This text presents a prayer for the Ninth of Av, the day on which – according to Jewish tradition – the First and Second Temples were destroyed. Moreover, Mishnah Taanit 4:6 lists five catastrophes that occurred on that date:
"...בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ וחרב הבית בראשונה ובשנייה ונילכדה ביתר ונחרשה העיר."
“… On the Ninth of Av it was decreed against our forefathers that they would not enter the Land, and the Temple was destroyed [both] the first and the second [time], and Betar was seized, and the city [of Jerusalem] was ploughed.”
According to this mishnah, the calamities that occurred on the Ninth of Av are as follows: 1) the decree which determined that the Israelites who left Egypt could not enter the Land of Israel but would die in the desert; 2) the destruction of the First Temple; 3) the destruction of the Second Temple; 4) the fall of Betar, which marked the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt; 5) the ploughing of the city of Jerusalem, symbolizing the initial construction of Aelia Capitolina, the Roman colony that supplanted Jewish Jerusalem. However, the prayer for the Ninth of Av cited in the Jerusalem Talmud ignores the decree against the people of Israel in the desert and the destruction of the First Temple, thus associating the Ninth of Av exclusively with Roman actions.
This prayer describes the state of Jerusalem after its destruction (70 CE): Jerusalem was controlled by idolaters and Roman legions. However, from the perspective of this prayer, although these forces conquered Jerusalem, the city actually was set ablaze by God, who will rebuild it in the future. This view downplays the power and superiority of Rome by asserting that God was responsible for the Temple's demise. In other words, the Roman legions were a mere instrument in the hands of God. This notion follows the biblical pattern that describes the empires who acted against Israel as agents that executed God’s will.
The dating of this prayer is a key question. According to Moscovitz (“The Formation and Characters of the Jerusalem Talmud,” p. 665-66), the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled c. 360-370 CE; most scholars, however, suggest a later date, circa 400 CE. Nonetheless, throughout that time span, the circumstances in the city were markedly different from those featured in this prayer. Following Constantine’s favoring of Christianity in the early fourth century, Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Christian city. Not long before, toward the end of the third century, Diocletian (reigned 284-305) had sent the Legio X Fretensis (the Tenth Roman Legion) to a garrison in the south (probably not far from the Red Sea). These events were both catalysts for significant change in the population of Jerusalem.
In her discussion of our text, primarily set against a Christian backdrop, Catherine Hezser (“The (In)Significance of Jerusalem,” p. 20-21), attributes this prayer formula to the editor of the Jerusalem Talmud. Hezser claims that, for rabbis of the fourth- and early fifth centuries, “Jerusalem in its early Byzantine splendor was still a ‘destroyed’ city because it did not have a Temple or other significant Jewish buildings.” She even suggests that, “The term ‘idolators’ may also include Christians in the eyes of the rabbis.” It seems likely, however, that the composition of this prayer occurred long before the compilation of the Talmud; I would suggest a third century date for this prayer (at latest) for several reasons: First, the description of Jerusalem in ruins, especially with legions in the city, more accurately reflects a third century context (perhaps earlier). At that time, the Roman colony Aelia Capitolina – named in honor of Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) and dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus – stood in Jerusalem's place (as mentioned above). Moreover the Tenth Roman Legion was still stationed in the city during that period. Second, positioning this prayer alongside a teaching by third-century amoraim may also suggest earlier dating. Third, according to Moscovitz (“The Formation and Character of the Jerusalem Talmud,” p. 665-66), the Jerusalem Talmud has textual layers that are more readily discernible (by comparison with the Babylonian Talmud) due to a “general absence of aggressive editorial intervention.” This editorial tendency may allow a dating of this tradition that precedes the final compilation of the Talmud. Thus it is possible that its editor incorporated a prayer formula that had been composed and entered circulation before his time.
This prayer articulates a negative attitude toward the Roman Empire since, although the city was far from empty during that period, late Roman Jerusalem is described as “the mournful, ruined, destroyed and desolate city that has been given into the hands of strangers, and crushed by oppressors, and possessed by legions, and worshipers of sculptures have profaned her.”
Thematic keywords in English: