), make thee guide posts (tamrurim)” – markings and posts that will remind us of the paths we left behind in the land of Israel. And which, therefore, mark the way back. The way of return. For it is by separating terumot and ma’aserot even in our own land that we remember how to live in the land.

Chazal established three types of remembrances to help us to cope with the perpetual state of mourning the Churban imposes upon us. The first are meant to invoke memories of Jerusalem throughout all of life’s experiences – from the mundane, such as eating, to religious obligations, such as praying, and even to the most joyous times of our lives, such as marriage. The lesson is clear – we would never be the same; we should never be the same.

So powerful is Jerusalem still that if even our memory of Jerusalem were to be diminished, we would be diminished as a nation, as a people.

Our past is an essential ingredient in who we are. Ironically, we cannot be transformed without remaining in some very profound way unchanged. Therefore, though we could no longer offer sacrifices at the Temple, we offer prayers as both remembrance and as sacrifice. We internalize the reality of the Temple so that our character and our actions as a nation continue to represent the reality of the Temple, keeping it a living, dynamic presence in our lives so that when it is rebuilt, we can return to it and reestablish the sacred rituals of the Temple as if they had never been interrupted.

But even concrete, physical acts are not enough. After all, our loss was not merely physical; it was spiritual. With the Churban we became a nation without Koheinim at our service, Levites at our songs. No more could we satisfy the requirements of the Three Pilgrimages or offer up sacrifices to God. No more does our Sanhedrin sit in authoritative judgment of the people, determining what is right and wrong according to Torah.

Our loss of spiritual vitality cannot be healed with mere physical acts.

Teshuvah – Spiritual Redemption

There are days which are observed by all Israel as fasts because tragic events happened on them, the object being to stir hearts and open the way to repentance, and to remind us of our own evil deeds, and of our fathers’ deeds which were like ours, as a consequences of which these tragic afflictions came upon them and upon us. For as we remember these things we ought to repent and do good.

Rambam makes clear here that our rituals, observances, prohibitions, and restrictions are an important means of moving toward teshuvah. These actions must stimulate the heart and the mind to probe and analyze why these national calamities have befallen us – certainly they cannot be encounters with the impersonal forces of history – and therefore, how we can be transformed by them. After all, if we are merely the victim – or the beneficiary – of chance events, there is nothing to be gained or lost from examining them. It cannot be meaningful at all except in the most immediate and superficial sense. But the process of mourning is designed to bring about teshuvah. And teshuvah requires meaning. The loss that is mourned cannot be chance. It cannot be random. Our loss itself must be meaningful.

The Churban, like all tragedy, cries out for teshuvah. It demands of us the introspection and soul-searching that can bring about transformation. Just as Rambam states that, “whoever does not mourn in the manner prescribed by the rabbis is cruel” (because it is only through mourning that teshuvah can be realized) so too he declares that attributing Churban to mere chance is also cruel because one could never attain a real level of understanding in a way that could lead to teshuvah.

Random events have no meaning. Chance can afford no significance. The falling of a tree in a forest is meaningless without God, how much more so the falling of a leaf? Without God, death is meaningless. And life, too, must therefore be meaningless.

In such a horrible world, teshuvah would not only be impossible, it would be unnecessary.

Blessedly, such a worldview is not a Jewish worldview! God Himself prompts His nation to remember that when “It shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessings and the curse, which I have set before you… and you shall return unto the Lord you God, and you shall obey His voice.”

I have set before you life and death…

The Jewish worldview is not nihilistic. There are no meaningless events because God is always present. Meaning and faith are possible. We have transgressed and rebelled. We have been punished. But return is possible.

Teshuvah is possible.


With teshuvah and transformation as our goals, how do we, the people Israel, go forward in the shadow of Churban? Remembrance only heightens our pain and keeps us cognizant of our terrible loss. So where is our consolation? Where it has always been and always must be, in God.

Our first and deepest solace resides in the fact that God is. Further, we find meaning in understanding that, like us, God too mourns. He too feels bereft of His glory, and He too recognizes that Churban means an obstacle to complete service and a diminution of His splendor on earth.

When we went into exile, He too went into exile – shechinta begaluta. Kol makom sh’galu shechina imaen. Every place that Jews have been exiled, God is with them.

Israel is never alone. Israel is never without God. God readily admits to the necessity of His suffering along with His children. Moreover, God sorrowfully laments every day, three times a day, the destruction and exile He brought upon His children,

I hear a divine voice, cooing like a dove, and saying: Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!…Not in this moment alone does it so exclaim, but thrice each day does it exclaim thus!

The Talmud concludes this passage reflecting on God’s pain and pangs, with the following insightful and instructive statement about the principle passage of the Kaddish:

And more than that, whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: “May His great name be blessed!” the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: Happy is the King who is thus praised in this House! Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father.

God admits to His own grief and bereavement! He openly proclaims that He is with His children in their distress, lacking and missing their company, having been banished from His table. Therefore, ever since the Churban He needs to be ever so much more assured, as it were, that “His great name be blessed.” This passage, more than any other, substantiates the idea that Kaddish is the vehicle through which the mourning Jew (both individual and collective) hears that message that he is not alone and, not being alone, can find meaning and, finding meaning, achieves teshuvah.

Man is not alone.

According the R. Hayim of Volozhin, the ultimate reason for man’s prayer is to pray for the removal of the pain and agony caused above when man suffers below. Teshuvah is deeply meaningful because it not only heals us, it heals God as well. For this reason, God refers to every victory and salvation attained by Israel when calling upon Him as “My salvation.” Is there a clearer statement that Israel’s salvation is His as well? “He will call upon Me and I will answer him. I am with him in distress, I will release him and I will honor him. With long life, I will satisfy him, and I will show him My salvation.”

God is with Israel in her distress.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing. He elaborates on this theme in his Meditations at Sixty – One Person, Under God, Indivisible KTAV Publishing House, Inc. 2008.