This text describes five calamities that are said to have occurred on the seventeenth of Tammuz at various times in history, and five others that are said to have occurred on the ninth of Av, which falls three weeks later. These two dates were set as days for fasting and mourning. The Mishnah first lists the events reputed to have taken place on the seventeenth of Tammuz:
1) Upon descending from Mount Sinai and witnessing the people of Israel worshiping the golden calf, Moses shattered the first set of tablets (that had been inscribed by God): “As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 32:19 NRSV).
2) The Tamid offering was sacrificed twice a day in the Temple: this public sacrifice of a sheep (following Numbers 28:3-8) was performed every morning and afternoon. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:1, 7b; Taanit 4:6, 68c, this observance was terminated during the Roman siege of Jerusalem during the First Revolt (70 CE). These passages from the Talmud provide a detailed description of the circumstances that brought an end to the Tamid offering. Josephus also writes of the cessation of the Tamid offering on that date and its negative effect on the besieged people (Jewish War VI.94).
3) The walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans.
4-5) “Apistemus burned the Torah [scroll] and he erected an idol in the Temple.” The burning of Torah scrolls and placement of an idol in the Temple are mentioned in 1 Maccabees 1: “They erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering” (v. 54, NRSV); “The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire” (v. 56, NRSV). A Roman soldier who burned a Torah scroll is also mentioned by Josephus (Jewish War II.229; Jewish Antiquities XX.115). However, the identity and actions of Apistemus remain unclear. Two possible readings could be derived from Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 4:6, 68c-d, which allow two different understandings of this mishnah. One is similar to the Mishnah, where Apistemus burned a Torah scroll and also erected his idol in the Temple. The other reads: “Apistemus burned the Torah [scroll] and an idol was erected in the Temple.” Here, the Talmud suggests that the idol was introduced by Manasseh: “The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, ‘In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever’” (2 Kings 21:7, NRSV). In either case, the Jerusalem Talmud is unsure of the identity of Apistemus. Scholars have attempted to identify this figure: for example, Gedalia Alon (The History of the Jews, vol. I, p. 259) asserts that Apistemus was one of the commanders who served under LusiusQuietus (a general who fought underTrajan during the Parthian War [115 CE], then against rebels in Mesopotamia, including local Jews; he was later appointed as the governor in Judea [117 CE], though he only held that post for a few months). From 115-117 CE, Jewish communities in Egypt, Libya (Cyrene) and Cyprus also fought against the Romans in what was later named “The Diaspora Revolt.” Scholars have debated whether the Jews in Judea participated in this revolt (for bibliography, see Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, p. 219-220). Some scholars suggest that Quietus was sent to Judea to subdue the Jews who rebelled, much as their brothers were doing in other provinces. According to Alon, in this context, a deputy to Lusius Quietus, Apistemos burned a Torah scroll and placed an idol within the Temple compound (for additional suggestions, see Ben Shahar, Biblical and Post-Biblical History, p. 59-61).
After listing the five catastrophes that occurred on the seventeenth of Tammuz, the Mishnah (C) continues with the five that occurred on the ninth of Av:
1) The decree that the Israelites who departed from Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel but would die in the desert: “Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and all of your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you…” (Numbers 14:29-30, NRSV).
2-3) The destruction of the First and Second Temples. Josephus states that the Second Temple was burned on the same date that the Babylonians had burned the First Temple (Jewish War VI.268). However, in that same work, Josephus also writes that the two Temples were burned on the tenth of that month (Jewish War VI. 250), rather than the ninth.
4) The fall of Betar, which marked the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Betar is located near the present day Arab village of Batir, a few kilometers south-east of Jerusalem. During the final stages of that revolt, the Romans besieged Betar, which had served as the rebels' headquarters.
5) The ploughing of the city of Jerusalem. This act symbolized the first step in the establishment of Aelia Capitolina (named after Hadrian – Publius Aelius Hadrianus – and Jupiter Capitolinus), the Roman colony that replaced Jewish Jerusalem. By mentioning the ploughing of Jerusalem after the fall of Betar, the Mishnah seems to suggest that the construction of Aelia started after the revolt ended. However, most scholars attribute the building of Aelia Capitolina (or at least its initial stage) as the main catalyst for the outbreak of that revolt.
According to this mishnah, ten of the major disasters that befell the people of Israel are associated with one of these two dates. Thus, after listing them, the Mishnah (D) concludes with the instruction that “When Av begins, [we should] reduce [our] rejoicing.” In some manuscripts, this sentence opens the following mishnah (Taanit, 4:7), which delineates what types of behavior are proscribed during the days before the ninth of Av, including prohibitions against drinking wine and eating meat.
Interestingly, most of the calamities described in this mishnah are cited without explicit mention of the perpetrators who carried them out; Apistemus is noteworthy as an exception to this pattern. Rather, this text generally uses the passive voice: “the Temple was destroyed,” “Betar was seized,” “the city [of Jerusalem] was ploughed.” Thus, neither the Babylonians nor the Romans are acknowledged, despite their well-known roles in several of these events (the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple; and, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, killed numerous Jews in the defeat of Betar, and founded Aelia Capitolina). Thus, this mishnaic passage focuses on the events rather than the actors who brought them about, as if their identities were irrelevant. This literary approach may be attributed to its rabbinic authors' desire to emphasize that these catastrophes were divinely ordained punishments for Israel’s sins rather than mere historical events.
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