Mourning for Jerusalem
We live in our modern times, some 2000 years distant from the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple and the exile of our people from our land. It is almost impossible for us to feel any real sorrow or bitterness over these tragedies that have occurred so distant from us. Not only is the distance in time very great, but also the distance in our realization of what it was to live as free people in our own land with our Temple.
When a tragedy befalls a person, he feels the pain in a natural process, without reflection and contemplation. If a close loved one was injured or killed, immediately he feels a sorrow, a pain and a lacking. If he loses a precious item, or it was stolen, he also feels a loss. These feelings of loss and sorrow come in a totally natural manner that does not require any contemplation or meditation. The reason is that the relationship and meaning of the person (or item) was apparent and evident to him, and now the realization of the loss is felt automatically.
This is not the case, however, with us in relation to the Temple, to Jerusalem and to our long exile. In some ways, we have returned to our homeland, albeit, we are not completely in charge of our destiny and we still must fight our enemies. Jerusalem is for all practical matters, back in our hands, although we dare not set our feet in East Jerusalem. But the Temple is another matter: it is close, yet far from us. Close in that we may see the ancient site; far in that nothing is done to insure its being rebuilt.
So for many, if not most of us, feelings of bitterness and mourning are difficult to conjure up even during the period of national mourning, between the Seventeenth of Tamuz and the Ninth (Tisha) of Av.
Yet, if we really understood the grandeur that existed during the times of Israel's Golden period we would feel different. During the times of the splendor of the Holy Temple which was the center of the world's spiritual wellsprings, all who visited it left spiritually elated. The manifestations of G-dliness were readily apparent to all, regardless of young or old, wise or dull. If we understood what we lost, we would rent our garments and cry for that which is really lacking.
The Temple was the central focus of the Jewish people who would leave their homes three times a year to travel to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals. There all the Jewish People would have a spiritual and national rejuvenation that elevated them above all other nations of the world. The land of Israel was the richest and strongest in the world; not just monetary wealth, but in wisdom. Many were the nations whose people flocked to learn our wisdom, and many were the gentiles that brought sacrifices to the Temple.
Today, we are so distant from all of that glory and grandeur that we have immersed ourselves in a material quest for satisfaction. Yet we can never truly feel one hundred percent happy as long as we are spiritually deprived. Our souls are empty and our stomachs full, our bodies are satisfied and our spirits are low.
When the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled, many were the people who took upon themselves personal mourning habits such as refraining from wine and meat. The rabbis of those generations realized that living like this was not beneficial. Understanding the need for mourning for the Temple, Jerusalem, and the exile, customs were instituted that would keep us aware of our lacking. Yet excessive mourning was also viewed as counter-productive to a healthy life.
Many of the customs that we have today stem from our recognition that the Temple, Jerusalem, and the exile have formed an undeniable part of our life. It was not fitting that we should reach a state of unbounded happiness, for as long as the Temple is not rebuilt, we are incomplete and in mourning for it. Therefore certain customs developed to reduce the level of happiness a drop so that we should never reach a level of immoderate happiness. Most of these are based on the verse in Psalms 137:5, "if I forget thee, O Jerusalem, …If I not prefer Jerusalem above my greatest joy."
One of the most well know customs is that at weddings, a glass is broken during the wedding services. This custom stems from the mourning of the Temple and Jerusalem. Whereas today a glass is not a very expensive item, we must realize that in the olden times, it was a very expensive item. By breaking this expensive item, all assembled were saddened, albeit slightly, but this was sufficient to meet the requirements that happiness should not be excessive.
Another custom is to place ashes on the forehead of the groom. This is to remind the groom, on his wedding day, the day of his greatest joy, that he must still remember the Temple is in ashes. This also is sufficient to reduce his level of happiness to an acceptable level.
Likewise, at an engagement party, it is the custom to break a plate. This plate is normally broken by the two mothers. Again, this is a remembrance of the Temple.
In other types of gala meals, the custom is to hold back one festive dish. By not using all of our resources we are holding back from an excessive celebration which would not be in keeping with out our Temple. Also when we set the table, we do not use all of our beautiful dishes, we omit one of our beautiful serving dishes (or the like) from the table as to express our lack of desire to have a complete joy in respect for the Temple.
When we eat, we do not do so while listening to an orchestra. This is also considered an excessive expression of joy. Even unrestrained laughter and merriment is banned.
When we build a house or remodel or redecorate our existing home, we leave a patch of wall unfinished. This is normally near the door. The size is about 18" x 18". This is to remind us that we can not truly enjoy our lives until the Temple is rebuilt.
Mourning over the Temple is considered a proper thing for all. He who mourns over the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis teach us, will merit to see its rebuilding. May we all be included in the rebuilding of the Temple.
This article first appeared in The Jewish Magazine