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A Tisha B'Av story

So, Tisha B’Av isn’t quite over, and I wanted to pass along this story about the Destruction that Gentle Readers might not be familiar with. I had heard the story before, but coming across it this year, it seemed to pop out at me. It’s from Gittin 56a, and comes at the time of Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem. I’ll retell it in my own language and pace, though—this is the real story from the Talmud, not my drash, but I am not sticking to the language. Fair warning.

Anyway, Jerusalem groans under Roman oppression, the way you do, and was riven by factions, hating the other even more than the Romans, if possible. The bit that the Pythons got right. If anything, they understated it—they left out, for instance, the tendency for one group to inform against another to the hated overlords. That’s always good. So the religious separatists, the ethnic nationalists, and the tax protestors fought amongst themselves as well as against the Romans.

The Romans, being a patient and persistent empire, lay down the fortifications for a siege of Jerusalem, which is the sort of thing they are good at. After a few military losses in the outlying areas they send in their best general (fellow name a’ Vespasian, becomes important later) and something like sixty thousand soldiers. Vespasian is happy to keep the big city under siege while laying waste to the surrounding countryside; he’s got nothing but time. Well, he does have to leave the siege after a couple of years to go to Rome, because his armies had proclaimed him Emperor—factionalism was not a Jewish thing particularly. But he isn’t needed at the siege; the city is shut tight for three years.

The wise and wealthy of the city, however, had not been caught napping—they had put together enough to feed the populace for twenty years. They had grain and oil and salt and wine and wood, and they were sitting pretty. Well, not pretty, as such, but while the Roman armies lived in their camps, susceptible (at least somewhat) to raids and snipers, the Jews lived behind the wall of their city, secure. For three years. And remember, this being the first century (CE), they’ve had four different Emperors in that time, and there’s trouble in Egypt, there’s trouble in Gaul, there’s trouble in Germany, there’s trouble everywhere. And if they hold out for long enough, the Romans could decide they need those soldiers somewhere more profitable than Judea. Or, of course, the Messiah could come. So the wise and the wealthy counsel patience.

But the wise and the wealthy aren’t in charge any more. We’re not sure who was in charge—the Talmud calls them baryonei; Josephus calls them Sicarii, if he’s talking about the same people, and many translations call them Zealots. One translation just calls them ruffians, which is a great word, and the one I’m going to use—but the ruffians are in charge, here. It’s the ruffians who man the walls of the city, and not only keep the Romans out but the Jews in. It’s the ruffians who are killing people suspected of collaboration and betrayal and flinging the bodies over the walls. The head of the ruffians is a man called Abba Sikra, but even he has little control over them, privately telling his wife’s uncle, Yochanan ben Zachai, that if he tries to rein in their excesses, they will kill him.

And the ruffians aren’t patient. They really, really hate the Romans. A lot. And they really, really, really hate collaborators. They see any hint of a whisper of a treaty or a compromise or a truce as betrayal and treason. The only possible position for the righteous is to attack, now, now, with all the strength that can be mustered from pure hearts.

So they set fire to the warehouses.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Thank you for sharing this history.

It's a kick in the gut to me to read: I can only imagine how the citizens of Jerusalem felt. Such folly! Such hatred! Such waste and needless suffering!

Could we not have the ruffians/zealots in charge, then, please?

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